Sugar Is As Addictive As Cocaine—And The Withdrawal Is Just As Real. A Doctor Explains Exactly How To Deal With It

Holistic Psychiatrist By Ellen Vora, M.D.
Holistic Psychiatrist
Ellen Vora is a holistic psychiatrist practicing in NYC. She graduated from Columbia University Medical School, is boarded in psychiatry and integrative and holistic medicine, and she's also a licensed medical acupuncturist and certified yoga teacher.
Sugar Is As Addictive As Cocaine—And The Withdrawal Is Just As Real. A Doctor Explains Exactly How To Deal With It
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It’s Day 3 of mbg’s first-ever no-sugar challenge. All week long, we’ll be sharing tips, tricks, inspirational stories, and recipes to help you eliminate sugar for the week—and maybe much longer! You can check out the rules of the challenge (and the 10 best tips for eliminating sugar), try out the no sugar smoothie supermodels are obsessed with, dive into whether or not fruit sugar is good for you, or head over to our Instagram account to see takeovers from some of the wellness world’s biggest celebrities. You can join them (and us!) in #mbgnosugarweek by simply cutting the sweet stuff for the next seven days. Use the hashtag #mbgnosugarweek and tag @mindbodygreen during your journey to be regrammed or even potentially see yourself on the site!

As you know, for tens of thousands of years of human evolution, the hard part was getting enough to survive. These days, in many parts of the world, the hard part is resisting the tray of cookies in the break room, or the second half of the pint of ice cream after you just mindlessly ate the first half. The availability of calories and the challenges to our survival have been flipped upside down. That’s the context you need to realize why your brain loooooves sugar. If you’re on the savannah and barely scraping together enough calories to survive, sugar is like: jackpot.

Your sugar addiction is deeply ingrained.

In industrialized nations, calories are cheap and ubiquitous, and the new challenge is to not eat too much. Our bodies were never designed to have access to this much quick and easy sugar. Sugar was the occasional ripened fruit at certain times of the year, the hard-won sap from a tree, the honey from a beehive at the top of the tree—a perilous conquest through a swarm of bees, not thrilled about this hangry human imposing eminent domain on their precious beehive. These days, we have access to so much sugar that it overwhelms our bodies’ ability to deal with it, contributing to diseases such as diabetes, fatty liver, and heart disease. So what’s a wellness-minded, sugar-addicted human in the modern jungle of 2017 supposed to do?


First, recognize that your sugar addiction is in fact an addiction.

As a holistic psychiatrist practicing in NYC, I often hear patients talk about their relationship to sugar in the language of heroin addiction. They’re half joking, and if you pressed them on it they would say it’s completely different and that their overeating actually comes down to a lack of willpower, whereas heroin addiction is the real thing. That’s where we’re wrong.

In my book, food addiction is...addiction. The reason we draw upon the language of junkies is because, biochemically, it’s really the same thing.

"There are different degrees of reward, addiction, and withdrawal, but I believe bingeing on sugar and other addictive foods is culturally condoned, food company–induced drug addiction (and studies back this up, showing that, "at the neurobiological level, the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward appear to be more robust than those of cocaine"). To take this a step further, I think big food, which has ingeniously engineered their foods to hit us hard in the reward centers in the brain, is the next tobacco industry. Big companies have knowingly addicted millions of people at the cost of health and untold suffering and struggle in the interest of profit.


So what can you do about it?

First of all, if and when you decide to quit sugar, be prepared to go through a legit withdrawal process, complete with cravings, irritability, and mood changes. You can even have symptoms resembling a cold or the flu, with aches, fatigue, and malaise. The withdrawal symptoms typically last from a few days to about a week and a half.

What’s the best way to get through this period of cravings, irritability, and jonesing for a hit? Some people suggest a supplement called glutamine. Others encourage you to drink more water. Some would say to distract yourself. Sipping on mint or licorice tea is another popular salve.

The most helpful tip I know of for quitting sugar is to keep your blood sugar stable using almond butter or coconut oil (present controversy aside). Keep these on hand at work and at home, and keep packets of almond butter in your bag (I like Artisana the best, but Justin’s is also good—just make sure whichever brand you choose is free of the added sugars so many contain). Feed yourself a spoonful about every few hours while you’re awake. This will ensure steady blood sugar, warding off any blood sugar crashes that can make you scavenge for a hit of sugar. Take a spoonful before you go to bed and another one when you wake up in the morning. If you wake up in the middle of the night, take a spoonful and a sip of water .

Use the spoonfuls of almond butter and coconut oil as medicine, giving you a safety net of blood sugar, so you’re never crashing. Meanwhile, eat three square meals, two snacks, and try to eat well-rounded, substantial meals with plenty of protein, healthy fats, veggies and starchy tubers (e.g., sweet potatoes). Try to avoid things that send your blood sugar on a rollercoaster ride, such as refined carbohydrates, grains, alcohol, caffeine, and artificial sweeteners. Bonus points if you can get enough sleep during the process!

After you’ve survived those first several days of drug withdrawal, you're free. People tend to feel steadily better going forward.

Abstinence from sugar makes it a lot easier to stay clean; when you’re not having sugar, your cravings tend to go away. But beware: if you go back to sugar, the cravings and the whole addiction cycle can come right back.

Spoonfuls of almond butter and coconut oil can get you through the first week or two. Then the definitive solution to sugar addiction is to shift your diet toward a blood sugar–stabilizing real-food diet. That’s a diet comprising meat, fish, eggs, poultry, fruits, veggies, healthy fats .and starchy tubers—basically, a diet of real food. What’s not there: refined carbohydrates, grains, sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial fats, and, if we’re being picky, caffeine and alcohol.

Sidebar with me about fruit: I generally recommend that most people simply eat fruit in moderation and don’t overthink it. Many people are concerned about the sugar content of fruit. Of course, be reasonable about it, and be sure you’re getting plenty of meat, seafood, poultry, veggies, starch, and fat in addition to fruit. But if you want to have an apple or some berries at the end of your meal, go for it and feel good about that. If you can aim to eat fruit more macrobiotically, that is, eat what actually grows around you, both geographically and seasonally, even better.

This is the best way I know to shift your body away from sugar addiction. I hope it helps you slay the dragon once and for all.

Here's a full-day meal plan (with recipes!) to keep your blood sugar stable. Plus, the rest of #mbgnosugarweek, in case you missed it!

Ellen Vora, M.D.
Ellen Vora, M.D.
Dr. Ellen Vora is a holistic psychiatrist practicing in NYC. She graduated from Columbia University...
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