Madi's Memos: How I Healed my Addiction to Sugar
Ahhhh sugar, my lover, my nemesis.. Sound familiar?
The most common issue my clients deal with is their attachment to this sweetest of ingredients, they come to me and tell me that they need to “get over” their sugar cravings. Everything they have tried has resulted in a few solid weeks of abstinence but inevitably led to them binging on cupcakes that someone brought to work. Once that happens, they believe that they have no will power so they go to the grocery store and stock up on their favourite treats because, what’s the point?
Out of all the food-related struggles, I understand the difficulties in healing a sugar addiction the most.
In my post about my journey with juice cleanses, I shared that when I was a small child I had a baby sitter who was content to allow me to eat a cup of powered sugar every day for lunch. This led to a lifelong addiction to sugar. And I mean a full blown addiction. As a teenage and young adult, I took every chance I could to to buy a bag of candy and consume it on the same day, many times being on the walk or car ride home.
Growing up and joining the wellness industry I realized how detrimental sugar was to my health, especially in the quantities I was consuming it. So - I did was the majority of us have done - I simply said that I was not going to eat any foods with processed sugar. The first time I told myself that I lasted less than 48 hours. I was at a friend’s birthday party and justified that it would be rude to not eat the cake. It was fluffy and moist, and best of all - sweet as can be. I had 4 slices. The next day I felt defeated, I didn't even last two days. All of this negative talk led me to pick up a tub of ice cream, if I didn't have will power then I figured that I should at least have something to wallow in. No matter how many times I told myself that I wasn't going to buy sugary treats, my brain kept repeating “Gimme the sugar”.
As I’m writing this I realize how dramatic it sounds -
that’s the interesting thing about how we talk to ourselves about our will power and our relationship to food. We go through these vicious rollercoasters of high points when we fill ourselves with motivation and proclaim that we are going to do som good for ourselves (in my case, stop eating sugar) yet, life happens and we fall steeply down into a low point when we break that promise to ourselves. To the outside world, we refuse to admit that we have this internal struggle because it simply “Is not a big deal”. Yet - It is a bloody big deal. The internal battle we rage against ourselves is debilitating. It destroys our self confidence, it makes us our own worst enemy because we know exactly where to cut for maximum damage.
After many failed attempts of pitting my will power against my favourite ingredient, I knew that I needed to understand WHY I had such an unbreakable attachment to sugar so that I might have a chance at changing the cycle that I found myself in.
SUPER FUN FACTS ABOUT SUGAR’S HOLD ON OUR BRAIN
- Research on rats have found that sugar is more addictive than opioid drugs such as cocaine. A study out of France in 2007 showed that when rats (who metabolize sugar very similar to how humans metabolize it) were given the choice between water sweetened with saccharin (sugar) and intravenous cocaine, that 94% of the rats selected the sugar water. Even the rats that were addicted to cocaine chose the sweetened water over cocaine, proving their theory that intense sweetness was more rewarding to their brain than cocaine.
- The research scientists claim that sugar alters mood and can induce the reward/pleasure centres in our brain the same way illegal drugs do. Withdrawal symptoms from sugar come from dopamine deficiency in the brain. This can lead to symptoms such as ADHD and can create a similar start in the brain as depression. (Site: British Journal of Sports Medicine)
- Research shows that sugar decreases our body’s immunity because it inhibits the absorption of vitamin C into white blood cells. The more sugar we consume - The less productive our white blood cells are.
- Unlike salt, we do not have a built in aversion signal to sugar. When we consume too much salt, we have a natural trigger that makes our taste buds tell us that something is “too salty” and we stop consuming it. Unfortunately, we do not have a similar mechanism built in for sugar consumption. Our taste buds are able to consume as much sugar as we want without triggering our brain to tell us to stop.
Now, there are many studies out there that refute the fact that sugar is addicting. They argue that it does not fit in with the scientific definition of an addictive substance and countless studies have refuted the claims above saying that you can not compare mice to men - Welcome to the bloody dilemma of the health and wellness industry. You can spend you entire life reading scientific studies that contradict one another. Some are simply trying to get to the truth, some are simply not done long enough to get the accurate answer, and in many circumstances - The study can not be tested safely or ethically on a human.
I’ve learned that there is one resource that you can trust without question that cuts through all of the polarizing opinions and studies - Your own body.
I knew that I could trust what my body was telling me. My body was telling me that when I ate sugar, I experienced an initial high, but then I would crash, which would then cause me to crave more so that I could get out of that crash. My skin was constantly breaking out and would do so with vigor when I ate a lot of sugar. My body was telling me that sugar acted as a mood-altering drug for me and that I was getting exhausted from the constant series of highs and lows. My body was telling me that when I did stop eating sugar for a day or two that I would get severe headaches and barely be able to keep my eyes open, which I later learned were withdrawal symptoms.
I became hyper focused on finding the science that would prove what I felt in my gut because I felt like I needed to find proof to justify my weak will power. Turns out, I never needed that in the first place, I simply needed to listen to my body.
I knew that I could say no to almost everything in my life, yet I was struggling to stop myself from purchasing/ordering/accepting high sugar foods that were doing damage to my body. So regardless of the research papers and scientific proof, when I shifted my mindset to treat sugar LIKE it was a drug as addictive as cocaine, it completely changed my perspective.
I started to read about ways to deal with addictions and put them into practice in my own life. I began to use juice cleanses as tools to change my taste buds, I learned that sugar is one of the most enticing forms of self-soothing, so I learned new self-soothing mechanisms which filled in the voids, and I started to see that I could actually hit a point in my life where I no longer craved sugar.
When I was finally able to remove refined sugar out of my diet I noticed that my moods were more balanced, my energy was more consistent, my skin was clearer, and I slept better. When I acknowledged all of the improvements in my life, I knew that I would never try to justify to myself again that the 5 minute hit of dopamine from sugar was worth the myriad of negative effects.
HOW I REPAIRED MY RELATIONSHIP WITH MY CRAVINGS
1 - Juice Cleanses
I go into a deep dive on how I used juice cleanses to help transform my taste buds and stifle my addiction to sugar. Read the full blog here.
2 - Create New Self-Soothing Protocols
As young children, we become conditioned to need something sweet at the end of the meal to feel satisfied. We were taught that every celebration comes hand in hand with a table full of sweets treats. As we grow up, we started to shift and self-medicated with sugar to increase our mood or energy or fill in emotional gaps.
We learned to associate something sweet (think a beautiful birthday cake) as a symbol of love and affection. Our society has turned an addictive, harmful substance, into the ultimate comfort food. When we are happy, we reward ourselves with a treat - When we are sad, we make ourselves feel better with a treat. Self-soothing refers to any behaviour that we do for ourselves that regulates our emotional state. When you realize that you use sugary foods as a self-soothing mechanism, the path forward becomes a lot clearer because now the task is to create new self-soothing mechanisms that make you feel good INSTEAD of trying to build up fictional will power. Our cravings will always be more effective than our will power. Instead of fighting it, we simply need to learn new ways to cope with the reaction.
We all face an astronomical amount of stress in our lives these days. It’s so easy to reach for a bar of chocolate and glass of red wine as the end of the day, yet these lead to headaches and poor sleep. Instead, try these self-soothing mechanisms when you are feeling like you need to fill in a gap:
Dancing - We often forget how much music can drastically change our moods. Whenever I felt a craving come on, I would put on some of my favourite music and dance around getting lost in the sound. By moving my body around I got myself out of my head and into my body.
Cold Plunges - Cold water immersion increases your blood levels of dopamine by 250% and norepinephrine by 500%. It also helps with withdrawal symptoms because your body responds to cold water by releasing such high amounts of feel good chemicals like adrenaline dopamine, and serotonin. I fortunately live close to a cold plunge lounge and Lake Ontario so I immerse myself in cold water a few times a week in the mornings, and supplement with cold showers when I can't make it to either locations. (This practice has also taught me to stop making excuses - We are always close to cold water.)
Journaling - For years I had used treats as a way to cover up emotional issues that I was dealing with, so when I began my journaling practice I poured my heart and soul into the pages. I taught myself how to identify what was coming up for me with words and was then able to dig deep and understand what types of shifts/changes I needed to make, instead of simply chalking it up to a “bad day” which would, in the past, result with me under a blanket on the couch with a tub of ice cream. (That has always been my treat of choice).
Walking - Moving our bodies is one of the best things that we can do for ourselves. I now walk every single day. It allows me to take the time to think through my actions and cravings in a similar yet more passive way than journaling does. It also gets me outside which will ALWAYS change our perspective for the better.
Tea / Incense Ritual - We have been programmed to think “What’s for dessert” after we finish a meal. It’s a habit that is hard to break. So instead of sitting there pretending like I wasn’t thinking about a sweet treat to have to “finish” my meal - I decided to create a tea ritual. Now when I want dessert after dinner, I instead take 15 minutes to put on some relaxing music, light an incense, put the water on to boil, select a herbal tea blend, and then sit there and let the heat satisfy me. I’ll add a tsp of local honey sometimes when I do want that little kick of sweetness with zero judgement. (I consume natural forms of sugar like local honey and local maple syrup in small quantities.)
Breathing Sessions - We often take for granted what our body does for us without having to think about it. Breathing is high on the list. Aside from the benefits of reducing anxiety and quieting our minds, I found that when I wanted to look in the pantry for something sweet I instead would turn on a 5 minute breathing exercise which in turn would either energize me or calm me (depending on the type of exercise) and I would no longer have the desire to rummage through the pantry.
3 - Whole foods, Healthy Fats + Increased Protein
We all know that feeling when we have gone too long without eating. We become moody and ravenous. When we allow our blood sugar levels to drop we are more likely to crave sweet sugary snacks because they are the quickest way to spike our blood sugar back up.
When we reach for foods in their original form, they don’t have any processed sugar in them. Whole foods are minimally processed foods that you know what goes into the meal. When you continue to eat whole foods, you begin to appreciate the sweetness of sweet potatoes and fruit, and find that ingredients like raspberries and dates can satisfy that sweet craving.
Both protein and healthy fat helps to control blood sugar levels by helping to slow down digestion and reduce post-meal blood spikes and increases our satiety (aka. How full you feel after a meal). So when we eat protein and healthy fats, it helps stabilize our blood sugar and prevents the highs and lows of blood sugar spikes which lead to sugar cravings.
When I began to increase the amount of legumes, nuts and seeds, healthy fats like avocado and coconut oil, and lean grass-fed meat and fish, I found that I was no longer having such intense sugar cravings.Now when I crave something sweet, I instead reach for a protein-rich high-fat snack which satisfies my cravings.
4 - Remove “Falling off the Wagon” Vocabulary
After months of being extremely strict with my sugar intake, I remember one day when I was craving a donut from a local bake shop. I had eaten a meal made up of whole-foods that was high in protein and fat, and had done a few of my self soothing protocols, yet I couldn’t get rid of this desire for a pistachio rose vegan donut.
Was I falling off the wagon? Was all of my work over the past few months about to go down the drain?
It hit me then, that I simply wanted to eat the donut. I LOVE food. I live and breathe it every single day. I wasn't going to deprive myself of joyful food moments because I now knew that I had a handle on the relationship. So I walked to the shop, got my donut, and then sat in the park and enjoyed every single bite of it.
There is no wagon to fall off of. I had spent enough time repairing my relationship to sugar that I could now determine when I wanted a treat. I could enjoy it once in a while, in moderation, without it becoming the catalyst for a doom spiral.
I now have a healthy relationship with sugar. I enjoy a treat every once in a while when I truly want it. I say no to pieces of cake at social events because 9 times out of 10, it's not going to satisfy me enough for me to justify feeling crappy. When I feel myself craving sugar, instead of shaming myself - I ask myself why, and then I ask myself what I could do instead to fill that need.
Some weeks I have more than I should, some weeks I have zero. The key for me was to understand what sugar did to my body, the behaviours it causes, and then learning ways to unveil what my cravings were telling me. Through this journey, I’ve learned that:
A 60 second dance party will change my mood more drastically than any cookie.
2 minutes in a cold tub will give me an exponentially greater rush of endorphins and dopamine than any bag of candy could.
10 minutes spent with my journal will allow me to resolve my emotional issues instead of ignoring them and drowning them in ice cream.
My journey to understand and overcome the hold that sugar had on me was long and difficult, but it was the greatest change I’ve ever made to my health and well being. Making changes to our lifestyle is HARD - But, we need to be reminded every so often that we can do HARD things. I made more progress during the weeks where I was gentle with myself versus when I was being critical about myself - Be kind to yourself and understand that there isn’t a finish line, the only metric is how good you feel in the present moment.
If you are struggling with your relationship with sugar or have questions, please put them in the comments below or book in a complimentary call with me here.