Feed Your Sobriety to Control Cravings

By Darlene Kvist, MS, CNS, LN
August 23, 2016

article_brain-mentalhealth_noalcohol.jpgIn Minnesota, the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) model has been the cornerstone of treatment for over 50 years. While attending a conference sponsored by the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing, my ears perked up when one of the presenters emphasized that the primary focus of the AA model is the spiritual aspect of recovery. The spiritual concept of letting go and turning it to a higher power helps calm the mind and control cravings. The speaker went on to say that the small percentages of people who make a full recovery are the ones who continue to practice the spiritual concepts of the twelve steps. I know this was the emphasis when my daughter went through the Hazelden program.

However, humans are made up of a body and a brain in addition to spirit. To emphasize only one third of whom we are as human beings limits the scope of recovery. Each person’s spirit is housed in a body with certain structural and nutritional needs. The body is run by an operating system—the brain—which needs a precise combination of chemicals (neurotransmitters), hormones and nutrients to run smoothly. At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we look at the body and brain in addition to spirit, when helping our clients going through recovery.

Biochemical Approach to Cravings

Often, I find that the body and brain must be balanced before any real spiritual growth can occur. Those in recovery may find it easier to control cravings when they include exercise, bodywork, good nutrition, and nutritional supplements as part of their program (in addition to ongoing spiritual work).

Twenty-eight days in a treatment facility is just the first step on a long road to recovery. It is enough time to flush chemicals from an addict’s system, nourish his/her body with wholesome food, and discover spirituality. If a recovering addict is truly blessed while in treatment, he/she will also experience feeling a true meditative state—the feeling of calm alertness our survival has depended on throughout human history. At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we call this feeling a "sense of well-being."

After treatment, a recovering addict is thrust into the world again - even if he/she chooses a halfway house as my daughter did. The serenity of the treatment facility is replaced by the realities of coping with life. He/she is faced with the task of learning to deal with feelings of fatigue, depression, irritation, pressure, or any other uncomfortable feelings without resorting to the addictive substances from the past. As his/her body and mind are thrust back into the real world, the meditative, spiritual practices learned in recovery often get relegated to only a small portion of the day. Now is a helpful time to look at the other two thirds of who he/she is in order to experience the calmness and alertness necessary to avoid relapse.

Artificial Calmness vs. The Real Thing

Because of my long history of using a biochemical approach to help people recover from cravings, it was eye opening to observe the behaviors of my daughter and the women she lived with at the halfway house. Most of them smoked excessively and relied on caffeine from cola or coffee to provide the altered state they had previously sought with addictive substances. Another interesting behavior among these women was their excess consumption of refined carbohydrates (cereal, bread, muffins, sugar, rice, pasta, popcorn, and candy). They had replaced their former addictive substances with different, more socially acceptable ones (caffeine, nicotine and food), in an effort to achieve an altered state. Unfortunately, these substances can profoundly affect mood and are just as irritating to the brain as drugs or alcohol.

At the halfway house, women were using chocolate, sugar, and caffeine for feelings of alertness when they were down or depressed; and tobacco and starchy carbohydrates to calm themselves when they were anxious. They were looking for a chemical feeling of calm alertness without consciously realizing it, instead of achieving the real feeling of well-being naturally.

Using addictive substances may bring temporary calmness and alertness to the brain, but the boost is only temporary, and it carries a high cost. All addictive substances have a seesaw effect. They stimulate the brain, yet they do not give it real nourishment, so there is a dangerous slump afterward. The slump creates more cravings for the addictive substance and when more is consumed, the process begins again. Addictive substances do not really give people what they need to meet stress. According to Dr. Elliot Abravanel in his book on food cravings, "What you actually crave is a state of revitalizing calm and alertness, one that comes from a part of the brain completely different from the part stimulated by chemicals." This is the same sense of well-being that we talk about at Nutritional Weight & Wellness, the feeling experienced during meditation.

Cravings will interfere with a person’s recovery program if they are ignored. People in recovery often realize that consuming coffee, nicotine or sugar in place of alcohol truly does not provide that sense of well-being they are seeking. In fact these chemicals are irritants to the brain’s chemistry, making recovery more difficult. Use of coffee, nicotine or sugar continually puts the recovering person into an altered state, and until that person is willing to ground him/herself in the present, true recovery is virtually impossible.

A Recipe for Recovery Success

At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, when we work with clients to help them control their cravings, we look at many different biochemical factors. We find that when people in recovery fail to address the biochemical factors of addiction, their road to long-term recovery is difficult, if not impossible. Curing cravings requires the right diet, the right supplements, and creation of a true state of inner calmness (centeredness and awareness), so that their brains can deal with daily stress without needing to rely on addictive substances or other chemicals like caffeine, sugar, or nicotine.

Recovering addicts feel less tense and more in control when they follow a balanced eating plan with a specific ratio of protein, carbohydrate and fat:

  • Adequate protein (usually more than what the person is currently eating) provides the building blocks to produce the necessary neurotransmitters for good brain health.
  • Healthy carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables are a source of energy and healthy food source of vitamins and minerals.
  • Good fats are needed for blood sugar balance and to repair cell walls to improve communication between cells and provide that feeling of calm alertness.

In addition to balanced eating, when I work with recovering addicts, I recommend a higher intake of supplements such as:

  • B complex—All of the B vitamins play an important role in combating stress.
  • Vitamin C—Vitamin C and other specific vitamins help nourish adrenal glands.
  • Vitamin E—Can modulate mood swings and anxiety and can be especially important for people in recovery.
  • Minerals— Magnesium, calcium, potassium, zinc, chromium, manganese and selenium can help take the sting out of stress.
  • Amino acids—Tyrosine can help with energy and 5HTP, a form of tryptophan, for calmness.

Each person in recovery has specific biochemical needs that must be met to smooth the road to recovery. In other words, not all people in recovery need the same nutrition and supplements during their program. It takes a qualified professional to help individuals re-balance biochemistry along each step of the way. Continual assessment of needs, support and direction in a caring environment can often replace "just hanging on" with that wonderful state of serenity we as humans are continually seeking.

About the author

Darlene founded Nutritional Weight & Wellness. In her 25 years as a counselor and nutritionist, Darlene has helped so many people change their lives using the power of real food. She is a licensed nutritionist who earned the title Certified Nutrition Specialist from the American College of Nutrition, a prestigious association of medical and research scientists to further nutrition research. She has served on the Board of Dietetics and Nutrition Practice for the State of Minnesota.

View all posts by Darlene Kvist, MS, CNS, LN

Back To Top