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The Connection Between Sugar and Drug Addiction Relapse

By In Nutrition and Mental Health, Relapse Prevention
Posted January 28, 2015

Is sugar consumption connected to drug addiction or alcohol relapse? If you look at the effect sugar has on the reward pathways of the brain, you might be surprised at the eery similarity sugar has to drug and alcohol addiction.

How Does Sugar Affect Your Brain?

The minute something sweet hits your tongue, your taste buds send an instant-message to your brain saying, “This is awesome!” Next, your brain’s reward system ignites, unleashing dopamine.

Meanwhile, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin which your body uses to move the sugar obtained from the food you just consumed, transporting it from the bloodstream into your cells. The cells use the sugar for immediate energy. Now you’ve got a dopamine reward and a little energy rush. What could be wrong with this? Everything.

When we consume sugar regularly, the dopamine receptors start to down-regulate. This means fewer receptors for the dopamine, so more will need to be consumed to achieve the same results. So, what happens? We consume more sugar.

When the body detects more sugar, more insulin is released. When too much sugar hits our body too quickly (think donuts for breakfast or a mid-day energy drink) too much insulin is released, which ultimately results in our blood sugar dropping below normal levels. This is referred to as hypoglycemia. You might know it as a sugar crash.

Our body responds to this crash by producing intense cravings, much like the cravings experienced with drug and alcohol addiction. When we respond by consuming more sugar, the cycle starts all over again.

If you’re living in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, everything you just read makes perfect sense. You’re very familiar with the intense highs, lows, and cravings associated with addiction. So, what does this have to do with potential for addiction relapse?

How Can Low Blood Sugar Lead to Drug Addiction Relapse?

Let’s look at the brain and it’s requirements…

Your brain needs glucose to function. 20% of all the carbohydrates the average person consumes in a 24-hour period go straight to the brain. Also important to note, is that the brain doesn’t have the capacity to metabolize its own source of energy and stores very limited amounts of sugar.

This means your brain needs a steady supply of fuel to function properly. But not just any fuel. There are certain foods that break down into glucose more quickly than others, so a balance must be maintained. As you could have guessed, consuming straight sugar doesn’t contribute to this healthy balance.

Let’s take a side trip and visit the phrase “glycemic index.” This index indicates how long it takes for carbohydrates in a food to be absorbed into the blood stream. All food is measured on a scale of 0-100. Sugar is 100, an apple is 35, hummus is 3, etc. Foods with lower scores are ideal for balance because they are absorbed more slowly and produce smoother changes in blood sugar levels. It’s the spike that comes from consuming pure sugar or a food very high on the glycemic index that we want to avoid. Remember, the spike comes before the crash, and the crash is what we want to avoid.

In an ideal scenario, we would eat a meal, blood sugar levels would ease upward providing energy and in about four hours the levels would drift back downward causing a signal from the brain of hunger and the cycle would repeat. This is supposed to occur in a gentle wave throughout the day.

However, according to a report released by Christina Veselak, LMFT, Psychotherapist and Mental Health Nutritionist, at least 80% of all alcoholics and those who regularly consume large amounts of sugar and refined carbohydrates have reactive hypoglycemia. With these individuals, the pancreas seems to dump large amounts of insulin, leading to dangerous drops in blood sugar levels. When this happens, two very important things occur:

  1. The adrenal gland gets involved, releasing adrenalin in an attempt to slow down this steep drop.
  2. The brain goes into crisis mode, sending out urgent signals for the body to do whatever it takes to get the blood sugar levels back into balance.

What does this crisis-driven message look like to a person in recovery? It can best be described as an overwhelming craving, which can easily be confused with the obsession to drink or use drugs. Why? Because the addicted brain has already been conditioned to reach for his or her drug of choice to restore balance. On top of that, an adrenalin release immediately results in less blood flow to the part of the brain where plans are made, consequences are assessed, and instincts are triggered.

Put all of these variables together and you have a powerful physiological trigger, or a “relapse-inducing craving,” as Veselak has labeled it.

Even for an individual working hard in a recovery program with all his or her tools in place, this “hypoglycemic moment” effectively blocks normal thinking processes, and the conditioned response of reaching for the drug of choice is activated.

What Is The Answer?

Now that you can clearly see the connection between sugar and the very real potential for drug relapse, it makes sense to work on switching over to a healthy, balanced diet where our sweet tooth is satisfied with fiber-rich fruit instead of sugar laden soft drinks and baked goods.

This goes against the grain of many schools of thought, especially in treatment facilities, where the first and only course of action was to remove the drug of choice and deal with other problems later. These studies further prove that addiction treatment and recovery cannot be compartmentalized. We must treat the whole person—mind, body and spirit.

The Shores Treatment and Recovery Center helps our clients, staff and alumni by providing continuing education and services regarding all phases of addiction treatment. The connection between mental health and nutrition can’t be ignored. We are committed to providing not only the nutrition necessary for recovery, but also the education that provides a solid foundation and answers the question, “why” in the minds of our clients.

Guarding against addiction relapse is one of the most important phases of recovery.

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