How Good Nutrition Supports Long-Term Recovery

How Good Nutrition Supports Long-Term Recovery

By Sally Rubenstein 05/01/16

Alcoholics who stop consuming sugar and caffeine, take B-Vitamins and eat better will support their chances of long-term recovery.

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“I’ve always eaten a ton of sugar,” says Cora. During her first year without drinking, she ingested bags of cookies many nights and tore through boxes of donuts in the morning. 

She ate sweets constantly. “Whatever: cakes, ice cream, everything,” she said. 

A piece of advice often heard in AA meetings is to eat sugar when you get a craving to drink. Walk into many meetings and you’ll find plenty of alcoholics munching on the platefuls of cookies offered there. Living Sober, the booklet of practical advice for newcomers to AA, suggests eating something sweet when alcohol cravings arise. 

“We can only pass on the word that thousands of us—even many who said they had never liked sweets—have found that eating or drinking something sweet allays the urge to drink,” it says.

Cora agrees. “Beer is a bunch of sugar so when you quit, you’re going to want a bunch of sugar. Of course you’re going to want it,” she says. 

Sober for more than four years, Cora still relies on a lot of sweets to keep her energy up during the day. She opts for six packets of sugar in a cup of coffee. 

“Another thing about sugar is, if I don’t eat it, I will get a withdrawal headache for two to three days, but then I have it again, and I’m back on it,” she says, describing the intense craving that comes with it, saying she “breaks down on it again and again.”

Dr. Maura Henninger, a naturopath in New York City, says that sugar stimulates the same pathways in the brain that alcohol does, which is why it helps stem alcohol cravings. But opposed to AA advice, Henninger advises people in early stages of recovery from alcohol abuse to limit or entirely eliminate their sugar and caffeine intake.

After consuming alcohol or sugar, the quick rise in blood sugar followed by its rapid drop causes mood swings and fatigue. “These substances undermine early recovery by destabilizing blood sugar, which causes cravings,” she says.

“(Caffeine) contributes heavily to anxiety, which can lead to relapse.”  

Henninger says to go easy on processed foods, which clog up the liver, too. The liver needs support to do the “heavy lifting” of detox. 

She also suggests eating “super greens” such as spirulina and chlorophyll to aid in detoxing.

In early recovery, it helps to replace the alcohol with sweets, especially when an urgent craving arises. 

But what about feeling better after the alcohol withdrawal wears off and the sugar and coffee stop working? 

Plenty of alcoholics complain of lethargy, problems with sleep, and irritability, among other mood issues, long after the detox stage is over. 

Karen, who is in her early forties, says that after she quit drinking, she felt like her thinking had “slowed down” and she was unable to concentrate.  

“I still had a short fuse, like when someone cuts you off when you’re walking,” she said. “I was reactive and intolerant.”

When she was drinking, she often didn’t eat more than one meal a day and instead opted for pints of Guinness to satisfy her hunger. She binge drank at bars during her twenties, drank alone for much of her thirties, and pledged to stop before her fortieth birthday.   

She relied on sweets when she got sober. “It was better to have a pint of ice cream than a pint of beer,” she said. 

“When I was feeling hungry I would grab a candy bar and when I wanted to drink, I would get a huge soda. I let myself do that for six months,” she said. Now sober for three years, Karen’s eliminated sugar almost completely. “It was a detox all over again,” she said.

“I wasn’t clearheaded,” she said. “I felt lethargic all of the time and unmotivated.” 

She started taking fish oil, an Omega-3 fat, after hearing that drinking depletes fatty tissue in the brain and that supplements might actually regenerate it. 

“I was surprised by the almost immediate effect on my mood,” she said. “I felt more motivated to pursue things I was interested in before my drinking got really bad.” 

Studies support Karen’s experience. As originally reported by MedicalDaily.com, a Loyola University study published in February found that in rats exposed to large amounts of alcohol, fish oil prevented brain cell death. 

The connection between depression and low Omega-3 levels has been shown in several studies. A 2006 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry followed 33 unmedicated people with suicidal behavior for two years. Researchers concluded that in the subjects, low levels of Omega-3s were associated with major depression and suicidal behavior.

Food sources of Omega-3s include fish and fish oils, flaxseed, canola oil, walnuts, and eggs. 

Living Sober also suggests that undernourished alcoholics talk to their doctors about taking vitamins. Alcoholics are often vitamin deficient. Low levels of thiamine (Vitamin B1) are common among chronic alcoholics and people who eat diets made up mostly of highly-refined, processed carbohydrates.

A recent study conducted at Binghamton University, State University of New York, found that supplementation of Vitamin B1 could repair brain damage during chronic, heavy alcohol consumption. 

Countless more studies have documented low levels of B vitamins in alcoholics.

A 1996 study in Portugal of 32 chronic alcoholics and 31 healthy volunteers found that their folate (a B vitamin) and vitamin B6 levels were significantly lower than in a control population. 

A 2008 study of 78 men also showed that alcohol significantly lowered folate and vitamin B12 levels. Levels were measured for two weeks, when the men were given no alcohol, followed by two weeks when they drank one cup of wine or about a 1/3 cup of vodka a day, and an additional two weeks without any alcohol.

While supplements help, alcoholics, like everyone, need to consume food with adequate nutrient value, not just the empty calories found in cookies, cake, ice cream, donuts, and other high-processed carbs.  

Overall, Henninger says she finds that a nutritious diet with vitamin supplementation can support long-term recovery. She advises clients to eat a diet high in protein, vegetables and complex carbohydrates like grains, which stabilize blood sugar because they take longer to digest. Such a diet helps with organ repair, too, “essential during the recovery process,” she said.

After detox, she looks at her clients' adrenal function and thyroid levels, and addresses nutrient deficiencies and brain chemistry imbalance. “All things that ensure full recovery,” Henninger said.

She recognizes the importance of 12-step meetings, in addition to medical care, including prescription drugs when necessary. 

She says that alcoholics who stop consuming sugar and caffeine, take B-Vitamin supplements, and eat better, will support their chances of long-term recovery. 

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