Why Do Alcoholics Crave Sugar?

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It’s not uncommon for people who have achieved abstinence from alcohol to have sugar cravings, which can be severe. The reasons for this are a bit more complex than simply trading one addiction for another—although this can be a significant factor. Just like drinking alcohol, eating sugary food causes your brain to release dopamine, and this can sometimes increase the risk of relapse. Moreover, some evidence suggests that high sugar consumption can make it more challenging to manage alcohol cravings.

Guardian Recovery is a specialized addiction treatment center prepared to address the causes and effects of both alcohol and sugar addiction. We offer comprehensive, evidence-based programs, therapies, and other services signed to meet each individual’s unique needs. If you are struggling with alcohol misuse and powerful sugar cravings, reach out to us to learn how we can help you reclaim the healthy life you deserve.

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Are Alcoholism & Sugar Addiction Related?

Research has found increases in sugar use and cravings for both sweets and alcohol cravings in early recovery. (1) Although consuming high amounts of sugar doesn’t cause the same disturbances in daily life as alcohol or drug use, there are significant similarities. Just like excessive drinking, sugar activates the brain’s reward center. (2) Too much stimulation can cause cravings, tolerance, and compulsive behaviors in both cases. Consider the following:

  • Alcohol and sugar provoke the release of high levels of dopamine, a neurochemical that promotes pleasurable feelings.
  • Both substances may be consumed excessively regardless of adverse consequences.
  • Sugar tolerance is similar to alcohol tolerance, which requires increasing consumption to achieve the desired effects.
  • Like alcohol, with prolonged, heavy use, the body begins to rely on sugar to function normally.
  • Abstinence from either alcohol or sugar following a period of high intake can result in withdrawal symptoms.

The Relationship Between Alcohol, Carbohydrates, & Sugar

Many forms of alcohol contain a significant amount of carbohydrates. However, distilled spirits, such as vodka, don’t contain any. Beer and wine have a moderate amount, and mixed drinks and liqueurs tend to be very high. Carbs are the primary energy source for the body and consist of the following:

  • Simple Sugars — Sucrose and fructose are simple sugars commonly found in many processed foods, as well as alcohol. They are metabolized rapidly in the body and used for energy. (3) Unfortunately, this often leads to a spike in blood sugar, which can have adverse health effects.
  • Complex Carbohydrates — Foods like grains and vegetables have complex carbs, which are healthier than simple sugars because the body takes longer to break them down, mitigating blood sugar spikes.

The Relationship Between Alcohol & Low Blood Sugar

Active alcoholics often experience altered eating patterns because alcohol can affect appetite, taste buds, and absorption of nutrients. (4) For these reasons, heavy drinkers may not eat meals regularly. This habit increases the risk of low blood sugar due to consuming alcohol on an empty or near-empty stomach.

Excessive drinking without much eating can cause blood sugar to drop to perilously low levels. (5) This is because when a person stops eating, their body breaks down glycogen (the stored form of glucose) and converts it into sugar to be used for energy. However, after a day or two, glycogen stores are minimized. Typically, the liver produces new sugars, but during drinking, its main priority is to eliminate alcohol from the body. This can result in sugar levels plunging.

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Is Sugar Addiction Really Possible?

Some research has suggested that sugar can induce rewards and cravings comparable in intensity to those related to drug misuse. In fact, “sugar and sweet reward can not only substitute [for] addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive.” (6)

Moreover, sugar releases endorphins, meaning it may have the potential to cause dependence. At this point, consumers of high amounts of sugar may experience a loss of control over their eating habits and incur an increased risk for cravings, alcohol relapse, mood instability, and stress.

Can Heavy Sugar Intake Be Harmful?

High sugar consumption may impede recovery in several ways. About half of people with eating disorders use alcohol or drugs, implying that dietary compulsions may be related to substance misuse. (7) Also, as noted, a high intake of sugary foods causes spikes in blood sugar. This has been associated with adverse mood changes and cravings, which may undermine recovery endeavors. (8) Finally, trading one addiction for another (also known as addiction transference) can interfere with detox and contribute to relapse, as high-sugar foods affect the brain’s reward center, similar to alcohol and drugs. (9)

Both sugar and alcohol can increase the likelihood of many diseases, some of which the two share. Likewise, having active addictions to both substances may further amplify associated risks.

Increased Risks Linked to Both Alcohol & Sugar Include:

  • Weight gain and obesity.
  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • Heart disease.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Liver damage.
  • Several forms of cancer.
  • Depression and anxiety.
  • Collagen damage and skin aging.
  • Increased cellular aging.

How To Manage Sugar Cravings During Recovery

Recovering alcoholics are advised to prioritize nutrition and monitor their sugar consumption. In recent years, addiction specialists have begun focusing more on the nutritional aspects of recovery and using a holistic approach to treatment. This includes diet and exercise as vital components to sustaining long-term sobriety.

Foods high in vitamins and minerals can help to improve mood. In contrast, foods high in sugar and low in nutritional value can undermine mental and physical well-being. To stabilize blood sugar levels, Harvard Health Publishing advises eating complex carbs, such as vegetables, whole grains, and fruits, while avoiding refined carbs, such as white bread, pasta, sugar-laden beverages, candy, and other sweets. (10) This can result in reduced sugar cravings and urges to drink alcohol.

Tips for Managing Blood Sugar Levels Include:

  • Staying hydrated.
  • Scheduling meals and planning ahead.
  • Eating sufficient protein, fiber, and healthy fats.
  • Eating a balanced diet that includes complex carbohydrates while avoiding simple sugars.
  • Avoiding keeping high-sugar foods at home.
  • Maintaining a regular sleep/wake schedule and striving for 8 hours per night.
  • Finding ways to reduce stress because cortisol fuels sugar cravings.
  • Inspecting food labels for hidden sugars.
  • Eating natural sweets in response to sugar cravings, such as fruit.
  • Engaging in mindful eating and avoiding emotional eating.

Getting help from a dietician, nutritionist, or other health professionals may be beneficial to improving the relationship with food.

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Guardian Recovery Can Help You Overcome Addiction

Addictions aren’t always related to psychoactive drugs. Instead, they can involve foods, behaviors, or any activity that boosts feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. Although swapping addictions for harm reduction can be helpful for some, it can also be detrimental to long-term health, just like drug and alcohol misuse.

Struggling with any form of addiction can be challenging, but you shouldn’t have to go through it alone. At Guardian Recovery, we provide customized treatment plans and levels of care varying in intensity. Contact us today to speak to a skilled Treatment Advisor and receive a complimentary, no-obligation assessment, and health insurance benefits check. In addition, you can learn more about our various therapeutic services and how we can help you achieve long-lasting sobriety and wellness.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8462793/ (2)https://www.brainfacts.org/diseases-and-disorders/addiction/2020/a-spoonful-of-sugar-110920 (3)https://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/19534.htm (4)https://pure.roehampton.ac.uk/ws/files/578237/Jeynes_Gibson_accepted_revision_KK_17_0852R1_1._pdf (5)https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-3/211.pdf (6)https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23719144/ (7)https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/substance-use-and-eating-disorders (8)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763418308613 (9)https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma15-4131.pdf (10)https://www.health.harvard.edu/about-us

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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