The Dark Side of Sugar

Halloween Candy

Halloween is a celebration of sugar. Cloaked in creative costumes, we savor sweets in several settings, whether parading from house to house with kiddos or partying with friends. Somehow these evenings often end with a massive sugar stash or a major sugar crash. They are often inseparable.

But for those in recovery, is there a hidden danger in this excessive consumption of sugar? Is it wise for addicts in recovery to limit their consumption of sweets or is sugar intake irrelevant? I have wondered this for some time myself.

In an article by Christina Veselak, LMFT, called Relapse and Sugar Dysregulation, these questions are addressed head on. Veselak explains that “consuming a high sugar diet” is a “primary relapse trigger for all recovering addicts”. As it turns out, eating simple carbohydrates (like candy) has a rapid effect on blood sugar that can be detrimental to those in recovery. The article describes why this is true, noting how blood sugar spikes lead to “unpredictable mood and behavior swings” that “strongly induce relapse”. Conversely, “cravings, relapse, and addictive use” are induced as blood sugar drops. Dr Kelly McGonigal (12:50) echoes this perspective, sharing about how these blood sugar peaks and valleys negatively impact the brain as well. In her book The Willpower Instinct, she describes how excessive sugar obliterates self-control. For these reasons, it appears evident that sugar is a strong trigger for addictive behavior. To read about how these processes occur in the brain and body, check out this article for further details.

Another harmful character trait of sugar is that it is highly addictive (see video below). For addicts, cross-addiction with sugar is a valid possibility. In times of stress or suffering, choosing not to turn to a “drug of choice” but instead to sugar can create a new dependency. This is not successful recovery but instead trading one addiction for another.

Choosing Not to Crash

In light this information, what can be done? Dr McGonigal recommends avoiding blood sugar crashes by eating foods that give you lasting energy (click here for specific food recommendations). Similarly, in The Psysiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control, Michael Gailliot explains that “restoring glucose to a sufficient level typically improves self-control”.

With this information as a guide, it is recommended that moderation and mindfulness be exercised on this popular holiday and in everyday life. It is my hope that this information will not limit your enjoyment of the festivities but instead add to a more meaningful experience with minimal triggers. May you savor this season, experiencing an abundance of  joy and authentic connection.

For additional useful tips for managing recovery over the holidays, check out “Holiday Recipes for Relapse & Recovery”. Another relevant resource is Nutrition in Addiction Recovery. For those experiencing food/sugar addiction, check out our treatment program for those seeking recovery in this area, called LifeStyle Transformation.

If you benefited from this article, please “follow” us and share this with others. Thank you!

-Written by Forest Benedict, MA, SATP-C, LMFT, Clinical Director of LifeSTAR of the Central Valley If you benefited from this article, please “follow” us on this blog and on Twitter, “like” us on Facebook, and SHARE this article and blog with others. Thank you!

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