The Pro-Recovery Diet
Never Skip a Meal
The most important meal of the day is every meal of the day for someone in recovery. In fact, according to Julia Ross, MA, after 35 years of directing addiction treatment programs in California, “a skipped meal is the number one cause of relapse.” Most recovering people are profoundly malnourished. That’s why, along with individualized amino acid and other nutrient supplementation, a pro-recovery diet is required to make recovery possible. What does this mean?
Eat a Cow!
High-protein foods are such important components of the three (or more) meals a day required by recovering people. The brain and nervous system use the amino acids that compose protein for manufacturing the neurotransmitters that program our moods, appetites, and our ability to experience pleasure naturally.
We have found that recovering people do best on a diet that includes the most protein-, (and nutrient-)dense foods available, which are also the traditional staples of the human diet: meat, poultry, fish, and milk products (especially raw if you can get it, or at least not ultra-pasteurized). Vegetable protein sources are neither as dense nor as complete in protein. For example, most beans are composed of one-third protein to two-thirds carbohydrate.
We advise all recovering people to keep protein-rich snack on hand at all times so that they will never be hungry. Nuts, cheese, seeds, or jerky, for example, are easily available for quick refueling. Such snacks are far more nutritious than an energy drink that offers little more than caffeine and sugar.
Eat a Rainbow
A Pro-Recovery Diet is colorful! Eat a vegetable rainbow every day, with green, red, yellow, and purple foods. Avoid what’s white (especially sugar and flour). If you eat a potato make it a baked potato and eat the brown skin where many nutrients are hidden. The vitamins, minerals, and fiber found within these foods not only allow the amino acids in protein to be used most effectively to make neurotransmitters but because recovering people are so deeply and broadly malnourished they are critical for overall health and recovery.
One of the most important nutrients in a Pro-Recovery Diet is a group of vitamins called the B complex. A deficiency of B vitamins is closely linked to a spectrum of emotional and other problems common in addicts, from irritability to psychosis. B vitamins are found in dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, chard, and mustard greens, brewer’s yeast, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Eat Traditional Fat
Another crucial element on a Pro-Recovery Diet is the right kind of fat:
Olive oil and other oils high in monounsaturated (omega 9) fats such as avocado and macadamia nuts,
Deep-sea fish oil, especially from salmon and sardines, and other types of omega-3 fatty acids (such as flax seed). Omega-3 fat, deficient in most addicts, is required for building healthy brain cell walls, which interact with the neurotransmitters to produce natural pleasure and eliminate addictive cravings.
Saturated fats, particularly from organic, full-fat milk products, meat, poultry, and coconut. (Learn why this is so important from Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz (Health and Fitness, 2014) along with Julia Ross’ The Craving Cure (December 2017, from Flatiron Books) and Sally Fallon Morell’s Nourishing Fats (Grand Central Life and Style, 2017).
What NOT to Eat
Refined sugars and starches are drugs; they have drug-like effects but almost no nutritional value except calories. NIDA (National Institute for Drug Abuse) chief Nora Volkow, MD, is one of hundreds of scientists who have verified this fact. These highly processed carbohydrates pose a serious danger to anyone in recovery. Most treatment programs ignore this fact and serve these sobriety-threatening substances plentifully. This is a big part of why relapse rates are so high.
It is essential that a pro-recovery diet be free of drug substances like sugar, refined starch (white flour products) or any other foods that a recovering person can’t stop eating. With the help of the amino acids, we can accomplish this seemingly impossible feat because together the nourishing food and amino acids stop our cravings for sweets and starches.
A Pro-Recovery Diet is particularly important because it can counteract another major relapse trigger: hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Read the following article on the powerful link between hypoglycemia and relapse written by Christina Veselak, LMFT, CN, Alliance co-founder and Director of The Academy for Addiction and Mental Health Nutrition.
Addiction Relapse and Blood Sugar Dysregulation
Missing a meal or consuming a high sugar diet are primary relapse triggers for all recovering addicts.
Research has clearly shown that low or dropping blood sugar levels lead to cravings, and ultimately, to relapse, in clients with both process and chemical addictions. This blunt fact is substantiated by many years of clinical experience, in my practice and in those of many other chemical dependency clinicians around the world.
Symptoms of low blood sugar, caused by a combination of adrenalin release and a glucose-starved brain, include anxiety, shaking, sweating, heart pounding, and emotional reactivity such as irritability, anger and tears, “brain fog,” fatigue, and insomnia. These symptoms are also in people with “dry drunk syndrome” and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Fortunately, restoring blood sugar levels through appropriate food and the use of the amino acid l-glutamine often completely eliminates these symptoms.
Clinical experience also confirms that women addicts are much more likely to relapse during the last phase of their monthly menstrual cycle. As estrogen (and progesterone) levels drop towards day one of the cycle, blood sugar becomes more dysregulated, exaggerating all the above symptoms (a drop in serotonin levels, also due to dropping estrogen, often needs to be addressed as well).
How could sugar and low blood glucose exert such strong, negative effects on addiction recovery efforts? The brain absolutely requires glucose to function. Although the brain’s mass constitutes only 2 percent of an average body’s weight, the cerebrum utilizes 20 percent of the carbohydrates that are consumed in any 24-hour period. Moreover, the brain does not have the capacity to metabolize its own source of energy and can store very limited amounts of sugar. Therefore, the brain requires a steady supply of fuel.
Blood sugar level balancing is a metabolic process that is tightly controlled in the body. When we eat food, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which passes into the bloodstream and raises blood sugar levels in varying amounts of time, as noted on the glycemic index.
The glycemic index lists how long it takes for the carbohydrates in a particular food to be absorbed into the bloodstream, compared to the amount of time necessary to absorb white, refined table sugar. Sugar is 100 (the highest rank) on the glycemic index, a cup of cornflakes is 84, and apples are 35. Foods with lower scores are absorbed more slowly and produce smoother changes in blood sugar levels.
Protein, fiber, and fats generally slow down digestion and reduce the rate of glucose absorption. Refined sugars and starches typically rank high on the glycemic chart. They raise blood sugar levels rapidly, as does tobacco. Surprisingly, pure alcohol is 0 on the glycemic index and actually lowers blood sugar levels through a variety of mechanisms.
When we eat, sugar is released into the bloodstream and the pancreas releases small amounts of insulin. Insulin attaches to the sugar molecules, escorts them to nearby tissue cells, and metabolically “asks” the cells to store the sugar. In non-diabetic people, the cells readily accept the sugar molecule and store it for future need. In normal circumstances circulating blood sugar levels then drift downward, and insulin goes away.
When blood sugar levels dip close to baseline, the brain signals us that it is again time to eat, and people find a source of food by which to raise blood sugar levels. This cycle usually takes about four hours, and blood sugar concentration is supposed to rise and fall in a gentle wave throughout the day.
However, at least 80% (if not more) of all alcoholics, premenstrual women, those who habitually eat large amounts of sugar/refined carbohydrates, and those from alcoholic families, have dysregulated blood sugar metabolism, termed reactive hypoglycemia. In these cases, the pancreas appears to release excessive amounts of insulin, leading to a precipitous drop in blood sugar which then may fall below normal baseline.
Two very significant metabolic changes happen when blood sugar is below baseline. First, the adrenal glands release adrenalin in an attempt to slow down this precipitous drop by stimulating the release of some stored sugar back into the bloodstream. Second, as the drop in blood sugar continues, the now starving and unbalanced brain sends out urgent signals for the body to do whatever it takes to bring blood sugar levels back into balance.
This message can easily translate into a powerful craving for quick energy sources such as alcohol or sugar, but this signal just as easily could lead to a craving for any drug or addictive behavior of choice, since an addict’s brain has previously been conditioned to look to its drug of choice to restore comfort and equilibrium. Thus, the alcoholic craves alcohol, the sugar addict craves sugar, the smoker craves a cigarette, and the sex addict craves sex. This relapse-inducing craving especially occurs if a meal is missed, and simply too much time has passed since the brain has last been fed.
What, one may ask, does sex for the sex-addict have to do with low blood sugar, other than a conditioned attempt to restore equilibrium? There are several answers. The first answer has to do with access to the brain’s problem-solving skills. When adrenalin is released, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. One result of this activation is less blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, the cognitive center where plans are made, skills accessed, consequences assessed, and instinctive fight/flight reactions are triggered.
Thus, with low blood sugar, a powerful physiologic trigger for use and relapse is encountered. An addict may be working a strong recovery program and has learned new and helpful skills. However, at that “hypoglycemic moment,” access to those skills is physiologically blocked, and the conditioned response of reaching for the drug behavior of choice is activated to force a release of stress-managing neurotransmitters.
Furthermore, researchers Matthew Gailliot and Roy Baumeister have determined that “self-control relies on some sort of limited energy source.” Their research
“…suggests that blood glucose is one important part of the energy source of self-control. Acts of self-control deplete relatively large amounts of glucose. Self-control failures are more likely when glucose is low, or cannot be mobilized effectively to the brain (i.e., when insulin is low or cells are insensitive). Restoring glucose to a sufficient level typically improves self-control. Numerous self-control behaviors fit this pattern, including controlling attention, regulating emotions, quitting smoking, coping with stress, resisting impulsivity, and refraining from criminal and aggressive behavior. Alcohol reduces glucose throughout the brain and body and likewise impairs many forms of self-control. Furthermore, self-control failure is most likely during times of the day when glucose is used least effectively. Self-control thus appears highly susceptible to glucose.” (emphasis added)
This situation causes more problems. Coping skills are blocked by adrenalin, while self-control is diminished by a lack of energy and blood flow to the brain. So, a stressor that a well-fed addict could successfully cope with, without relapsing, instead leads to a “slip” or relapse, in a person with low or dropping blood sugar. Even more disturbing is the reality that an external stressor is not even needed, for low or dropping blood sugar to lead to cravings, relapse, and addictive use.
Traditionally, in treatment and Twelve Step circles, sugar is touted as the cure for cravings. Candy, chocolate and sweetened coffee abound at recovery meetings. Most residential programs make no effort to limit the amount of coffee, sugar, and refined carbohydrates that are served to their clients. It is common for many people to gain weight after quitting their drug of choice. We all know, for example, that for people who are quitting nicotine their greatest fear is gaining weight. What is actually happening in these situations? Is sugar truly useful for the recovering addict or is the real case just the opposite?
How do we evaluate the AA sponsor’s recommendation that his sponsee should carry a bag of candy for relapse prevention? We believe that this approach actually encourages the switching of addiction from the drug/behavior of choice to sugar. But, researchers have created alcoholic rats by feeding normal rats high amounts of sugar!
Sugar itself is an addictive and dangerous substance. Increased cravings and other physical withdrawal symptoms are common when people swear off sweets. Sugar has been shown to fire and deplete the same neurochemicals as do cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy. As we have seen above, a major problem with this “quick fix” approach is the fact that after eating sugar blood glucose levels are likely to rise too high and too fast, leading to dramatic swings (the “yo-yo effect”) all day. These unpredictable moods and behavior swings can be literally crazy-making and strongly induce relapse.
Furthermore, recent research strongly implicates sugar as a major suspect in the etiology of many cancers. Sugar obviously contributes to obesity and diabetes. Finally, switching addictions may support abstinence from the primary substance, but does not lead to true recovery. People who become “sugarholics” are still addicts.
Therefore, our recommendation is to teach clients how to manage their own blood sugar on a daily basis. Such management is actually quite simple to do, although it might require focus and periodic troubleshooting. We recommend that the day start with a breakfast high in protein and moderate in complex carbohydrates, with protein snacks between meals every four hours. There are many excellent books and articles available which discuss how to make these dietary changes in a healthy and enjoyable way.
Most women who relapse do so within the ten days before bleeding starts. In general, premenstrual women should eat food high in protein every three hours to maintain blood sugar stability. For people who just forget to eat, seem to be too busy to eat, or have trouble finding access to appropriate food (and potato chips definitely falls into the “inappropriate” category!) we recommend carrying better quality protein bars (whose sugar content is no higher than their protein content).
It is advisable to eat protein and complex carbohydrates every three or four hours (and again if you become wide awake in the middle of the night) and limit caffeine to no more than two cups per day. For snacks: a cup of Greek yogurt, half an apple and a stick of string cheese, unsweetened peanut butter on celery or carrots, a handful of walnuts or almonds, half a meat sandwich with lettuce and tomato on whole grain bread, or a higher-quality protein bar (where the grams of sugar listed are no more than the grams of protein).
Placing 1,000 mg of l-glutamine under the tongue for fast absorption can be utilized by the brain as fuel. L-glutamine can eliminate a craving in seconds. It is also a GABA (gamma amino butyric acid) precursor, so l-glutamine also reduces anxiety-both by raising GABA and by stopping the adrenalin response to hypoglycemia. Also, people with unstable blood sugar tend to abruptly wake up in the middle of the night due to an adrenalin surge, and find it impossible to go back to sleep because they feel so alert. Eating a small snack, or using l-glutamine at this time helps to decrease circulating adrenalin and puts people back to sleep easily.
It is often very hard for people, especially those in recovery, to change their unhealthy ways of eating. Tools that we have found to be useful in building motivation and awareness include:
A food/mood/craving diary
A list of hypoglycemia symptoms which clients check off
A 6-hour glucose tolerance test
Using the glycemic index as a food ranking guide
Asking clients who have had a slip into addictive behavior to recall the last time they ate, and what they ate, before the slip occurred
Taking time in each session to find out what a patient is doing to keep his or her blood sugar in balance.
Feeding oneself in a healthy, pro-recovery way, is an act of self-care that is recovery- and life-sustaining. We encourage clinicians to try these approaches themselves and with their clients and track the outcomes.
The Alliance for Addiction Solutions, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting natural approaches to addiction recovery, is interested in compiling clinical research on the relationship between hypoglycemia and relapse. Please contact the author if you or your agency would like to participate in this research effort. My office number is 303-888-9617.
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One of the early researchers in the genetic basis for all compulsive, addictive, impulsive behaviors is pharmacogeneticist Kenneth Blum, PhD, who did much of his seminal work at the University of Texas in San Antonio. When he moved from laboratory rodents to field research with people, he and his colleagues discovered malnourished brains with neurotransmitter deficiencies, and he began creating formulas of nutrients designed for opiate users, stimulant users, people craving comfort foods, and other unique populations defined by their neurotransmitter needs.
Following are a very few of Blum’s studies, which date back to the 1960s.
“Reward Deficiency Syndrome.”Blum, K., et al, American Scientist, March-April 1996, vol. 84(2), p.132.
"Neuro-nutrient therapy for compulsive disease: Rationale and clinical evidence," Blum, Kenneth, PhD et al Addiction and Recovery, Aug. 1990
“Reward Deficiency Syndrome: A Biogenetic Model for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Impulsive, Addictive and Compulsive Behaviors.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs; Vol. 32, Supplement; November 2000; Editors Kenneth Blum, PhD, Eric R. Braverman, MD. (The Journal, a quarterly publication, has been in print since 1967. Subscriptions are $90/year. Haight-Ashbury Publications, 856 Stanyon St. San Francisco, CA 94117, (415) 752-7601. This special issue is devoted to the concepts introduced by Ken Blum on the biological basis of addictions.)
• “Enkephalinase inhibition and precursor amino acid loading improves inpatient treatment of alcohol and poly drug abusers: Double blind placebo controlled study of the nutritional adjunct.” Blum, K. et al. SAAVE Alcohol, 5: 481 493, 1988.
• “Alcoholism: Scientific basis of a neuropsycho¬genetic disease.” With Trachtenberg, M.C. Intl. Journal of Addiction, 23: 781 796, 1988.
• “Improvement of inpatient treatment of the alcoholic as a function of neurotransmitter restoration: A pilot study.” With Trachtenberg, M.C. and Ramsey, J.C. Intl. Journal of Addiction, 23: 991 998, 1988.
• “Improvement of cocaine induced neuromodulator deficits by the neuronutrient Tropamine.” With Trachtenberg, M.C. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 20: 315 331, 1988.
• “Neurogenetic deficits caused by alcoholism: Restoration by SAAVE™, a neuronutrient intervention adjunct.” With Tractenberg, M.C.Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 20: 297 313, 1988.
• “Reduction of both drug hunger and withdrawal against advice rate of cocaine abusers in a 30 day inpatient treatment program by the neuronutrient Tropamine” With Allison, D., Trachtenberg, M.C., Williams, R.W., and Loeblich, L.A. Current Therapeutic Research, 43: 1204 1214, 1988.
• “Cocaine Therapy: The ‘Reward Cascade’ link.” With Trachtenberg, M.C., and Kozlowski, G.P. Professional Counselor, Jan. 1989.
• “A commentary on neurotransmitter restoration as a common mode of treatment for alcohol, cocaine and opiate abuse.” Integrative Psychiatry, 6:199 204, 1989.
• “Neurodynamics of relapse prevention: A neuronutrient approach to outpatient DUI offenders.” With Brown, R.J., and Trachtenberg, M.C. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 22(2):173 187, 1990.
• “Neuronutrient therapy for compulsive disease: Rationale and clinical evidence.” With Rassner, M., and Payne, J.E. Addiction and Recovery, 10(2):12 16, 1990.
• “Relapse Prevention and drug hunger reduction induced by potential neurochemical activation of brain reward circuitry using Synaptamine™ (Syn 11) in substance use disorder: A preliminary open clinical trial in a long term outpatient treatment program.” Blum, K., et al. (To be submitted to European Psychiatry.)
• “Neuronutrient effects on weight loss in carbohydrate bingers: An open clinical trial.” With Trachtenberg, M.L. and Cook, D.W. Current Therapeutic Research. 48(2):217 233, 1990.
DesMaisons, K., Biochemical restoration as an intervention for multiple offense drunk driving. PhD dissertation, The Union Institute, Cincinnati, OH, 1996
A county program for multiple offender drunk drivers in San Mateo County, California, focused on diet and nutrition and enjoyed dramatic success. Participants added a nutritional component to their prescribed court ordered treatment. they were taught to increase their awareness of what they were eating. They added protein, eliminated sugars and learned to eat enough, on time.
The Biochemical Restoration Program (BRP) was developed by Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, a pioneering addiction specialist who recognized that alcoholics have a unique neurochemical make up that makes them highly sensitive to emotional pain. They are drawn at an early age to the drug effects of sugar. This solution gets transferred to alcohol. Treating the base neurochemistry affects treatment outcome in a significant way.
The DesMaisons program was a collaboration of the Criminal Justice Council and the Peninsula Community Foundation in San Mateo County. The Peninsula Community Foundation funded the program from 1994 to 1997 for $280,000. The courts sentenced offenders to participate. Adding the nutritional component to the standard treatment generated a 92% success rate.
After tracking 64 people who had been arrested more than once for drunken driving: 32 who took the 4-month program with a follow-up 3 months later; and 32 "controls" who were sentenced to conventional treatment. After the program was over the researchers discovered that members of the control group were charged again, and for far more serious offenses, at four times the rate of program graduates. Only two participants in the nutrition program violated probation, while 13 members of the control group committed 32 violations.
DesMaisons later moved from Northern California to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and developed an international web based support program for sugar sensitive people using these same nutritional protocols.
Additional methods of brain repair, including cranial electrical stimulation, chiropractic, and acupuncture, have also been found effective:
• Braverman, E., Smith, R., Smayda, R., and Blum, K. “Modification of P300 amplitude and other electrophysiological parameters of drug abuse by cranial electrical stimulation.” Current Therapeutic Research 48(4):586-596, 1990.
• Braverman, E.R., and Blum, K., et al. “Increasing retention rates among the chemically dependent in residential treatment: auriculotherapy and subluxation-based chiropractic care.” Molecular Psychiatry, 6(S8), 2001.
• Reuben, C. et al. “Acupuncture & Auriculartherapy: Valuable natural treatment modalities for treatment for addiction.” Townsend Letters 269:81-84.
• Shwartz, M., Saitz, R., Mulvey, K., and Brannigan P. “The value of acupuncture detoxification programs in a substance abuse treatment system.”Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Dec:17(4): 305-312, 1999.