"Sugar lends many of us—at high interest—the sweetness that we missed early in our lives."

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Episode 72 -- December 21, 2020

Nourishing the Body: The Sugar Thing

Whether it was stress eating over the last year of uncertainty and unrest, or the fact that the holidays are upon us again, many of us are thinking about what we put in our bodies, and how what we eat can affect our health—including our recovery. In this excerpt from her book The Recovering Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober, author Jennifer Matesa takes a look at the addictive qualities of sugar, and what it does to our minds and bodies. With compassion and humility and a load of empty sweets wrappers (as well as pill bottles) in her own history, Matesa offers tips that can help each of us better nourish the permanent home that is our body.

It has been edited for brevity.

I used to wonder at what moment in my life I became an addict. What was the dividing line? Taking OxyContin? But before that I'd taken morphine, which has a longer history with addiction. Before morphine, I'd taken Vicodin, which is weaker, but which I'd chewed, so I had "abused" it. Before those I'd taken codeine, Stadol, and barbiturates. If you want to go back to the beginning, I had my first drink at seventeen—but even though I got wasted, one night with a cheap gin and tonic didn't make me an instant alcoholic.

It's equally impossible to tell exactly when someone contracts cancer. The disease doesn't start at diagnosis—the treatment does. With many types of cancer, by the time they are found, they've been growing inside the body for years. The fact is, we're all living our days with cancer cells floating around in our blood—and the better we take care of our immune systems (ironically, with exercise, nutrition, sleep, pleasure, and mindfulness), the better we boost our bodies' ability to kill those stray cells.

But when I try to determine when the "stray cells" of addiction started to settle into healthy tissue and grow out of control, I think of one particular situation, and it had nothing to do with drugs as we think of them.

Like a lot of people with addiction I have known (including, it turns out, my father), my first chemical of abuse was sugar, my first addictive behavior was eating, and I have never managed to quit eating foods with added sugar for more than a couple of months.

Why (in god's name) do I eat sugar?

  • I eat it habitually, just because I Do.
  • I eat it because I've always eaten it.
  • I eat it to comfort myself when I'm upset, bored, happy, or sad. When I'm hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.
  • I eat it because it makes me feel good for a while. It gives me a sense of sweetness, although then it makes me tired.

It also has a downside: it gives me headaches and makes me sad—classic sugar crash. I could give you a technical rundown of what happens with the insulin overload and blood-sugar roller coaster, but you can get that in other books. (Hell, if you eat sugar the way I do—which, if you have any kind of substance addiction, the studies say you probably already have—you already know all about it from experience.)

I eat sugar because it does all kinds of things drugs do. It increases dopamine the way cocaine does and stimulates the mu opioid receptors in the same way heroin or any other opioid does, albeit more mildly. A 2008 Princeton University review of the literature showed there is strong evidence that sugar is an addictive substance. When I first read this study, my deep affinity for sterling rock-my-world pharma-grade opioid drugs made real sense to me for the first time in my life. Like my favorite drugs, sugar makes me energized, happy, and super-clear at first; then later it gently rocks me to sleep. It might even kill pain for a while. Certain kinds of pain.

Plus—and this is important—it tastes sweet. Other tastes that the tongue senses—bitter, sour, salty—are limited in their ability to trigger responses in the brain's reward centers, but sweet is not. We can keep eating sugary foods, and the sugar will keep triggering release of dopamine in the brain. "In this way, sugar acts a little bit like a drug," says Nicole Avena, Ph.D., a Princeton research neuroscientist, lead author of the study I mentioned, and an expert in nutrition and addiction. "It's one reason people seem to be hooked on sugary foods."

Sugar lends many of us—at high interest—the sweetness that we missed early in our lives. Instead of deriving a deep sense of security from a safe, loving home, I learned to distract myself, to make myself feel better by Taking Something—eating what there was to eat. I ate Cap'n Crunch, Lucky Charms, Count Chocula, any cereal that turned the milk a different color—and without fresh fruit (we only ever had apples and pears in the house, neither of which go with milk). I ate PB&J sandwiches made with Jif (60 percent sugar?!) and Wonder Bread, plus a Twinkie packed into my lunch box. After school, I ate another "goodie" from the cupboard. So, when I was a kid, my diet was at least 80 percent refined and processed food, and almost all of that, essentially, was sugar.

At age ten, I looked forward to my after-school snack the way my dad looked forward to his first beer when he got home. He would set his briefcase down in the corner by the piano, loosen his tie, and open the fridge. Dad's childhood indulgence in eating penny candy had primed him for alcoholism. In fact, beer metabolizes as sugar. According to studies and experts cited in Eating Right to Live Sober—one of the earliest popular books about alcoholism and perhaps the first to mention the critical importance of nutrition in recovery—erratic processing of sugar resulting in chronic low blood sugar is thought to underlie alcoholism. Like a candy bar, a shot of booze will provide an instant jolt of energy that soothes the restless, irritable, and discontented feelings caused by low blood sugar, which doctors call hypoglycemia. The problem is that alcohol almost instantly converts into sugar, and the sugar drives insulin levels up, which makes blood-sugar levels crash, bringing on another bout of hypoglycemia—which then calls for another drink.

Rinse and repeat, and you can eventually get alcoholism.

Arielle, twenty-four, a New York City native who got sober during college and now lives in Seattle, grew up with parents who were dancers and personal trainers. Her mother, an acupuncturist in Manhattan, "is crazy with eating really right and exercising every day," she says. "I grew up with really good wholesome food—all organic and whole grains. Then I started drinking, and I ate like shit."

When Arielle got sober, she noticed that she craved sugar, and her mother told her that bingeing on refined sugar would simply replace the sugar-as-alcohol she'd given up in sobriety. "I used to have tubs of icing—I sometimes still do this; I could eat half a tub of icing in a sitting and be pretty happy about that," Arielle says. I love the way Arielle phrases her feelings. She doesn't assume that, just because you (or I) might feel like a piece of shit for eating half a tub of icing at one sitting, she has to feel like a piece of shit because she did this unconscionable self-indulgent fallible human thing. Which gives me permission for it not to make me feel like a piece of shit. Because, in fact, I have done this: I used to sit in the back of my senior-year advanced-placement English class and scoop out a big dollop of chocolate icing from a tub with my finger before passing it around to my girlfriends, and we all felt like shit about ourselves. I've eaten bags of cookies and multiple chocolate bars at a time, I've squeezed Hershey's syrup into my mouth from the economy-size bottle in the fridge door, and I've eaten my own raw cookie dough, which is so amazing that as I write this the mere thought makes my mouth water. And the worst part about all of that bingeing is not the gross sensual self-indulgence but the self-excoriation I enact upon myself afterward. "Excoriation" has the same root meaning as "sarcasm": the former means to rip the skin off, the latter means to tear the flesh away, and both habits are endemic in alcoholic family structures.

The antidote is lightness and humor—personified in Arielle. I had heard Arielle's "qualification" on the first anniversary of her sobriety. I had watched her come into recovery and metamorphose from the awkward, fumbling, caterpillarish creature each of us is in early recovery into a lithe, fit, happy young woman who could begin, in youth, to get down to the business of finding out who she is. Her refusal to judge herself for her behavior gives me permission not to judge myself. Of course, judging myself and understanding that I am loading my body with poison are two different actions, and this is what I appreciate about Arielle's level of self-acceptance: it shows she refuses to let her human struggles stand as proof that she's a bad person. Like me, she has renounced sugar, gone back to it, and given it up again. She knows returning to sugar is a sign that she is, as she says, "eating poorly to stifle reality." She understands that she obsesses about sugar. "Either I'm super stressed out, not dealing with emotional stuff," she says, "or I haven't been to a meeting in a while and haven't checked in with my sponsor. It's a sign that I need to hit a meeting and get back into my recovery work."

Some Guidelines
Here are some guidelines to follow as you begin, or continue, to nourish the permanent home that is your body:

  • Avoid processed foods. Anything that can't go bad on the shelf is probably bad for our bodies.
  • Avoid added sugar.
  • Learn to cook with whole foods, especially vegetables and, if possible, grass-fed meats.
  • Experiment with nutrition habits that suit your body.
  • Option: Have a conversation with your body to learn what it really wants to eat.
  • Option: Make your eating a routine, like your meeting schedule. For a while, eat the same things over and over so your body gets used to good food and you don't have to think about making choices.
  • Instead of three large meals, eat five or six smaller plates to keep your blood sugar level steady.
  • Consider a B-vitamin supplement.
  • When you feel a desire to binge—on anything, slow down, settle back into the body, and ask your body what it needs.

About the Author:
Jennifer Matesa, a seasoned health writer, authors the award-winning blog Guinevere Gets Sober and contributes regularly to TheFix.com. In 2013 she became a fellow of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Jennifer is the author of two books from Hazelden Publishing, The Recovering Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober and Sex In Recovery: A Meeting Between the Covers.

The Recovering Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober
By Jennifer Matesa
© 2015 by Marya Hornbacher
All rights reserved