The connection between relapse and sugar is related to dopamine levels. When sugar is metabolized, it increases dopamine levels, which can feel like getting high or drunk.
What is Addiction?
An addiction is a chronic disease of motivation, brain reward, memory, and the circuitry system. The clinical name for addiction is substance use disorder. Once an addiction is developed, cravings for the substance often become obsessive or compulsive, with the desire for the reward being much more intense than the concern of consequences.
As a primary disease, no outside factor can cause someone to develop this disease, meaning financial trouble or a bad home life can’t lead to addiction. Several factors can increase the risk and determine how likely someone will develop an addiction over time. However, the most common factor is genetics.
Sugar Cravings and Addiction-The Brain Effects
The mesolimbic pathway is a result of evolution. It’s a system in the brain that deciphers the natural rewards for us. A bundle of neurons, the ventral tegmental area, activates when we do something pleasurable. It signals portions of the brain called the nucleus accumbens using the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Our motor movements, such as deciding whether or not to walk the dog, result from the connection between the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex also activates our hormones. Those hormones can tell your body, “Hey, walking the dog feels so refreshing. I’m going to remember that for future me.”
Why Do Addicts Crave Sugar?
The biggest reason that addiction and sugar go hand in hand is the same reason behind the similar effects on the brain. Both addictive substances, like drugs and alcohol, and sugar, create similar reactions in the brain of the person using them, and similar chemical reactions happen with the brain’s neurotransmitters. This is why many people with addictions of various types will also have sugar cravings and a higher-than-normal sugar intake.
Additionally, the brain of many people living with drug addictions is rewired to expect a rush of euphoria that drugs usually provide via dopamine. This will cause them to seek that same feeling or effect outside of drug or alcohol use disorders. This often leaves them suffering from the effects of sugar or a chronic disease caused by eating too much sugar.
The transition can be challenging when coming into a newly sober life, and many people find a disruption to their diet and lifestyle. There may be a variety of uncomfortable feelings, emotions, and sensations during this time. These symptoms will eventually go away.
The Connection Between Addiction Relapse and Sugar
There’s a reason for that: Sugar causes the release of serotonin and dopamine (your feel-good neurotransmitters or brain chemicals) in the brain. Caffeine and alcohol consumption, as well as other drugs, also temporarily raise levels of these neurotransmitters that make you feel pleasant, happy, and relaxed. Part of what’s happening is that when you subtract the booze, your brain screams at you to get relief from other substances that behave similarly in the body: carbs and sugar, caffeine, nicotine, pot, painkillers, etc. This is called addiction transfer.
How to Handle Sugar Cravings in Addiction Recovery
Being able to handle sugar in recovery is important for those who are long-term drug users as well as those who are not. The effects can be just as damaging, and the consequences can be multiplied for those with longer addictions. Here are some tips for avoiding sugar while in recovery.
Avoid Situations With Sugary Snacks
The most effective way to keep sugar consumption in check is simply to limit your consumption of processed foods. When you eat processed foods, read nutrition labels to see the grams of added sugar. You want to keep this number as low as possible.
Don’t Fall Into The “Just One” Trap
While it may be a slippery slope fallacy in debate, the danger of the “just one” or “just one more” trap is very real. Humans have notoriously poor willpower. Someone who has already demonstrated their inability to regulate or control consumption, “just one more” can be the road to addiction.
Cope With Stress In Healthy Ways
Recovery is about building an emotional toolkit with the healthy coping mechanisms needed to deal with situations, events, dates, and more that may trigger the individual. Making sure there are more healthy options for dealing with stress, sugar, and relapse will be less appealing.
Stock Up On Healthy Snacks
Another great way to ensure that sugar doesn’t keep a hold on you is to put something else in its place. Find healthier snacks, and use them instead of sugary snacks. You’ll be off to a more nutritious start simply by default.
What is the Common Link Between Sugar and Sobriety?
The common link between sugar and sobriety is healthy coping skills. There is no way around temptations and triggers. Still, when individuals can deal with them healthily, they are far less likely to create any problems. Even if there is a lapse, provided the individual goes right back into recovery or sugar avoidance, they can still be considered in recovery.
The Warning for People in Recovery
Many people trying to kick one addiction will sometimes unknowingly replace it with another one. Especially if the new addiction is seen as less dangerous on the surface. This can lead those with addictive personalities to develop addictions to things other than drugs and alcohol.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with an addiction or is in active recovery, and they seem to be consuming more sugary snacks than usual, it may be time to discuss relapse prevention with them. Reach out today to the addiction experts at Agape to find out how we can help strengthen your recovery through dietary wellness.
Stephanie Catalano is an accomplished Clinical Director at Agape Behavioral Healthcare. With a Master of Social Work degree, LCSW license, and extensive training in Rapid Resolution Therapy under her belt, she brings a wealth of expertise to her role. Her unique combination of education and experience allows her to provide exceptional care to clients and lead her team with confidence. Stephanie’s joy comes from witnessing the moments when her patients creatively connect the dots and bravely move toward reclaiming their power. Her purpose is to help individuals understand their past so they can create a future full of hope, growth, and success. Stephanie attributes a large portion of her success to the supportive culture and strong sense of community fostered by the Agape team.