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What You Should Know About Sugar Cravings After Quitting Alcohol

A woman recovering from alcoholism is snacking on sugar to help her cope with work stress.
Sugar cravings are common in alcohol addiction recovery, but can lead to relapse.

You never thought you’d see the day where you would be able to make it 24 hours without drinking alcohol. But you were determined to turn your life around, you received treatment for alcohol addiction and now you’re in recovery!

Strangely enough, though, there’s a catch you didn’t expect. Instead of craving alcohol, you’re suddenly craving sugar. Hunger, stress and triggers you remember from your drinking days are now causing sugar cravings. Why?

You’re not alone; it’s actually common for recovering alcoholics to crave sugar. Eating ice cream or a donut every once in a while is okay, but there may be cause for concern if you’re constantly snacking.

Fortunately, understanding why you’re craving sweets after quitting alcohol and finding ways to avoid sugar can help you maintain a healthy recovery.

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Why Do Recovering Alcoholics Crave Sugar?

It’s natural to assume that you crave sugar after quitting alcohol because your body has become acclimated to the high sugar content found in most alcoholic beverages.

While there is some truth to this, the connection actually starts in the brain.

Sugar Serves as a Transfer Addiction

A replacement addiction (also called a transfer addiction) is when you quit one addictive behavior but feel like you need to replace it with something else. In this case, your mind and body are tempted to replace alcohol with sugar.

Sweets fit the bill for several reasons. First, you get more of a dopamine boost from foods that are high in sugar or fat. This is similar to the dopamine rush you’d feel when drinking alcohol.

Dopamine is the feel-good chemical released by the brain when alcohol is consumed. When you stop drinking, your brain and body seek out dopamine through sugar consumption.

Indeed, it has been shown that sugar interacts with many of the same neural pathways in your brain as alcohol.

Second, sugar is just extremely convenient. For example, you can pick up a candy bar just about anywhere and it’s nearly impossible to walk through a grocery store without passing donuts, cookies or another type of dessert. We also use sugar in a lot of recipes and meals that we eat, which makes avoiding it that much more difficult.

This replacement, or transfer, addiction arises because addiction can become an entire lifestyle in addition to a disease. This is often the case when the addiction is fueled by an underlying mental issue to begin with such as PTSD.

Sugar is a Quick Fix for Low Blood Sugar Levels

Many people who struggle with alcohol addiction also suffer from low blood sugar levels, or hypoglycemia. Normally, the liver stores glucose in the form of glycogen, which is then released into the bloodstream steadily throughout the day to keep your blood sugar levels balanced. But alcohol disrupts this process, leading to low blood sugar or hypoglycemia.

When struggling with hypoglycemia, you’re left with symptoms like irritability, aggression, headaches, dizziness, confusion, lack of concentration and impulsive decision-making. Your body needs to right itself as quickly as possible, leading to sugar cravings.

Even in recovery, you may still crave sugar often because hypoglycemia takes time to reverse. Unfortunately, sugar is only a temporary fix and doesn’t serve as a healthy, long-term solution to what you’re going through in recovery. To keep your blood sugar levels balanced and avoid sugar cravings, you need to maintain a healthy diet like the pro-recovery diet.

The Serotonin Connection

Sugar and alcohol also are known to affect serotonin, another one of your body’s feel-good chemicals. This is why sweets and alcohol can help you de-stress and generally improve your mood, at least at first.

That boost in your mood is only temporary, however. Over time, alcohol can reduce your overall serotonin levels, causing you to search for another pick-me-up.

Sugary foods can easily fill in this gap, especially given that eating sweets is much more socially acceptable and appears less detrimental to your health than drinking.

What Does Sugar Do to the Brain and Body?

Sugar is similar to alcohol in the sense that it can become addictive if consumed too often. Think back to why your brain and body became addicted to alcohol. Whenever you would drink, the alcohol would release a rush of dopamine that would make you feel good.

As your tolerance increased, your cravings and need for alcohol to function normally also increased.

When you eat too much sugar, you train your brain to run on sugary foods the same way it did when you were drinking. And when you go without sugar, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms just like you did when you were struggling with alcohol addiction.

Other consequences of frequent sugar consumption include:

  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Increased risk of depression
  • Tooth decay
  • Fatty liver disease
  • A higher likelihood of relapse

How to Keep Sugars Out of Your Recovery Diet

As mentioned above, it can be tricky to keep sugar out of your diet. But no one ever said you have to swear off sweets forever! To stay healthy and prevent an addiction relapse, you need to maintain a healthy diet where you only occasionally indulge in sugar.

Here’s a few ways to keep sugar out of your diet:

  • Watch What You Drink: Cut back on sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks that contain a lot of added sugars. Instead, get into the habit of drinking water, sparkling water or fruit teas.
  • Rethink Desserts: Avoid desserts like cookies, cakes and ice cream as much as possible. Instead, try fresh fruits that contain natural sugars and dark chocolate if you’re really craving a candy bar.
  • Go Non-Processed: Cook your meals from scratch as much as possible. Processed and overly processed foods include a lot of additives and sugars that are bad for you.
  • A Healthy Breakfast: Make sure to eat breakfast but avoid foods like pancakes and waffles. Instead, include foods like oatmeal, Greek yogurt and avocado in your breakfast menu.
  • Aim for a Balanced Diet: Increase the amount of proteins, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats you eat in your meals to balance your blood sugar levels and keep you feeling fuller for longer.
  • Know What’s in Your Food: Read the labels and ingredients list of foods when grocery shopping. If a product lists added sugar, maltose, molasses, cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, you should steer clear.

Find Long-Lasting Recovery from Alcohol Addiction at The Raleigh House

It’s not easy to maintain your recovery from alcohol addiction. In fact, some days it can be downright challenging. This is especially true if you are struggling with sugar cravings.

If you’re worried you’re going to relapse or if you’ve already relapsed, remember that it doesn’t mean you’ve failed at recovery. It just means that you need to get back up and try again.

For help, fill out our form or contact us today to get in touch with one of our friendly admissions team members.

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