It’s our brain’s job to help us cope with stress gracefully. To do that, it needs to be fed optimally. An addicted brain is a starving brain! Starving brains cause us to feel depressed, suicidal, anxious, irritable, tired, hopeless and craving! Starving brains won’t let us go to sleep, and wake us up too early. Starving brains have trouble learning recovery skills, trying new things and being social. A starving brain is a relapsing brain!
What do I mean by “a starving brain”? First of all, we know that the addictive process is driven by depleted neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals which mediate all our emotions, physical sensations, perceptions and skills. If our brain chemicals are in balance, and our blood sugar is in balance, we are much more likely to be in balance as well, and able to cope effectively with whatever stressors life brings our way. However, if our neurotransmitters are depleted or out of balance with each other, and our blood sugar is low because we missed a meal, we have grave difficulty accessing our internal resources and mobilizing our coping strategies.
Some people are born with neurotransmitter imbalance, discussed by the article on the GARS test in the March issue of The Sober World. https://www.thesoberworld.com/2018/03/01/2083/ Reward Deficiency Syndrome, which is accepted as the primary biochemical cause of addiction, claims that differences in the genes in the pathway that create feelings of reward, enthusiasm, joy and vitality lead to a variety of mood and behavioral disorders that make us susceptible to addictive disorders. These are the genes that manage the optimal functioning of our neurotransmitters. If they are impaired, our neurotransmitters will not function optimally, and neither will we. Furthermore, ongoing substance use and other addictive behaviors further deplete our neurotransmitters, causing the build-up of tolerance, and the experience of withdrawal symptoms, cravings and Post-Acute-Withdrawal (PAW). These neurotransmitters get so low that the brain simply cannot function without its drug or behavior of choice! This is part of the biochemical aspect of the bio-psycho/ social-spiritual disorder we call addiction.
Neurotransmitters are created from specific amino acids in the presence of certain vitamins and minerals called co-factors. These amino acids come from the protein we eat, which is then digested (broken back down into its component amino acids) and absorbed. If we are not eating enough protein, getting enough vitamins and minerals from the fruits and vegetables we eat, or we have so much gut inflammation (think late stage alcoholics and meth addicts) that we cannot absorb these nutrients, the brain is unable to replenish our neurotransmitter supply and they get even more depleted. Furthermore, FAT is required by the neuronal cell wall in order to effectively transmit these neurotransmitters and make them operative. The neurons require sufficient cholesterol, phospholipids from egg yolks and legumes, and omega 3 fatty acids to work optimally. Low fat diets and very low cholesterol levels have been correlated with increased levels of depression, anxiety, homicide and suicide!
Many people in middle and late stage addiction have stopped eating nutritious meals. Many is the alcoholic who drinks lunch rather than eating it! Many young people and adults live off junk food and fast food, or believe that food is optional and eat haphazardly at best. They have never been taught to value food, or to understand why our brains need to be well-fed. And as I said before, many people have such impaired digestion and absorption that the nutrients don’t even get utilized effectively, once they do eat.
Finally, much excellent research by NIDA and SAMHSA correlates relapse with impaired functioning of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain that stores and accesses recovery skills, thinks through consequences and motivates our recovery efforts. Research in the area of will power indicates that low blood sugar to the PFC lowers people’s ability to “say no” to the substance they are desiring.
When we miss a meal, or eat insufficiently, our blood sugar drops, starving the PFC! Many other biochemical processes occur when a meal is missed which set us up for relapse. This will be the topic of another article, but suffice it to say that nutritionally oriented treatment providers and their clients have found that missing a meal is probably the number one relapse trigger for all addictions because of what happens in the PFC when blood sugar drops.
So, someone comes into treatment or a 12-Step meeting desperate and committed to sobriety with depleted neurotransmitters and a starving brain. They are in withdrawal, craving, foggy, depressed and anxious. They are told they need medication to offset these symptoms, and candy to stop a craving. Many people then switch their addiction to sugar, which is also an addictive drug, gain too much weight, and stay moody. Some people go to a treatment program where they are fed healthy food and feel better, but then return to their old poor self-feeding habits when they leave because no-one taught them how to shop or cook for themselves, or even why this is important. They are taught to avoid hunger (HALT), but not what their brains actually need in order to heal. They are taught to feel their feelings, talk to a sponsor, and pray. They are not taught how to take care of their own brains themselves. They are not taught how to address the “third leg” of the recovery stool, biochemistry! And then they fall off the stool, relapse and are told they didn’t care enough and weren’t ready! Have you ever tried to sit on a three-legged stool with only two legs? You may stay balanced for a while if you focus really hard on keeping your balance, but, as soon as you are distracted, over you go. Is it any wonder our relapse rate is so high?
So, what is the solution? How do we effectively feed the starving addicted brain? The first step is to offer newly clean and sober addicts access to 15-30 grams of protein every four hours. This, along with vegetables, fruit, healthy fats and fiber will keep blood sugar balanced, help rebuild depleted neurotransmitter stores, and significantly reduce cravings for sugar and other addictive substances and behaviors. However, to jump start the process, we also recommend utilizing purified amino acids as indicated by symptoms or the GARS test, along with a good multi vitamin/ mineral formula and 2-4 grams of fish oil/day. We have found that the right amino acid such as 5HTP, (if not on an SSRI), D-Phenylalanine, Tyrosine or Theanine, among others, can turn off a craving within 20 minutes and relieve Post-Acute Withdrawal. Amino acids are anti-addictive because they are feeding the brain, rather than depleting it. Over time, you get to take less and less to get the same effect, rather than more and more!
By addressing the 3rd leg of the recovery stool with the right nutrients, we can offer our clients the brain support they need to effectively participate in their recovery program, and achieve a joyful, serene recovery.
Christina Veselak is a licensed psychotherapist and mental health nutritionist in private practice at Garden Gate Counseling and Consulting near Denver, CO; is Program Director of St. Ephraim’s Center, an Orthodox Christian addiction and mental health treatment center, and is a founding member and former Executive Director of The Alliance for Addiction Solutions, a non-profit organization which promotes the use of nutritional and other natural modalities to support repair of the addicted brain, www.transformingaddiction com. Through her school, The Academy for Addiction and Mental Health Nutrition, she speaks and teaches nationally on nutritional approaches to mental health and addiction treatment and offers a 2-part on-line certification program, Feed the Brain First: Biochemical and Nutritional Approaches to Mental Health and Addiction Recovery. Through the Academy, she and her team of highly trained practitioners also offer consulting services to treatment programs interested in integrating these nutritional elements into their programming. For more information, you can reach her at 303-888-9617 or at www.addictionnutritionacademy.com