Nutrition Therapy for Treating Alcoholism Part 2
How Nutritional Therapy for Alcoholism Works
The cornerstone of the Nutritional approach is to reduce the body’s dependence on the simple carbohydrates that, like alcohol, convert quickly to sugar in the bloodstream: white bread, pasta, rice, and many baked goods. Relying on such refined carbs, nutritional advocates say, promotes the same blood sugar highs and lows that alcohol does, which can stoke the desire to drink.
What’s more, alcoholics often respond to the steady infusion of sugar into their bodies by overproducing insulin, which then removes dangerously high amounts of sugar from the blood. Plummeting blood sugar, known as hypoglycemia, can lead to anxiety, irritability, and cravings—anything to get sugar, or, in this case, alcohol, back in the bloodstream.
The anti-alcohol diet emphasizes high-protein foods rich in amino acids. Substituting protein for simple carbohydrates helps break the vicious cycle of blood sugar cravings, and the amino acids are key to brain function. “We’re giving the brain certain foods so it can make the natural chemicals we need to feel happy,” says Julia Ross, who’s the author of The Mood Cure and director of Recovery Systems in Mill Valley, California.
Alcohol, it seems, tamps down the body’s ability to make neurotransmitters that affect mood. Chemicals produced when alcohol is metabolized are similar to the mood-lifters dopamine and serotonin; hence that giddy feeling we get with the first drink. This, along with the big boost of blood sugar, brings a temporary high.
But in the long term, an alcoholic’s brain, fooled by the continual presence of feel-good chemicals from alcohol, shuts down production of its own. The result: depression, anxiety, mood swings, and the constant urge to drink to feel better.
Nutritional treatment aims to restore the body’s natural supply of these chemicals. But everyone’s metabolism is different, so the approach must be highly customized. Gant, for instance, uses blood tests to determine if a patient is primarily deficient in serotonin, dopamine, GABA, or endorphins.
Another key element of the recovery diet is fat, which many experts contend has been given an undeserved bad name. Beasley is a fan of olive oil, while Ross even touts butter and other foods containing saturated fat. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish like salmon and sardines are also favored. Fats are burned steadily over long periods of time, so they help keep blood sugar levels stable. And omega-3s are thought to boost levels of dopamine in the brain.
Certain supplements, too, are essential to the nutritional approach, though these must be tailored to a person’s individual body chemistry. The amino acid glutamine is thought to be crucial for quelling cravings during alcohol withdrawal. Key neurotransmitter boosters include DLPA, which jump-starts endorphin production, and tyrosine, a mood-lifter. And most programs feature 5-HTP or prescription tryptophan, which help the body make serotonin. (See “The Recovery Diet,” page 80, for more details.)
What does all this nutritional advice look like on a plate? A typical day would almost certainly start with eggs, perhaps in the form of a vegetable-rich omelet. Lunch and dinner are usually built around fish or chicken paired with vegetables, with some nuts and beans thrown in for good measure. Ross, Larson, Beasley, and Gant all have favorite foods—Ross calls them “good mood foods”—that they advocate eating as often as possible. Eggs, because they’re high in protein and amino acids, are at the top of everyone’s list, along with avocados, olive oil, almonds, and greens. And every person would also take his or her own mix of supplements.
A Major Difference Between Nutrition and Traditional Alcoholism Treatment
One last thing: These programs also require recovering alcoholics to give up all addictive substances, including caffeine and nicotine. Sugar is a no-no, too. This flies in the face of standard alcohol treatment, which holds that it’s punishment enough for an alcoholic to give up booze, so if he or she needs other “crutches” to get by, so be it. (In fact, at many meetings in AA and 12-step based programs, there’s a ready supply of candy and cookies.) Nope, say the nutrition experts, it all has to go.
“Sugar, caffeine, and nicotine are dangerous traps for the alcoholic,” says Beasley bluntly. “You feel better for a little while, but then your energy level crashes and you feel worse. We have to get people off the roller coaster.”
Jeff Underhill*, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, was on that roller coaster for years until he changed his diet six months ago. Following the plan in Julia Ross’s The Mood Cure, he’s eliminated sugar and white flour, substituting protein, vegetables, fish oils, and amino acid supplements. The new way of eating has definitely paid off: “I’ve lost the craving for alcohol,” he says. “My wife still has a glass of wine at night and it actually smells repugnant to me—I don’t have any desire for it.” Even without the alcohol, he’s finding it easier to cope with the stresses of his high-pressure job in technology.
If the nutritional approach to alcohol treatment is so promising, why isn’t it more widespread? It’s not like there isn’t any research to back it up. Numerous studies comparing it to more traditional treatment have been undeniably impressive.
One, at a veterans’ hospital in Waco, Texas, studied people who’d been hard-core alcoholics for up to 20 years. At the end of six months of nutritional treatment, 81 percent were still sober, compared with 38 percent of the control group. (Remember, the average recovery rate among standard treatment programs is only 20 percent.) In San Mateo, California, a pilot program treating alcoholics with amino acid supplements was also highly successful, with 73 percent of participants sober at the end of treatment.
“It works, and we’ve just got to get those in mainstream alcohol treatment to realize that it does,” says Beasley.
The reasons it hasn’t taken hold are many, says Julia Ross. Most addiction counselors come from a psychological rather than a physiological background, she says, and most doctors don’t get much training in nutrition. A final deterrent is AA’s abhorrence of anything that resembles “pill popping,” which makes it difficult to sell a daily regimen of supplements.
Written by Melanie Haiken ~ Oct 23, 2008
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