Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
There’s an old comedy routine: A guy keeps banging his finger with a hammer and says, “It hurts every time I do that.” That, in a nutshell, is the nature of addiction. We know it’s bad for us. And yet we just can’t stop.
Addictions come in many different forms. They can be food cravings, such as for bread or chocolate. Or they can upend our lives, as in the case of eating disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse, or gambling addiction. Habitual risk-taking and even some types of compulsive behaviors can also be addictions.
Underlying many of these unhealthy behaviors is actually an addiction to dopamine, the brain’s neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and feeling “high.” Essentially, people become addicted to whatever activity produces a dopamine surge. But when you strip away the outer layer of addiction, nutritional deficiencies or imbalances often set the stage for, or help sustain, addictions. That’s because nutrients provide the building blocks for brain chemistry, and poor eating habits fail to provide the sufficient nutrients for a healthy brain.
“Have you ever seen a healthy- looking drug addict?” asks Richard Taite, a recovered addict and founder of the Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center in California. “Most people who come to treatment eat irregularly, and when they do eat, the food they choose is quick and cheap, often fast or junk food. They lack the vitamins, minerals, and energy that a healthy body needs.”
Once a serious addiction takes hold, dietary changes alone may not be enough to get a person’s life back on track. Denial, enablers, and codependents are just a few of the barriers that often stand in the way. But a holistic approach, including diet, supplements, a 12-step program, and intensive individual counseling, can help.
Sugar & Food Addictions
The great jazz singer Billie Holiday, a heroin addict and alcoholic, had an underlying addiction to sugar, according to the late Bill Dufty, a musician and journalist who was at Holiday’s deathbed in 1959. As Holiday lay dying, she requested soft drinks, not alcohol. Dufty didn’t understand the connection until years later. He eventually wrote Sugar Blues, an impassioned book describing the health hazards of refined sugar.
Refined sugars-sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)- are addictive. In recent years, studies have elucidated at least some of the mechanisms behind sugar addiction-and they bear a strong similarity to drug addiction. After conducting a variety of experiments, Bart Hoebel, PhD, and his colleagues at Princeton University noted that sugar consumption prompts the body to secrete opiate-like substances and dopamine and, as a consequence, “might be expected to have addictive potential.”
Meanwhile Francesco Leri, PhD, of the University of Guelph, Canada, and his colleagues have zeroed in on the addictive nature of high-fructose corn syrup, a widely used sweetener. At the 2013 meeting of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience, Leri described animal experiments showing that it was easy to become addicted to both sugar and cocaine. In fact, a French study found that refined sugars could have a stronger addictive effect than drugs.
People can develop other types of food addictions as well, and these may help set the stage for at least some eating disorders. Back in the 1950s, Herbert Rinkel, MD, and Theron Randolph recognized that people could be both allergic to and addicted to the same foods-a situation often evidenced by food cravings. This may be because the allergy leads to the secretion of endorphins, a family of body-produced opiates. Eating a problematic food stimulates the release of endorphins, which may be why such foods often leave people feeling particularly good. Food allergy addictions aren’t limited to sugar or other types of junk food. They can include chocolate and caffeine-containing beverages, and even healthy foods. One clue of a food allergy addiction is daily or almost daily consumption of a particular food. [Editor’s note: See “Sweet Surrender” on p. 54 for more information about sugar addiction and cutting sugar out of your diet.]
Alcohol & Drug Abuse
Food allergy addictions also appear to affect alcohol consumption, particularly among people who prefer a particular type of alcohol. For example, most beers are made from wheat, gin from juniper, vodka from rye and other grains, rum from sugar, and bourbon from corn. Preferences or cravings for particular types of alcohol suggest related food allergy addictions; it may be wise to avoid problematic foods to help reduce alcohol cravings. In addition, alcohol increases the permeability of the gut, allowing undigested proteins to enter the bloodstream. This can set off an allergy-like immune response within the body.
Some experts see alcoholism as a form of glucose intolerance, related to the same blood-sugar problems that cause type 2 diabetes. That’s because alcohol stresses the liver’s ability to break down toxins and hinders its role in regulating blood sugar. Furthermore, sugars and refined carbohydrates can produce both cravings and withdrawal-like symptoms, so they may form a parallel addiction that encourages alcohol abuse.
Both alcohol and street drugs affect the brain as well. Drinking alcohol changes the activity of almost 200 genes in brain cells. Many of these genes play roles in judgment and decision-making, and at least some of these changes could permanently alter gene activity and affect mood and thinking processes. Meanwhile, cocaine and methamphetamine radically affect neurotransmitter levels. Cocaine blocks the normal breakdown of dopamine, leading to high levels of the stimulating neurotransmitter. Similarly, methamphetamine acts like a super-dopamine, and also reduces serotonin transport in the brain by at least half. With high dopamine and low serotonin activity, it’s impossible to feel calm.
“One of the first things addicts respond to is real food,” notes Taite, who is also the coauthor of Ending Addiction for Good. “At Cliffside Malibu, we make an effort to serve organic food whenever possible. We want our clients to be nurtured in the most meaningful ways-one of those ways is with healthy, delicious food in reasonable portions. We also provide orthomolecular medicine-the use of nutritional supplements-on a case-by-case basis to provide each individual with the optimal supplements for good health.” These supplements might help in addiction recovery:
N-acetylcysteine (NAC). This antioxidant may be the single most important nutrient for reducing or eliminating addictive behaviors. Several studies have found that NAC can greatly reduce cravings for cocaine and interest in gambling, and might help lessen the desire for alcohol. Other studies have found that it is especially helpful in resolving obsessive-compulsive behaviors, including nail biting, hair pulling, skin picking, and self-mutilation. Researchers believe that NAC helps regulate and normalize levels of some neurotransmitters. Try 500 mg, one to four times daily, without food.
Vitamin C. The brain normally has high concentrations of vitamin C, which can protect against the toxic effects of stimulants. Large supplemental doses of vitamin C might also alter the activity of opiate receptors in the brain, leading to less interest in drugs. Take 1,000-3,000 mg daily in divided doses.
B-complex. A high-potency B-complex supplement can help restore normal liver function and may help ease cravings. Taking extra vitamins B1 (thiamine) and B3 (niacin) might help as well. Opt for a high-potency B-complex supplement.
Probiotics. Substance abusers typically eat a lot of junk food. As part of the healing process, supplemental probiotics and digestive enzymes can help heal the gut wall and restore a normal population of gut bacteria. Follow label directions for use.
Silymarin. Alcohol impairs normal liver function, and this herbal extract is well established for its benefits in supporting normal liver function and blood sugar regulation. Take 100-300 mg daily.
Kudzu. In one human study, kudzu (Pueraria lobata) decreased the desire for alcohol, leading to reductions in alcohol intake. Take 1,000 mg three times daily.
Addictions can be difficult to control, in part because different types of addictions are often intertwined. Recovery may entail lifelong vigilance to prevent their recurrence. Because nutritional deficiencies may precipitate or be a consequence of addictions, adopting a healthy lifestyle, consuming natural foods, and taking certain supplements can help people navigate the road back to health.
ADDICTION RECOVERY SUPPORT
Garden of LifeLiving Vitamin C is made with whole food ingredients, which are easier for the body to recognize and utilize.
Life ExtensionAnti-Alcohol Antioxidants, with NAC, thiamine, and silymarin, is designed to neutralize toxins from alcohol.
Nature’s WayB-100 Complex provides a high potency of key B vitamins-100 mg-in one capsule. Take daily with food for best results.
Planetary Herbals Full Spectrum Kudzu combines kudzu root and flowers with a high-potency standardized kudzu extract.
UP4 a Happier InsideProbiotics with DDS-1, which are free of dairy, gluten, and GMOs, are part of a new and enhanced line from UAS.
Preferences or cravings for particular types of alcohol suggest related food allergy addictions.
NAC may be the single most important nutrient for reducing or eliminating addictive behavior.
Jack Challem, BA, ASN, is one of America’s most trusted nutrition and health writers and a member of the American Society for Nutrition. Based in Tucson, Ariz., he is the bestselling author of more than 20 books, including No More Fatigue and The Food-Mood Solution. His website is nutritionreporter.com.