Folks who abuse alcohol and drugs often have problems controlling their blood sugar when they stop using. That can be due to poor eating habits, but it can also be due to craving the stimulation that we receive from eating sweets. (It can even be related to diabetes. Alcohol is particularly hard on the pancreas, the organ that produces insulin.) Whatever the cause, fluctuating blood sugar (glucose) can cause a variety of problems, from grumpiness to inability to think clearly — even relapse.

How can low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) be related to relapse? Simple. When we were using, our sugar fluctuated frequently because of our poor eating habits, and most of us drank or used drugs when hungry instead of getting a good square meal under our belts. That often relieved our symptoms, and over time we came to think of feeling hungry as needing to use. OK? Combine that feeling with anger and an inability to think clearly. Does that sound like a recipe for relapse to you?

Here’s how it usually goes: I start feeling hungry, so I have a snack — usually a “high-energy” snack, like a donut or candy bar. Maybe I wash it down with a cup of coffee, or one of those monster energy drinks that us recovering people — still seeking relief from chemicals — seem to love so much. I just gave myself a nice jolt of sugar from the snack, and maybe the drink had sugar added, too. In addition to that, the caffeine causes my liver to release a chemical called glycogen, which is rapidly converted by the body to even more sugar.

Breakfast of Champions (Not)

The result is that I get a huge blast of sugar all at once, and my blood glucose shoots up. This causes my pancreas to produce a lot of insulin (the chemical that allows glucose to enter the cells from the blood). This provides a quick jolt of fuel to the cells, and combined with the adrenaline prompted by the caffeine, it gives me a real lift. Wheee!

The lift is short-lived, however. As soon as the blast of insulin brings my blood glucose back down, I’m hungry again and back in the dumps. I may even be worse off than when I started, because sometimes the blood sugar will fall even lower than it was before. Candy and caffeine work in the short term, but not for very long. Smoking makes it even worse. It’s easy to see what happens next: we have another Twinkie and some more coffee or Red Bull (or maybe just the caffeinated, sugary drink). Zing! There we go again.

We can chase our blood sugar curve all over the map that way, and all we’ll get out of it in the long run is  jitters, insomnia, and perhaps worse.

Hello? The smart thing to do when we’re hungry is eat. It’s best to:

  • have a good breakfast (coffee and donuts is not the breakfast of champions).
  • have a low sugar snack mid-morning
  • eat a reasonable lunch
  • snack again in the afternoon
  • and have dinner.

Another snack before bedtime will help us sleep. If we do it right, breaking our meals up into three meals and three snacks, we can actually end up eating less than usual, because we won’t be devastatingly hungry at any point.

Better nutrition, calmer, better mood, clearer thinking, better interpersonal and work relationships, better sleep, less chance of relapse, and a possible start at some weight loss. What’s not to like? Give it a shot. Next time you’re starving, avoid sugar and caffeine, eat a package of peanut butter crackers, and see what happens.  Let us know how it goes.

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