Total Recovery: Balancing Head & Heart, Body & Soul in Recovery
 Author:   Jim Parker
Publisher:   Do It Now Foundation

 Publication Date:

  February 1999

 Catalog No:


..Chapter 4: Re-Programming the Body

Though one should in battle conquer a thousand men a thousand times, he who conquers himself has the more glorious victory.


The obvious place to start in any plan of total recovery is with the body. The body is almost a thermometer of the soul and in a very real way its health and well-being reflects the state of order and integration present at deeper levels of our being.

The body is also the place where many of the more visible problems associated with chemical dependency show up. Nutritional deficiencies are common after extended bouts with drugs and alcohol. So is physical disease, fatigue, and a general state of disrepair.

And to begin to turn things around you have to begin to examine an idea that's so obviously true -- and so often misrepresented -- that it's joked about. It's this: You are what you eat.


Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found it was ourselves.

--Robert Frost

Bad nutrition is such a pervasive part of our lives that it's almost invisible to most of us. But that doesn't mean it's not there.

Because nutritional deficiency is common -- too common. In fact, a study at one U.S. medical center showed that 83 percent of newly-admitted patients have at least one vitamin deficiency, and 68 percent have two or more. And note: These weren't alcoholics and drug abusers; they were ordinary people taken from the general population.

There's even evidence that dietary deficiencies can directly trigger chemical use patterns and preferences. In his book, Mental and Elemental Nutrients, researcher Carl Pfeiffer describes a study in which a rat placed on a "typical American diet of coffee, refined foods, and soda" eventually shifted his preference from plain water to whiskey, when given the choice.

What's it mean? Plenty. For one thing, it means you'd probably better get started now if you want to bring yourself back up to zero. And it means you'd better make some serious changes if you want to stay above zero -- and away from drugs and alcohol.

Since alcohol and drugs are notorious for depleting body stores of everyday vitamins, particularly B-complex vitamins, it's possible that you're already suffering a deficiency of at least one vitamin or essential mineral. And that could well be influencing the way you feel -- and how well you cope with being suddenly straight.

To compensate, you should probably look into vitamin supplements for at least the short term and consider serious nutritional change for the long term. Because rats aren't the only ones whose minds and moods are affected by diet. You are, too.

Starting from Scratch. But where do you start in changing your diet? Almost anywhere is better than nowhere.

Probably the most important thing is to simplify. You can begin by reducing your consumption of fast foods and processed foods.If you're like most people, that should leave an enormous nutritional hole in your life. Fill it with natural foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. They contain trace elements that can improve health -- and the absorption of other nutrients.

Cut back on caffeine -- or eliminate it altogether if anxiety or insomnia are problems for you. Limit red meats and up your intake of whole grains and bran.

One thing we need to emphasize is that we're not trying to get you to give up anything in particular. What we are attempting to do is support you in a process which will expand your awareness of the ways in which eating patterns affect the way you think and feel and behave. And that's important stuff when you're doing something as difficult as dropping a drug and alcohol habit.

Unconvinced? Okay, but all you have to do to observe the body/mind food connection firsthand is by doing what many treatment professionals recommend that you do anyway: banish sugar from your diet.

Sugar: The Primary Addiction? That's because today, the average American licks, gulps, and guzzles between 115 and 150 pounds of sugar each year. And if that sounds like a lot, it is. A hundred years ago, we got by -- pretty well, from most accounts -- on no more than 5-10 pounds.

The result of all that sugar, according to many experts, is a massive strain on our internal regulatory systems. In fact, many researchers today consider sugar not only addicting in itself, but also a main culprit in addictions of all kinds.

Here's how it works: There are two basic forms of sugar molecules -- simple sugars or carbohydrates (called mono- and disaccharides) and complex carbohydrates (called polysaccharides). All that distinguishes one from another is the complexity of their chemical structure and the ease with which the body can "unlock" the individual molecules and release energy through digestion.

Complex carbohydrates take a lot of unlocking; they're broken down slowly, and release energy in an almost "time-release" fashion. Simple sugars, though, are easy to unlock -- so easy, in fact, that they act as a nutritional "rocket fuel" -- a nearly-predigested form of instant energy.

That would be fine if we were rockets. The problem is that we're not.

Because the fact is that the sharp rise in blood sugar we experience after eating simple sugars is followed by an equally sharp drop -- usually in an hour or so -- as the body works to bring blood sugar levels back into balance.

This happens because the body isn't designed for fast lift-offs and crashes. We don't tolerate rapid blood sugar changes well and, as a result, have evolved a complex system to correct such shifts. The most immediate one involves the pancreas, which releases the hormone insulin in response to elevated blood sugar levels.

When insulin is released into the bloodstream, blood sugar immediately begins to stabilize as excess sugars are moved to the liver for storage. When blood sugar drops, insulin production stops and everything goes back to normal -- in theory. In practice, lots of things can go wrong.

Probably the best-known problem is diabetes. It results from too little insulin and too much blood sugar (a condition known medically as hyperglycemia). At the other end of the spectrum -- and more likely to affect chemical users -- is hypoglycemia, a condition of too little blood sugar.

Hypoglycemia -- Fighting Back. Lots of recovering people suffer from hypoglycemia and its effects, which can include fatigue, depression, confusion, anxiety, insomnia, dizziness, impaired concentration, irritability, moodiness, and other problems.

One researcher has even reported finding hypoglycemia in 95 percent of a tested group of alcoholics. And according to Pfeiffer, the hypoglycemia doesn't just show up after the fact; he says that, for many alcoholics, hypoglycemia "precedes and causes" excessive drinking.

So how do you beat it? Start by cutting out simple sugars from your diet, whenever possible. That means eliminating sugars (white, brown, or otherwise) and sugar-like products -- including syrups, corn sweeteners, white flour, and heavily-processed foods. And while that might look like you're giving up the very best America has to offer, nutrition-wise, we promise you can live well without a morning bowl of Cocoa Pebbles and a lunchtime Triple Bacon Cheeseburger and Slurpee.

Other suggestions could easily fill this book -- and a few companion volumes. We're not going to do that. We only want to encourage you to start yourself on the process. Notice the effects that different foods have on you and your feelings. From then on, it's your experiment.

Still, we don't want to understate our case, either. What you put into your body does have a very definite effect on the way you think and feel.

Overlook the relationship at your own peril -- and the risk of your complete recovery from drugs or alcohol.


To know and to act are one and the same.

-- Samurai saying

The other side of the physical input-output equation is exercise, because the flip side of the energy we consume is the energy we expend. And the energy we expend in recovery is every bit as important as the energy we take in -- and stop taking in. In fact, it may even be more important for lots of people, for the simple reason that one of the clearest channels for quickly increasing endorphin production in our bodies -- and good feelings in our minds -- is through exercise.

The relationship has only been established for a few years, but it's clear: If you want to feel better about yourself, do something.

What you do, exactly, doesn't seem to matter as much as it once did. Early endorphin research, for example, centered on running (which is why the phenomenon came to be known as "runner's high"). But today, researchers believe that any exercise that raises cardiovascular output substantially above the resting rate for a period of 30-60 minutes is likely to increase endorphin levels -- and enhance mood.

So do what feels natural to you. If you're wired or otherwise stressed-out, run. If you like to dance, join an aerobics class. If you've ever been interested in martial arts, sign up for training in karate or aikido. Just do something -- and stick with it.

Because the benefits of exercise are real. And while they don't always seem to come easily (especially at the start), they do come if you work at them.

And the results can be life-transforming. In fact, there's good evidence that a regular exercise program during recovery will even undo the negative psychological consequences of addiction by throwing the entire addiction dynamic into reverse.

'Positive Addiction.' One researcher who's studied the phenomenon extensively, Dr. William Glasser, has developed an intriguing theory around it. But to talk about it, we first need to do a little background work.

Glasser, a psychiatrist, sees the basic issue in addiction (and all of mental health, for that matter) as a contest between personal strength and weakness. He argues that we choose unhappiness in our lives because we don't think we're strong enough to ask for more of the love and acknowledgment we need. We're not stupid, only weak -- and "negative" addictions are one of our favorite ways of proving it.

The problem with negative addictions, as we all know, is that they end in a downward spiral -- feelings of inadequacy trigger continued use and continued use feeds feelings of inadequacy and despair, which feeds -- you guessed it -- more negative addiction.

The solution? To Glasser (and lots of recovering people who've picked up his "Positive Addiction" banner), the choice is clear: deliberately choosing positive addictions to replace negative ones.

Positive addictions do offer advantages. For starters, they increase mental strength and self-confidence -- unlike negative addictions, which make us weaker and less self-reliant every time we give in.

They also help structure our time, filling up hours and minutes that we to devote to drinking or doping (or thinking about drinking or doping), so there's that much less time to create problems for ourselves inside our own heads.

'PA' Activities. So how do you go about getting yourself positively addicted? You work at it.

According to Glasser, almost anything that helps achieve an "out-of-mind" trancelike state of unfocused awareness can turn into a positive addiction, given enough time and practice. And even though running and meditation top his list of "PA" activities that people become addicted to, activities themselves can be active or passive, mental or physical. In fact, Glasser says only a few basic qualities seem really essential:

  • You need to perform the activity every day or nearly every day -- preferably for 40-60 minutes a day.
  • The activity has to produce immediate personal benefits to become firmly established as an addiction.
  • The activity must be noncompetitive. Competition puts too much focus on doing it "right," or being better than others.
  • You need to perform the activity in a unself-critical way.

Interestingly enough, Glasser developed his theory prior to the discovery of endorphins, which provided a scientific basis for understanding positive addiction. Still, studies since have consistently supported a link between "PA" as a theory and increased endorphin production -- and mood enhancement -- as a scientific fact.

Research into the relationship between endorphins and a runner's ability to endure pain have consistently shown significant increases in brain levels of endorphins in people who run or work out regularly. Other studies have confirmed lower levels of anxiety, fatigue, and tension, and heightened feelings of well-being and self-confidence after as little as 10 weeks of walking or jogging.

So where do you sign up? Right here, right now.

What do you do? Anything you want to do.

Although Glasser and others have pushed running as a near-perfect path to positive addiction, anything that kicks the body into overdrive works just as well. Swimming, bicycling, even brisk walking seem to offer the same benefits as running and meditation, which we'll discuss in a slightly different context in the next chapter

If you'd like the benefits of a positive addiction just realize that "PA" as a self-administered therapy isn't for the faint of heart. Glasser estimates that a minimal involvement of 40-60 minutes a day is required at least 5 times a week, although a daily regimen seems to work best.

Just begin by choosing an activity that looks workable to you, one that will handle a personal problem (weight control, for example, or insomnia) so that you get unmistakable short-term benefits, then stick with it for a specific, predetermined length of time. Glasser recommends a minimum of six months, but other studies have shown that a shorter period will do just as well.

The point is to make a promise to yourself and keep it -- and keep keeping it until you get the results you're after and the life you want.

Sound too tough?

Maybe. But thousands of once-negative, now-positive addicts say the difference is like night and day.

Maybe you will, too.

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This is one in a series of publications on drugs, behavior, and health from Do It Now Foundation. Check us out online at www.doitnow.org.