Replacing Alcohol With Sugar In Recovery

Authored by Pin Ng

Edited by Alexander Bentley

Reviewed by Michael Por

Replacing Alcohol With Sugar In Recovery

Many people will feel intense sugar cravings after they stop drinking. For some, the cravings are so strong they feel like the need they once felt for a drink, leaving them binging sugary foods in much the same way they once binged on alcohol. While many are surprised by these cravings, it’s a common, and predictable, side effect of going sober.

Why do people crave sugar when they go sober?

The key to understanding why going sober can be accompanied by intense sugar cravings is in understanding the mechanism of addiction. The previous alcohol addiction was a result of changes in the brain’s reward pathways, which would start requiring alcohol to trigger the creation of chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. When someone goes sober, their brain ceases production of these neurotransmitters, and the brain, instead identifies sugar as another way of stimulating their production.

Sugar is linked with stimulating several feel-good chemicals, it’s one of the reasons that many people enjoy chocolate so much. In effect, the sugar craving is replacing the alcohol craving. However, this is not unique to those recovering from alcohol addiction, reading any diet book will highlight that many people, even those who have never drunk in their lives, can have problems with sugar cravings.

What people shouldn’t do about sugar cravings?

One thing a recovering addict should not do, is worry about replacing alcohol with sugar in recovery. Going sober is and incredibly difficult process, there is very little to be gained by adding a worry about sugar cravings. For most people simply accepting those cravings and giving in to them will be the best thing they can do, and will help help them beat their alcohol addiction by stimulating the production of neurotransmitters.

For many, these cravings will, over time, reduce and disappear. The human body, like any living organism, seeks a state known as homeostasis. Homeostasis is when the body is at its optimal state, and variables like body temperature, mineral levels, energy are all at the right levels; essentially, it’s the balance the body tries to find.

Almost anything a person can do will cause a change as their body reacts and adapts. Whether it’s eating and drinking, exercising, or just moving between areas with different temperatures, the body will unconsciously start processes to adjust. Sometimes, these manifest as cravings.

Because alcohol withdrawal is a major change for the body, it will have significant effects as the body adjusts. A former addict, by listening to those cravings, can help the body restore its natural equilibrium. And going sober is difficult enough without having to resist sugar cravings too.

Are there any risks from replacing alcohol with sugar in recovery

A recovering alcoholic should focus on their recovery first. There are, of course, some risks with the sugar cravings, but the risks from relapse and alcohol addiction are significantly worse.

One danger is from addiction transference. Because all addictions work on the same reward pathways in the brain, addicts can recover from one addiction only to find they replace it with another. This is one reason why rehab centers will usually not allow any substance or behavior associated with addiction, even if it’s not the one they are treating. The most obvious is developing an addiction to sugar, but because those reward pathways are kept active the risk of other addictions remains.

There is also the short- and long-term risks of a poor diet when replacing alcohol with sugar in recovery. Having excessive sugar can have a near-immediate effect on quality of life, with rushes and crashes affecting energy levels and mood, and, through that, social relationships. A sugar-rich diet will also have well-known long-term health effects, from tooth decay to obesity.

However, despite these risks it’s important to note that the risks of continued alcohol addiction are far greater. And, if the body does not eventually stop craving sugar, it still causes much less harm and is far easier to manage than a continued or renewed addiction to alcohol.

How to manage replacing alcohol with sugar in recovery

If a recovering alcohol addict feels they need to address their sugar cravings, then the steps they need to take are, by and large, the same as anyone going through the same problems.

An important part is understanding what is happening to the body when it processes sugar and how this affects the cravings. When consumed, sugars in food are converted into glucose which is transported in the blood; this is reflected in your blood sugar levels. An increase in blood sugar will stimulate the generation of dopamine, a feel-good chemical, and insulin, which will lower the blood sugar level to regulate it. This is why people have sugar crashes, their body responds to a spike in blood glucose with insulin, leaving them with low blood sugar but also a drop in dopamine.

The best route to managing cravings is, therefore, to help the body maintain a stable blood glucose level. And the best way to do this with through diet.

One of the most important approaches is to avoid refined carbohydrates. Because these are already refined, the body can quickly turn them into glucose, causing crashes and intensifying subsequent sugar cravings. Instead, strive for a diet that includes foods that are harder to digest, such as fiber, or whole foods, that will offer a slow and steady release of sugars.

Eating regularly will also help the body. Avoiding long gaps between meals will help maintain a consistent blood sugar level, avoiding it falling too far before the next meal. Ideally, something should be eaten approximately every four hours.

Breakfast is an important meal, especially as it will come after a prolonged period without food. Trying to focus on protein in this meal will help, creating a sense of fullness as well as avoiding an immediate sugar-rush. It’s also helpful to ensure it follows a full, and good, night’s sleep.

Finally, whatever effect the sugar cravings have had on the waistline, it is not a good time to diet. Ensuring that the diet contains enough calories for the day, rather than a dieting deficit, will ensure that the body can adapt to sobriety and managing cravings.


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