“Go to Dairy Queen and get your favorite flavor of Blizzard,” says my good friend and Untoxicated Podcast partner, Jason Polk. Jason is an addiction therapist who has for his entire career offered this advice to clients when they are dealing with cravings to drink alcohol or use. It is basic, fundamental advice given not just by Jason, but by most addiction recovery professionals and on every social media platform in early sobriety communities. The idea is that a sugar-filled treat will take the edge off the craving and be an alcohol or drug substitute. The associated phrase is, “harm reduction.” It makes sense, and it works in the short-run. The problem with this advice is it’s dead wrong and actually provides oxygen to the very addiction the sufferer is trying so desperately to suffocate.
Our society’s ignorance as it relates to addiction recovery never ceases to astound me. I have been sober for two years, and I spend an inordinate amount of time reading and researching the topic. I have come a long way from the popular notion I believed about pathetic sad-sacks sitting in damp church basements on cold folding chairs drinking bad coffee and chain smoking cigarettes while whining to each other about their alcoholism. I now understand that the vision of sobriety my culture taught me is the furthest thing from the truth, and the recovery community is full of bright, energetic, put-together people seeking peace and enlightenment. But two years into my education, I am just now learning about perhaps the most important component of successful addiction recovery: the role of nutrition in fixing our damaged brains.
The fact that a nutrition action plan is not on the top of every recovery program’s to-do list is quite literally tragic. Our societal ignorance is killing people – no exageration.
In early December, Jason and I interviewed The Addiction Nutritionist, Kelly Miller, for our Untoxicated Podcast. The conversation lasted just under an hour, and Jason and I said the word, “Fascinating!” at least a dozen times. The information Kelly shared is most definitely life altering. It has changed how Jason advises his clients, and it explains the origin of my alcoholism. Finally, I understand my dysfunction.
I did not suffer any real childhood trauma like sexual abuse or loss-of-a-loved-one that is so typical in the formative years of people who later suffer from addiction. I grew up in a middle class, middle American house with a sister and two loving parents. While alcohol was present in my family with daily regularity, it was not abused or in any way associated with agonizing memories. I can point to lots of contributing factors as it relates to my alcoholism, but the lack of smoking gun to explain the root cause of my addiction has gnawed at me for years. Finally, Kelly explained the impact of my early food decisions on my neuro-pathways and my brain’s reward system.
As is so often the case, it is all about unintended consequences. I am an unwitting victim of the big food companies as a member of the inaugural processed food generation. I ate chemical-laden, sugar-packed, simple-carb-loaded, prepared foods that our society thought of as revolutionary when they were overtaking the grocery store shelves. We marveled at the convenience. Little did I know, there would be decades of collateral damage.
In my mid 20’s, I was fat and no amount of exercise made a difference. So I embarked on the uber-popular trend of the time and started a low-fat diet filled with processed food where natural fat was extracted and replaced with chemicals, fillers and sugar. I was disciplined and determined, and I did lose weight. A lot of weight – 40 pounds, in fact. But the damage I did to my blood sugar balance likely resulted in or exacerbated my hypoglycemia. The food I ate spiked my blood sugar causing my body to react with massive insulin production thus dropping my blood sugar far too low. I remember feeling moody and agitated while on the diet, but I chalked it up to a lack of calories. In fact, I was damaging my body and training my brain how to mishandle sugar spikes.
One of the reasons I chose a low-fat diet was because it had no restrictions on alcohol consumption. Vodka is fat free, and I drank it with sugar-loaded tonic water. My beloved beer packed with simple carbs fit the diet, too. The processed foods I ate trained my brain to crave sugars and simple carbs to crank-up my blood sugar. I remember the overwhelming feeling of relief I experienced when I guzzled my first drink of the evening while on my quest to lose weight. It was a new and different feeling. I didn’t understand it, at least not until Kelly explained it to me last month. My brain associated alcohol not just with pleasure, but as a source of sugar on which it depended to counteract the blood sugar deficiency my diet created. I didn’t drink because it provided relief from trauma. I drank, and drank heavily, because my brain associated my habit with survival.
You know when the light bulb appears above Wile E. Coyote’s head in the Road Runner cartoons? That’s what happened to me while recording our fourth episode of our Untoxicated Podcast. Kelly went on to give us both good news about our afflictions. Our bodies are desperately and constantly trying to cure us. If we give our bodies the right nutritional balance while in recovery, our biological systems and neurological chemicals will recover, too. Who knew? That’s not part of the twelve steps. I’m not familiar with a nutrition plan as part of traditional 30 day rehab programs.
This isn’t new information, Kelly reports. It’s just not widely incorporated into our recovery systems perhaps because we are a pharmaceutical based culture reluctant to look to natural sources for healing. It’s both mind boggling and completely to be expected in a society where we have a pill for everything.
Kelly taught us about the Recovery Diet. She explained the neurotransmitters such as dopamine that are woefully depleted by addiction are regenerated by amino acids found in animal proteins. The diet really is easy to follow. Each of three meals a day should consist of half above ground vegetables, a quarter fats and proteins (animal sources should be prevalent in this mix), and a quarter complex carbs and fruit. Balanced. Wholesome.
What’s missing when compared to the standard American diet? The Recovery Diet cuts out the sugars and simple carbs that dominate processed foods and carve craving pathways into our brains. White flour breads, sugary desserts and root vegetables are a no-no as they work against the brain-healing powers of the foods on the Recovery Diet approved list. Kelly would be happy to provide details by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and she’s always looking for case studies to build evidence in support of her findings thus far.
About a year ago, my Aunt Jane turned my attention to the poison that sugar has become in our society. From diabetes to cancer, sugar is killing us in epidemic proportions. I swore off added sugars due in large part to Jane’s influence. While I was at it, I decided to eat vegan until dinner on most days. I viewed red meat and animal fat as unhealthy, so I believed a veggie-only breakfast and lunch couldn’t hurt. What I noticed on my no-added-sugar, vegan-til-dinner eating plan was that I was often hungry and spent much of my day anticipating my next meal. I was fighting off cravings. They were not as urgent and all-consuming as my cravings for alcohol while in early sobriety, but they were muted little naggings that were there for much of my day.
Immediately after recording our Untoxicated Podcast episode with Kelly, I adopted her Recovery Diet. I am about a month into it, and I’ve never had a better relationship with food. My cravings between meals are gone, and I don’t feel the need to deprive myself of the foods I love for the sake of health and nutrition. I am keenly aware that I sound like a TV commercial with the bikini-clad girl splashing on the beach or the carousel of meathead guys who are too stupid to cook and are thankful that someone mails them their microwavable meatloaf for weight loss. I feel ridiculous writing my praise for this eating plan. Frankly, I’m not pitching anything and could not care less if you try the Recovery Diet. I’m writing about it because for the first time since I looked down half-way-through my freshman year in college and realized my lifestyle of beer and pizza had earned me a 40 pound spare tire, I no longer have anxiety about food. No cravings. No shame for eating binges. No feelings of deprivation or missing out.
It’s as if I can feel my body and brain reaching the state of equilibrium I’ve spent decades disallowing with my choices of food and drink. It’s only been a month, but I am hopeful for the peace and balance this lifestyle promises for the future.
The conversation Jason and I had with Kelly was engrossing for geeky, deep-in-the-weeds, bio/neurological reasons, too. I am an alcoholic. I am naturally entranced by all things alcoholism related. I learned that I have the opioid mimicry alcoholism bio-type. I learned that other alcoholics actually have a biological allergy to alcohol which manifests in extreme behavior, and even rage, after a few drinks. I learned more than my capacity to remember. That’s why I’m glad we recorded it as Untoxicated Podcast Ep4. I’m sure I’ll listen to it over and over again and likely find something new and fascinating each time I do.
The reason for group sessions in addiction recovery is because fellowship explains and justifies our experiences and feelings. When we hear someone else tell a story that resonates deeply, our isolation melts away and our hope for recovery is given a jolt of attainability. As I listened to Kelly pull the dark and mysterious covers off the truth of my addiction in relation to nutrition, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I’m not an abnormal pariah. My brain and body reacted exactly as they should given the circumstances and stimulus to which they were exposed.
I wasn’t born an alcoholic. I wasn’t traumatized into addition. My alcoholism wasn’t accidental.
Me and my society worked hard to infect me with this disease. Now I am amassing the tools to make a full recovery.
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Featured on the Untoxicated Podcast: Ep4 – The Addiction Nutritionist: What You Eat Can Heal You