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How to get over a sugar addiction
I get re-addicted to sugar every year after the summer ends and the new school year starts. I start losing sleep, de-prioritizing Zumba (my stress-relief and exercise of choice), and lose the will power to plan ahead which leads to fast-food drive-throughs and saying yes to dessert at restaurants at the end of the long day. Add in the summer-time ice cream with kids onto that list and you have the perfect sugar-addiction storm brewing in my body.
The fact that I teach nutrition every day probably slows down the re-addiction process by keeping me at least a little mindful, but alas here I am chomping on an entire box of “two bite brownies” at the end of the semester. I am telling you this personal secret for two reasons:
- I believe in authenticity and that keeping up a false persona of perfection is detrimental to me AND to my readers (who wants to live under the impossible expectations of a perfect leader? Not me!), and
- I want you to know that I really know how to get over a sugar addiction. I have done it several times. I know the exact steps to take to whip myself (and my energy and health) back into shape when I get too lax and let my body switch over into sugar-burning (aka fat-storage) mode, and I figured I would invite you to join me as I spend this winter break getting a grip! EDIT: Two days later from my original writing of this post and I am already sleeping better and have more energy with no sugar consumption throughout the day!
Why is it so easy to get addicted to sugar?
Well, there are evolutionary reasons, biological reasons, emotional reasons, and cultural reasons.
- Evolution: we are hard-wired to be attracted to the taste of sugar. Back in our hunter-gatherer times, sugar was pretty darn rare but pretty darn needed. Our brain cells and every other cell use sugar as a source of energy. In fact, almost every living creature uses glucose (sugar) as an energy source.
- Biology: Because of this need for sugar and of sugar’s original rarity, our brains actually have an opioid response after we eat sugar. In fact, studies show that the same region of rat brains are triggered in response to both cocaine and sugar, but that the rats will choose the opioid response to sugar even after getting addicted to cocaine. Another study (this one is sad: animal trigger warning) showed that after getting mice addicted to sugar, they would go through a maze that shocked them in order to get to the sugar while mice that hadn’t gotten previously addicted would avoid the shock and give up their chances at sugar. Sugar is powerful stuff.
- More biology: Because of our brain’s addictive response to opioid chemicals, the more sugar we are exposed to, the more we want it. If you have the genes that make you susceptible to addiction (a’hem), it is even easier for you to get addicted to sugar upon exposure. Furthermore, sugar feeds yeast in the body, and the more yeast grows the more sugar it craves. Intense sugar cravings can simply be a result of an unknown internal yeast overgrowth that sends out signals demanding more sugar. This is why conventional allopathic, and even some nutritional coaching, methods of “just reduce the sugar” don’t work. They don’t address the root cause. More on that later.
- Even more biology: Because of the way our brain forms habits, if you have previous sugar-use habits, no matter how long you have been off sugar your brain will PREFER to send you back into that habit once you reintroduce the sugar trigger even once.
- Cultural: We live in a high-stress, low-sleep, over-caffeinated, overly-reliant on convenience, over-nourished (aka over-processed-fooded), misinformed calorie-and-weight-obsessed This lifestyle has led to hormonal imbalances, throwing off our stress hormones, thyroid/metabolism hormones, and pancreatic insulin hormones, resulting in metabolic chaos. This leads to frequent sugar rushes and sugar crashes, effecting every area of our body including hunger, energy, sleep, anxiety and depression, weight control, blood sugar and heart pressure regulation, PMS and fertility, and more.
- Emotional: Another cultural tendency in America is a lack of emotional training. Not many of us learn how to handle loss, guilt, mistakes, failures, anger, arguments, set-backs, or even joy without some sort of numbing agent. We celebrate AND numb with food, and if we don’t address our underlying emotional issues then food will always be our source of opioid feel goods instead of getting those feel goods from human connection.
There is sugar in what?!?!
One of the reasons for sugar’s strong hold on our bodies is that it is found in hidden places, many of which we think are healthy. If we take a history lesson back to the 90s when the USDA was doing research to create new and updated recommendations, a USDA employee named Luise Light created a food pyramid that matched the suggestions I am about to make to you below. However, due to pressures from food industry lobbyists and conventional farmers who would each take a huge financial hit if these suggestions were implemented, the USDA created the modern version of the food pyramid that all doctors and dieticians (and many nutritionists) obediently teach to their patients and clients. Luise Light warned that if this pyramid was put out in the public that we would see an epidemic of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Why? Because sugar consumption is the culprit behind these diseases and many foods touted as health foods contain enormous amounts of sugar:
- Starchy foods, including processed flour, bread, pasta, cereal, and rice AND whole grains like whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, and even other types of rice and grains, break down into more sugar than a soda in your body! If you go to the doctor with heart disease or diabetes and they tell you to switch to whole grains and you do, you are most certainly exacerbating your problem. Even cereals that say “heart healthy” are really just sugar in a box.
- Juice, even organic no-sugar-added juice, is just concentrated sugar. Juice condenses dozens of fruits worth of fructose and glucose, removes the fiber and phytonutrients, and makes it very easy to consume gobs of it in seconds.
- “Health” drinks like sweet green tea, Naked fruit drinks, Kombucha, and all of those pretty-named and pretty-packaged juice and smoothie drinks in the produce aisle are just concentrated sugar. Even V8 is a source of tons of sugar.
You can see how even people trying hard to avoid sugar would have a hard time weeding through the flawed USDA recommendations and finding actually healthy food. Furthermore, despite the World Health Organization’s recommendations on necessary sugar cap amounts and on labeling the % of daily sugar consumed in processed foods, again food industry lobbyists won this battle and these % numbers are left off food labels and the caps are much higher than the recommended values for health. These are the foods our kids are being served at schools under the approved USDA program explaining the rapidly rising rates of childhood diabetes, and they might be the foods you are feeding your family under the idea that they are healthy. They aren’t.
Is sugar really that bad?
This issue makes me really sad, because this one policy change could turn around the health of our entire nation, saving billions of dollars in health care costs and the quality of millions of lives. How is that true? Sugar causes obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, dementia, decreased immune system, gut dysfunction, cavities, fatigue and other mental issues like anxiety, depression, insomnia, and brain fog, circadian rhythm imbalance, hyperactivity, and more. I would argue that there is not a single health issue that wouldn’t be exacerbated by excessive sugar consumption.
But, as I mentioned, sugar IS addictive and IS widely available. So how are we to conquer this addiction? Well, you might be surprised to learn that I am NOT going to start off with ways to decrease your sugar in your diet. If I did, it wouldn’t work. This is because usually sugar addiction didn’t start off with an obsession with sugar; it just ended up that way. Sugar addiction usually starts with the scenario that I described at the beginning of this post: lack of sleep, increased stress, lack of planning, malnourishment from cutting calories, etc. If we don’t fix these root causes, then we can try our hardest to quit sugar, and maybe be successful for a few days or even weeks, but we would be miserable with cravings and constantly relying on our will power. The second that will power ran out we would give in to that craving because that’s the way our brains work. It’s just human nature.
Also, the big difference between holistic healing and allopathic healing is that while allopathic medicine usually works by masking symptoms, holistic healing really works best when addressing the root cause of the person as a whole (body, mind, and spirit). So jumping right to the blood sugar just won’t work. Instead, we start at the roots and then move up the proverbial tree. When we approach healing in this order, usually the branches just grow on their own.
So, we start by giving the body what it needs and THEN we talk about decreasing sugar.
Get the right nutrients in
- Eat nutrient-dense meals with 5-10 servings of veggies daily, protein the size of your hand each meal, and 2-3 servings of healthy fat each meal
- Include sweet tasting veggies like spaghetti squash, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, beets, and carrots, but not as juice, in breakfast or lunch meals to avoid sugar cravings in the evening. Remember, you need sugar, just not from processed starch, whole grains, or junk food.
- Don’t skip meals or count calories, always eating a nutrient-dense breakfast within 2 hours of waking, and stopping eating within 3-4 hours of going to bed. Try to get to where you are eating every 4-6 hours by slowly increasing time between meals. (If you have heard that it is better to eat frequent, smaller meals, this is totally harmful to your digestive system and blood sugar, and is based upon the whole calorie-cutting myth.)
You’ve got to sleep and drink water
- Speaking of sleep-you’ve got to do it. Sorry Type A-ers, sleep is a must, and timing matters! I am going to do a post on optimizing your sleep habits to get the most efficient sleep possible, but for now you can follow these tips:
- time food to support sleep by not eating at least 2 hours, preferably 3-4 hours before bed
- decrease blue light from screens in the evening at least 1 hour before bed (do NOT sleep with your phones or tablets in your room at night, and if you do make sure they are at least 6-feet from your body and not shining out any light),
- set the temperature between 60-68 degrees one hour before sleeping and throughout the night,
- get in bed by 10-11pm, and
- blackout any light at night while you are sleeping.
- Drink water in the morning upon waking, and then eat your first meal at least 45 minutes after waking. Drink the rest of your beverages (water, unsweetened herbal teas, green tea) between meals, not before or directly after meals. Including the sour flavor, like lemons or rose hips, can decrease sugar cravings. I make an amazing herbal tea with 2 parts oatstraw, 2 parts rose hips, 1 part hibiscus, 1 part tulsi, and a tiny bit of licorice root that we call “yummy tea” that can serve as a delicious, healthy drink throughout the day.
- Don’t forget to include movement. Moving increases your body’s use of sugar, but only if you don’t over-do it.
- As I mentioned, stress reduction is also essential. I will do a blog post soon on stress reduction methods and herbs, but for now you can look into
- meditation or quiet deep breathing at least 5 minutes at the beginning, middle, and end of your day,
- increasing positive thinking and gratitude,
- taking up yoga (seriously, y’all, this will change your life!),
- doing cardio (but not too much, contrary to what modern exercise paradigm tells you) that you find fun,
- spend some time nature every day,
- an epsom salt bath at the end of the day,
- and including adaptogen herbs like the above-mentioned tulsi tea daily.
- In order to use your sugar efficiently, I suggest taking supplements that help your mitochondria work efficiently. Everyone has different needs, but to see the supplements I recommend to almost every go here and look under the “mitochondria support” category in the product catalogue for the supplements I would most likely recommend to every client, especially those trying to kick a sugar addiction. (There are some harder hitters if you have high blood sugar levels that my clients have had major success with, and I can help with that one on one as far as recommendations for supplements. Keep in mind that allopathic doctors have a much wider range of “normal” lab results, and as a holistic nutritionist I am trained to catch blood sugar issues a little earlier than most doctors are. See my services available for simple lab result readings and supplement recommendations here.)
BLOOD SUGAR BRANCH
Having a way to deal with cravings BEFORE you taper down is essential. Setting your body up ahead of time with the right blood-sugar supportive herbs to regulate your blood sugar organs and hormones will make the taper down much more successful.
What about cravings?
- Bust cravings and regulate blood sugar by including bitters before every meal and when you are having a sugar craving. Bitter foods include dark leafy greens like arugula, radicchio, and dandelion leaves, or herbal bitters can be purchased online. In my upcoming entry-level nutrition and herbal course (Spring 2017) I will be teaching how to make these on your own.
- Include blood sugar supportive herbs like cinnamon, fenugreek, bittermelon, gurmar, green tea, tulsi, guggul, and amla, with meals. Make sure and don’t use blood-sugar lowering herbs in between meals so that you don’t go hypoglycemic (cinnamon, fenugreek, bittermelon, gurmar, and guggul can do this; only use these with meals). It really is best to work with a trained herbalist before using herbs as more than just daily spices.
Time to taper down
- Once you have started on the above, now you are ready to start slowly tapering down on sugar consumption with your drinks (coffee, tea, soda, etc.), chocolate, types of fruit, types of grains, types of yogurt, and a decrease in general junk food.
- For drinks, start by decreasing either the number of sugary drinks like sodas by one or two each week, or by decreasing the amount of sugar in your drinks like coffee and tea gradually each week. I promise one day you won’t believe you used to drink 5 Dr. Peppers at a restaurant, that you thought Chicken Express sweet tea tasted good, or that you used to put so much sugar in your coffee!
- For chocolate, increase the percentage dark chocolate that you consume slowly week by week. Find the percentage that you can find at least palatable (I like Green and Black’s Organic brand). Once that percentage tastes good and the regular chocolate you used to eat tastes almost too sweet, then go up a percentage. Keep increasing this percentage until you get up to at least 85%. I promise one day that regular chocolate bar will taste disgusting!
- For yogurt, make sure and eat full-fat yogurt, and slowly switch to plain yogurt. You can start by mixing in sweetened and plain yogurt, increasing the plain and decreasing the sweetened over time until you are on 100% plain yogurt.
- For sides switch to veggies, or if you must have a grain use quinoa, amaranth, or wild rice.
- See my recommendations on how to eat out in a blood sugar supportive way here.
- Plan for cravings. The above link has great healthy ideas for when salty carbohydrate cravings hit. My favorite way to bust a sweet craving is just to eat frozen berries (no sugar added) blended with whole-fat plain yogurt, or have a bar of 85% dark chocolate to munch on. Make sure those craving alternatives are considered staples so that you don’t fall back into old habits too easily.
What if it’s too hard?
If you have trouble, Charles Dunigg (in the fabulous book The Power of Habits) suggests to start with some research before you begin decreasing your sugar:
- What are your triggers (Seeing the food? Getting in the car? Night time? Being alone? Being bored? Emotions? Low blood sugar?)?
- What are your rewards (A sense of control? Hunger relief? End of boredom? Opioid release? A delicious taste?)?
Then, start satisfying those triggers with other actions that give the same rewards. As a holistic nutritionist, herbalist, and wellness coach, I can help you identify your triggers and find healthy rewards, as well as help you prioritize walking you through the above changes to help you improve your quality of life by reducing sugar in your life if you feel like you need some extra guidance making these changes. Depending on how quickly you want to move, I think even a strong sugar addiction can be beat in 1-3 months!
Don’t forget to pay attention to emotional eating-many of us are sugar addicted just from access, but if we are sugar addicted from emotional eating then we will need to deal with whatever underlying issue we aren’t dealing with. This is another thing a wellness coach can help you identify. I put this at the end, though, because all of the above lifestyle changes will need to be started first before any success in reducing sugar can happen.
I truly believe this is one of the most big-impact changes you can make to your health and vitality. And I know it works! It worked for me, and it works for my clients! Let me know if you implement any of the above strategies and how they work for you!
Make sure you don’t miss my next blog post on how to create habits that really last.
I make your health my priority so you can make your dreams your priority!
Lori Valentine Rose, PhD, CNP, BCHN, RH (AHG) is a college biology, nutrition, herbal, and wellness instructor, board certified nutrition professional and holistic nutrition consultant, registered herbalist, wife, mother, organic vegetable, fruit, and medicinal herb gardener, school garden planter, city class teacher, and passionate Zumba dancer! She created, developed, and instructs the Hill College Holistic Wellness Pathway, the most thorough, affordable, degreed wellness program in the country. She loves spreading love and light, and helping others feel awesome on the inside and out so they can live their dreams and make this world more awesome! Lori Rose Holistic does not replace medical advice or working with your doctor, and she does not diagnose, treat, or cure disease. Her goal is to educate, and any actions you take are voluntary and of your own free will.
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