Can something so seemingly harmless and widely available really be so bad for us? The answer is yes. Sugar is not just bad for us; in reality eating too many refined sugars too often is one of the root causes of many of the chronic health conditions hitting new heights in western cultures including type II diabetes, heart disease, obesity and certain cancers. The physical implications of eating too many refined sugars too often are obvious and common knowledge to most people, however what is often overlooked is the extremely negative impact these ‘substances’ can play on one’s mental health. The truth is sugar and refined, processed carbohydrates can also be addictive and disruptive to one’s life due to the way they disrupt brain chemistry and fuel addictive patterns. Sugar influences the same ‘feel good’ brain chemicals, including serotonin and dopamine, in exactly the same way as most hardcore illicit drugs – creating a quick false sense of pleasure followed by a rapid crash and the need for another ‘fix’ of a stimulating substance. Dangerous ground for an addict of any nature!
Low blood sugar, or ‘hypoglycaemia’ is caused by either not eating frequently enough or by eating foods that release too much sugar too fast into the blood stream, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar levels quickly followed by a huge crash. Additionally, when levels of glucose in the blood are low, stress hormones are released into the system by our adrenal glands. This results in increased production of our natural ‘fight or flight’ hormones called adrenaline and cortisol, which induces feelings of anxiety, stress, irritability, nervousness and desperation. This mental state inevitably sends the brain in search of something else sugary for a quick ‘pick me up’, however for an alcoholic or drug abuser – this can often be the trigger causing them to pick up another substance to get their ‘fix’. Uncontrolled blood sugar levels are so disruptive to the nervous system that in reality the feeling of having a panic attack may actually be the result of low blood sugar! As anxiety, stress and desperation are some of the most common drivers among most substance abusers, proper blood sugar control is beneficial and recommended for addicts during treatment and for the best chance of sustained, successful abstinence.
During in-patient rehabilitation, many addicts will often experience intense cravings for sugar in the form of fizzy drinks, fruit juice, desserts and sweetened coffee. This may be more apparent particularly in alcoholics. The reason for this is that alcohol is a simple sugar and in reality many alcoholics may also be addicted to sugar but without knowing it. Going into treatment and managing to abstain from alcohol is of course a success. However, if one goes into rehab and increases their intake of refined sugars, this becomes a band-aid to cope with underlying issues, which is why a balanced nutrition is advised to improve the benefits of recovery. Yes, for an alcoholic the first goal is to stop drinking regardless, but to overcome addictive tendencies the recommendation would be to reduce these types of commonly available addictive and disruptive substances and to not feel the need to rely on anything that provides a quick and very false sense of relief of happiness. An addict that relies heavily on sugar during treatment will still be leaving in a state of dependency and once out in the real world again with easy access to drugs or alcohol, might exhibit a higher tendency to shift back onto the substances that they previously abused.
When the body and brain have learned to cope, free of all drug-like substances, the benefits of recovery become more apparent and abundant. Learning to deal with emotions and feelings can truly be achieved with a clear head. Once all ‘brain disruptors’ are removed, ones true emotions and feelings come to the surface, which can then be worked on with the help of counsellors, therapists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals.
Unfortunately in western society, it has become the norm to eat an abundance of refined, sugary junk foods, hence the rapid rise of obesity and type II diabetes. Many people think it’s normal to wake up and eat sweet cereals, toast and jam and fruit juice for breakfast, which of course consists mainly of refined sugar and does not provide the body with much substance in the form of essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids or essential fats, all of which are vital for maintaining mental and physical balance. Sugar does not just come in the form of ‘white table sugar’. There are many foods, which have been so refined and stripped of all nutrition and fibre that they create the same response in our blood sugar and nervous system as pure white sugar. Foods such as white bread, white rice, couscous, white pasta and so called popular ‘healthy low-fat’ breakfast cereals for example are deceptively high in sugar content. They may fill the stomach for a short period but because they provide no real nutrition, the body will inevitably be craving something else not long after consumption. The question is – what will that something else be!? The brain will never be satisfied until it receives essential nutrients that mainly come present in whole ‘unprocessed’ foods. This is one reason why so many obese people and so called ‘food addicts’ can’t stop eating. It is not because they lack willpower or because they are greedy, but because they are filling themselves with empty calories, usually in the form of sugars, which is not enough to satisfy the brain or body and therefore the negative cycle of craving, needing and binging continues. Many binge eaters and/or bulimics will often claim they are ‘addicted to food’. What they must understand is that they are not addicted to ‘real food’ but addicted to an extremely disruptive substance called sugar! Individuals suffering from bulimia often tend to choose foods that contain a high amount of refined sugars to binge on which serve to provide only a short-term satisfaction, rather than whole and unprocessed foods such as brown rice, salmon and avocados which are naturally satisfying due to their abundance of nutrients and fibre.
Foods that disrupt mood = All white refined carbohydrates (white bread, white pasta, white rice), low-fat sugary cereals, sugar-loaded fizzy drinks, fruit juice, cakes, pastries, muffins, jams, low-fat sweetened yogurts.
The basic rules of thumb for anyone suffering from addiction, anxiety or depression is that everything should be chosen in its whole form as nature provides it with all its nutrients still present. All grains should be whole and if a food is naturally high in fat then that is how it should be eaten, not in a processed, reduced fat version that will often have sugar or artificial flavourings added to make up for lost flavour. If one is experiencing intense sugar cravings during treatment or everyday life we should turn to natures healthy answer in the form of fresh fruit, which provides us with natural sugars and sweet satisfaction along with plenty of nutrients and fibre.
At Promis patients have the chance to address their nutritional status and lifestyle and provide a balance to the body, mind and soul. Education around food is key so that patients can learn how best to nourish their brain and body for the best chance of a maintained, successful and enhanced recovery which will provide a happy, healthier, substance free life. Patients will also have the chance to have individual sessions with Miles to fully address their individual dietary needs and health goals before returning home.
Miles Kasiri – Nutritional Therapist