Where to Draw the Line on Mind-Altering Substances?

By Sarah Jones 05/07/13

Mouthwash and Sudafed, non-alcoholic beer and caffeine. What's cool for recovering addicts and alcoholics to eat, drink and take—and what's not?

How close are they? Photo via

Last week I made my first batch of chia-seed pudding, a mixture of chia seeds and almond milk with the consistency of tapioca. Unsurprisingly, it tasted like dirt. So I added some vanilla extract—and gobbled down the rest in record time. Then I looked at the ingredients and realized the extract was 45% alcohol. No wonder it had been so delicious.

In many AA meetings you hear the phrase, “Please don’t share today if you’ve taken any self-prescribed mood or mind-altering substances.” But what does that mean, and where do we draw the line? After all, what’s self-prescribed in England—certain strengths of Tylenol with codeine—is prescription-only in the US and Canada.

And do they really mean any mood-changing, mind-altering substance? When I count down the minutes until my next cup of coffee, does that jeopardize my sobriety? What about gargling with Listerine, or cooking with wine? People are bound to disagree on some of the finer points, but all of us in sobriety have to find real-life solutions. So I talked to some sober friends about what everyday substances they are uneasy about, as well as some medical professionals about when we should we be worried.

Have you ever had Bananas Foster? There’s enough alcohol in it to disinfect a small village.

Many foods contain trace amount of alcohol that can be triggering. Some ex-drunks will eat foods with alcohol, assuming that the alcohol has been “cooked off,” or evaporated in the preparation process. However, a US Department of Agriculture study shows that all cooking processes are different, and some foods must be cooked for nearly three hours to eliminate all traces of alcohol.

Sauces White wine and beer are common ingredients in pasta sauces and marinades—the latter because alcohol can help tenderize meat. Menus may not list all of their ingredients, so when at a restaurant, ask your server to be sure.

Can they get you twisted? Probably not by themselves, although tasting beer or wine could cause unwanted cravings.

Vanilla extract Household vanilla extract is 41% alcohol (!), however alcohol-free versions are available.

Can it get you twisted? Maybe, if you drank the whole bottle by itself. Otherwise, use sparingly or buy the booze-free extract.

Desserts Tiramisu, which contains rum-soaked ladyfingers, is refrigerated but not cooked—meaning it contains totally un-cooked-off alcohol, and should be avoided. Flambeed desserts—the technique used in desserts like Bananas Foster and Crepes Suzette—have the same story: because the alcohol is cooked for such a short amount of time, 75% of it remains.

Can it get you twisted? Have you ever had Bananas Foster? There’s enough alcohol in it to disinfect a small village.

Kombucha Fans of this Chinese tea made of live bacteria and yeast (yuck) claim it stimulates the digestive and immune systems, and even can prevent cancer. But, because the drink contains fermented yeast—same as beer—it has about 0.5% alcohol. Some kombuchas which are aged longer, contain 1-1.5% alcohol.

Can it get you twisted? Maybe not to the point of intoxication, but it definitely tastes like alcohol.

Non-alcoholic beer and wine Under federal law, beer that contains less than 0.5% alcohol can be called non-alcoholic beer, so most NA beers have 0.4% alcohol. It’s made the same way as normal beer (typically 4–6%, but most of the alcohol is distilled off). Same deal for NA wine.

So is NA beer intoxicating? According to this website, a 200lb male would need five beers over an hour to become too drunk to drive—but he’d need 50 bottles of NA beer in the same time frame to reach the same level of intoxication.

That said, a recent study by researchers at Indiana University found that just the taste of beer can trigger cravings. "We believe this is the first experiment in humans to show that the taste of an alcoholic drink alone, without any intoxicating effect, can elicit this dopamine activity in the brain's reward centers," said David A. Kareken, PhD, professor of neurology at the IU School of Medicine. And dopamine has been linked to cravings and relapse triggers for ages.

Can it get you twisted? If you have the wherewithal to drink 50 in an hour, then yeah. But more importantly, just tasting beer and wine can make you want more—so probably best to stay away.


It’s common knowledge in AA that all pills prescribed by a doctor should be taken as directed to avoid an unintentional relapse—but what about over-the-counter medicine, like Sudafed, Benadryl and ZzzQuil? Danielle of Brooklyn says, “DayQuil gives me a weird shaky feeling. I hate that feeling, but it's something other than what I normally feel, so I can still obsess and find justifications for it. Even Ibuprofen sometimes. I just like taking pills!"

ZzzQuil This new drug, produced by the makers of NyQuil (which contains 10% alcohol) and meant exclusively to help you sleep, contains the antihistamine diphenhydramine, alcohol and high-fructose corn syrup. If it doesn’t gross you out to drink sugar right before bedtime, know that mixing alcohol and diphenhydramine can put you in an extremely sedated state.

Can it get you twisted? ZzzQuil definitely will alter your mood and mind—and, because of the alcohol, it may trigger relapse or cravings.

Sudafed The active ingredient in this cold medicine—as well as any allergy medication/decongestant combo, typically signified by a “D,” as in Zyrtec-D, Claritin-D, and so on—is pseudoephedrine, which is classified as an amphetamine. It also happens to be a starting point for making meth, which is why you have to ask the pharmacist to give you Sudafed or similar meds from behind the counter, even though it doesn’t require a prescription to buy.

Can it get you twisted? Yes, for sure. If your drug of choice is an upper, then be especially careful!

Codeine/cough syrup A cough suppressant found in Tylenol 3 and Robitussin, codeine is derived from the opium poppy. It’s available without a prescription in some countries, and in the US it’s a controlled substance but is still available in lower doses in some pharmacies. Combined with a Jolly Rancher and flavored soda, the combo is known as sizzurp and almost killed Lil Wayne in March.

Can it get you twisted? Yes, definitely. Stay away from it! Plus, it’s gross. Why would you want to drink cough syrup? “People who suffer from opioid addiction should not use codeine as a cough suppressant because they are at a very significant risk of relapse,” says Dr. Petros Levounis, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at New Jersey Medical School. Woman-in-recovery Claire agrees: “Even if the cough syrup is a kid-friendly, alcohol- or codeine-free one, I want to grab the bottle and chug it like Lil Wayne fresh outta jail."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix