Have You Replaced Alcohol With Sugar?
There is a common pattern you may have noticed in people who have recently quit drinking: They start eating a lot of sugary snacks. They’re always munching on chocolate, candy, or pastries. Although it’s common for people to lose weight when they quit drinking, people who pick up this habit might actually gain weight instead. Here’s a brief look at why this happens, why it’s bad, and what you can do about it.
Why It Happens:
Many people aren’t aware that hypoglycemia--or low blood sugar--is extremely common among people with alcohol use disorder. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include irregular or fast heartbeat, pale skin, shakiness, anxiety, sweating, hunger, and irritability. Severe hypoglycemia may cause confusion, abnormal behavior, blurry vision, seizures, and loss of consciousness. Some of these may look familiar since they are also symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and hypoglycemia may easily be mistaken for protracted withdrawal symptoms.
There appear to be several reasons why heavy drinking causes hypoglycemia. First, the liver plays an important role in regulating blood sugar by storing and releasing glycogen. Alcohol impairs the liver’s ability to release glycogen, so this method of regulation becomes less effective. Simultaneously, alcohol changes the patterns of blood flow in the pancreas, increasing insulin production, which lowers blood sugar. These complementary effects are compounded by the high sugar content of many alcoholic drinks--particularly beer, which people often forget has a lot of sugar--which also causes an increase in insulin.
People suffering from low blood sugar typically try to fix it in the quickest way possible: eating sweets. They aren’t always aware of what they’re doing. Often, they just learn unconsciously that sweet snacks relieve their symptoms and it soon becomes a habit.
2. Low Dopamine
Another reason many people develop a sugar habit after they quit drinking is that it can replace some of the dopamine boost they lost when they quit drinking. Our dopamine system exists in order to reinforce survival behaviors like eating and having sex but drugs and alcohol overclock that system so that it mainly seeks drugs and alcohol. Normal sorts of stimulating behavior become dull by comparison.
However, sugary foods give you a little more dopamine bang for your buck than other foods. People who experience protracted depression or emotional numbness in the early days of sobriety might find a bit of relief from eating sweets.
Why It’s Bad:
In one sense, swapping alcohol for sweets sounds like a pretty good bargain. Sweets can make you fat and ruin your teeth but alcohol can ruin your life. While that’s true to a certain degree, there are some good reasons why replacing alcohol with candy is not a sustainable strategy.
First, refined sugar is a highly inflammatory food and inflammation is gaining attention as a major cause of a variety of problems, including mental health issues, medical problems, and even addiction itself. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury or infection. It helps destroy pathogens that make us sick. It also triggers other adaptations that are designed to aid the body in fighting infection and prevent spreading disease. These adaptations include pain to immobilize an injured area, lethargy to help us conserve energy, fever to kill microbes, and social isolation to prevent it from spreading.
You may recognize lethargy and isolation as symptoms of depression, and in fact, recent research has found that as many as half of depression cases can be attributed to chronic inflammation. Depression is also a common driver of addictive behavior and must be treated and managed for recovery to last. Research also shows that a diet low in sugar and other inflammatory foods like processed meats and vegetable oils also reduce your risk of depression.
2. Health Risks
As noted above, inflammation is increasingly being identified as a mechanism behind many health problems. For example, why should it be the case that obesity increases your risk of heart disease? Part of the answer appears to be that fat cells release inflammatory compounds and chronic inflammation leads to problems such as heart disease. That means two things: First, inflammatory foods such as sugar can directly increase your health risks, even if you otherwise lead a relatively healthy lifestyle and aren’t overweight.
Second, excessive sugar consumption can lead to obesity, which can cause health problems. A lot of the health risks of prolonged heavy drinking--heart disease, high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke, diabetes, some cancers, and so on--are compounded by obesity. While making the switch from alcohol to sweets certainly buys you time, some of your long-term health risks will be similar.
What to Do:
1. See Your Doctor
If you think your blood sugar is out of whack, the first thing to do is see your doctor. Your body and especially your brain need sugar to function so hypoglycemia is a serious matter. You want to be sure there isn’t some underlying medical issue causing your low blood sugar.
2. Fix Your Diet
Most of the time, low blood sugar or blood sugar swings are caused by poor diet. You feel a bit faint so you eat a candy bar, which boosts your blood sugar temporarily, but then you crash again and need more sugar, so you’re always on this blood sugar rollercoaster.
You can normally sort this out by reducing your sugar intake as much as possible--it’s nearly impossible to eliminate sugar completely, unless you make all of your own meals from scratch--and eating foods that are high in fiber and protein, such as vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and legumes. These slow your digestion and ensure a more steady supply of carbs to your system.
If you must have something sweet, choose fruit. The fiber will fill you up and slow the absorption of sugar. Also, keep in mind that it may take a while for your body to adapt to the absence of alcohol in your system but you should start feeling better after a relatively short time on a healthy diet.
At The Foundry, we understand that healthy eating is one of the best lifestyle changes you can make to support a strong recovery. Our program emphasizes good nutrition and an active lifestyle, which boosts your energy and mood, as well as healing your body. To learn more about our program, call us today at (844) 955-1066.
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