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
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
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.