It’s relatively common knowledge in the recovery community that people in early recovery from drug and alcohol abuse have pretty insane sugar cravings. The original Printing of the Big Book of AA even has a mention of a physician who encouraged newly sober alcoholics to keep chocolate and candy nearby to curb alcohol cravings.
But, do you know why this is?
There are different reasons for the cravings, and some of these reasons might surprise you.
Sugar and alcohol
Myth: alcohol breaks down into sugar in the body. Yes, sugar is combined with yeast in alcohol production but most alcoholic beverages have a sugar content of zero. Plus, alcohol never breaks down into sugar while the body metabolizes it. While it’s true that mixed drinks tend to have a lot of sugar, the alcohol itself doesn’t contribute to your sugar intake.
Alcoholics often consume more than 50% of their calories through alcohol, so nutrient deficiency is a very real risk. When your liver spends that much time processing alcohol, the absorption of other nutrients is delayed.
Alcohol consumption has a big impact on blood sugar levels, causing an initial spike followed by a dramatic crash. Alcohol inhibits your body’s response to insulin which is the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels.
These spikes and crashes are the primary reason why people in early recovery commonly experience such intense sugar cravings. When you stop abruptly, you’re disrupting your body’s blood sugar regulation after losing a significant source of calorie intake. These deficiencies lead to cravings for sugary foods and soda.
Drug use and sugar cravings
Drugs, on the other hand, have an impact on our dopamine levels, and so does sugar. When we eat sweets, our brain’s reward system is activated in a similar way to how it’s activated when we use drugs. And, of course, drinking alcohol has a similar impact on our brain’s reward system, so we have a double whammy with alcohol—the blood-sugar deficiencies and the way that alcohol affects the brain.
High-sugar foods feel much more pleasurable and rewarding than foods that have a higher nutritional value. In essence, sugary foods are addicting—they trigger a dopamine release in the brain just like drugs and alcohol.
If you’re in early recovery, have the sugar!
In the first few months of recovery, sugary foods and drinks can be enormously beneficial because they can reduce the intensity of drug and alcohol cravings. The short dopamine boost that you’ll get from having sweets may very well save you from a relapse. A bag of jelly beans or a chocolate bar is going to do a lot less damage than a drink or a drug.
Down the track, find sugar replacements in the form of healthy activities
Ultimately, however, you don’t want to be relying on sweets too often because they’re just not very good for you. Excessive sugar consumption can, of course, lead to weight gain, diabetes, bad skin, and gut problems.
The good news? You can get those dopamine hits by engaging in other healthy and rewarding behaviors. These include things like yoga and exercise, meditation, playing music, painting, and competitive sports among other things.
As addicts, we’re accustomed to getting a quick fix, and sugar provides just this. Once again, it’s fine to reach for sugar in early recovery. When you first start out on your recovery journey, you should do whatever it is you need to do to stay off the drinking and the drugging. If this means having the occasional Snickers Bar, knock yourself out, and don’t beat yourself up for it.
That said, once you’ve put some months together, try going for the long-term, sustainable dopamine hits mentioned above. Activities like yoga or surfing, painting, and hiking will keep you feeling good without any kind of a crash later. Your brain and your body will become stronger, too.
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