People with substance use disorders often experience intense sugar cravings. Even the original printing of The Big Book in Alcoholics Anonymous mentions a physician who encouraged newly sober alcoholics to keep chocolate or candy on hand to help manage alcohol cravings.
Why are sugar cravings so common in people recovering from a substance use disorder? Are there any effects of sugar on addiction recovery? Read on to find out.
Why People with Substance Use Disorder Crave Sugar
There are several reasons people in addiction recovery may develop a preference for sweet foods. Different substances can create various inclinations for sugar, and there is an underlying connection between addictive behaviors and sugar intake.
Sugar Cravings and Alcohol
You may have heard that alcohol breaks down into sugar in the body, but this isn’t exactly true. While sugar is combined with yeast in alcohol production, the sugar content of most alcoholic beverages is zero, and alcohol never breaks down into sugar while your body is metabolizing it.
Mixed drinks often contain large amounts of additional sugar, but the alcohol itself does not contribute to your sugar intake. However, all alcoholic beverages contain a significant number of calories and have little to no nutritional value.
People with severe alcohol use disorders can consume more than 50% of their calorie intake through alcohol alone¹, leaving them at significant risk for nutrient deficiency. Because your liver spends so much time processing the alcohol, other nutrient absorption is delayed.
Impacts on Blood Sugar
In addition, alcohol has a substantial impact on blood sugar levels. Drinking alcohol creates a yo-yo effect with blood sugar, causing an initial spike followed by a dramatic crash. This is because alcohol inhibits your body’s response to insulin, the hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels.
These spikes and crashes make sugar cravings incredibly common in early recovery from alcohol use disorder. People who abruptly stop drinking may lose a significant source of their calorie intake and have disrupted their body’s blood sugar regulation.
Nutrient deficiencies and blood sugar issues trigger cravings for high-sugar foods like chocolate, candy, or other sweet treats.
Managing Sugar Cravings After Opioid Use
Opioid use is associated with increased sugar consumption. Some evidence suggests that people who misuse opioids consume 31% of their calories from sugar² – more than double the national average of 15%.
Sugary foods activate the same receptors in the brain as opioids. Even after abstinence, people experiencing chronic opioid use may feel drawn to activities that trigger these receptors.
Interestingly, medications used to treat opioid use disorder can also reduce sugar cravings. Medications like Naltrexone, an opioid blocker, significantly minimize sugar consumption. Buprenorphine is associated with reduced sugar intake initially but not long-term.
Stimulants Increase Sugar Cravings
Stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines can influence sugar consumption as well. These drugs are typically associated with suppressing the appetite, so it might seem contradictory that they are associated with increased intake of sugar-laden foods. However, studies show methamphetamine users prefer sugary beverages and have higher sugar intake levels than the rest of the population³.
Some research indicates that methamphetamine use can reduce blood glucose levels³, driving people toward sugary foods or drinks. In addition, the appetite suppressing properties of stimulants make eating nutritious foods less likely. Some people in recovery use high sugar foods as a survival strategy to get sufficient calories when other foods are unpalatable.
The Dopamine Connection
The preference for sugary foods extends beyond effects specific to drug use. Sugar affects the brain like addictive drugs⁴, which makes sugar particularly tempting for people with a substance use disorder.
Addictive substances release large amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, reward, repeated behaviors, motivation, and learning. As a result, other activities seem less rewarding by comparison, causing people who misuse substances to continue using despite the harmful consequences. Sugar triggers dopamine release in the brain, though in much smaller quantities than addictive drugs.
High-sugar foods feel much more rewarding and pleasurable than other more nutritious foods, making them harder to avoid and more tempting to people whose dopamine reward networks have been compromised by addiction.
Recovery, Relapse, and Sugar
Sugary foods can help those in recovery because they affect the brain like addictive drugs. During the early days of addiction recovery, people often battle intense drug cravings and may be calorically deficient.
Eating sweet foods can reduce the intensity of these drug cravings by giving a short dopamine boost, which could be the difference between remaining in recovery or experiencing a relapse. A chocolate bar is far less harmful than returning to active addiction.
Finding Replacement Rewards
Sugary foods used in excess can cause significant problems. Consuming too much sugar on a daily basis can lead to weight gain, tooth decay, gut dysbiosis, skin problems, and type 2 diabetes. The strategy of using sugar to help drug cravings should be used temporarily and in moderation.
Instead of participating in the highly destructive pattern of substance misuse or becoming dependent on sugary foods, you can substitute other behaviors, actions, or thoughts that are also rewarding to reduce the intensity of your cravings.
Other replacement strategies are similarly effective in dealing with cravings. Most treatment centers provide a variety of highly rewarding lifestyle interventions to help people find new activities apart from their substance use disorder, including:
- Exercise or personal training
- Experiential therapy
- Recreational therapy
- Competitive sports
- Music therapy
These activities encourage dopamine production from behaviors that don’t bring about the terrible consequences of returning to active addiction.
While replacement rewards are a viable strategy incorporated into most treatment methods, they do not address the root cause of addictive disorders. To fully resolve the root causes of addiction, you need professional support.
Find Support in Addiction Recovery
Addiction treatment is a complex process. Sugar and other replacement rewards are not enough to break the destructive cycle of a substance use disorder. If you wish to quit substance misuse, please consider professional addiction treatment services to receive a full range of interventions that can help ensure a successful recovery.
Addiction treatment centers help by providing a safe space, professional treatment options, and long-lasting support for you to achieve abstinence. At All Points North Lodge, of clients benefit from individual and group therapy, medication-assisted treatment, and cutting-edge technology. A custom treatment plan in an optimal healing environment can give you the time and space you need to heal from substance misuse.
If you’d like to know more about how All Points North Lodge uses a variety of strategies to make a life in recovery possible, contact us via the function or call 855-510-4585. We can help you find your way forward.
- Feinman, Lawrence. “Absorption and utilization of nutrients in alcoholism.” Alcohol Health & Research World, vol. 13, no. 3, summer 1989, pp. 206+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A8191936/AONE?u=googlescholar&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=bd110dd8. Accessed 11 Mar. 2022.
- Mysels, David J, and Maria A Sullivan. “The relationship between opioid and sugar intake: review of evidence and clinical applications.” Journal of opioid management vol. 6,6 (2010): 445-52. doi:10.5055/jom.2010.0043
- Zhang, Yanhong & Shu, Guofang & Bai, Ying & Chao, Jie & Chen, Xufeng & Yao, Honghong. (2018). Effect of methamphetamine on the fasting blood glucose in methamphetamine abusers. Metabolic Brain Disease. 33. 10.1007/s11011-018-0265-8.
- Rada, P et al. “Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell.” Neuroscience vol. 134,3 (2005): 737-44. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.04.043