In this article, I’m going to discuss the connection between alcoholism and hypoglycemia. In particular, I’ll show you how to avoid the unpleasant symptoms of hypoglycemia that are often confused with psychiatric disorders or, in many recovery circles, spiritual failure.
As it turns out, quitting alcohol is not quite enough to recover fully from alcoholism. But don’t worry – it’s fully within your power to feel incredible once you make a few changes to your diet and lifestyle. This article can be a real life saver for people who have not yet read about the significant overlap between alcoholism and hypoglycemia.
You may have heard about people who gave up alcohol, only to mysteriously become dry drunks. They are irritable and generally not fun to be around. While this condition is often characterized as a spiritual defect, there is evidence that this “syndrome” is essentially undiagnosed (and uncorrected) hypoglycemia.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
- Anxiousness or restlessness
- Sugar cravings
- Alcohol cravings
- General sense of unease
- Rapid heartbeat
- Body tingling
- Impaired vision
- Nervous exhaustion
Perhaps you can relate to the little hypoglycemic blue guy below:
We will now proceed to explore the relation between alcoholism and hypoglycemia.
How Does Alcoholism Cause Hypoglycemia?
Alcoholism is a biochemical disorder that can be caused by a variety of factors, including genetic liver enzyme anomalies, neurotransmitter deficiencies, prenatal alcohol exposure, and traumatic stress that permanently alters neural pathways.
Hypoglycemia is a very common result of chronic heavy drinking because alcohol is a highly refined sugar that is rapidly absorbed through the stomach lining. The alcoholic brain prefers alcohol to sugar because it provides a quicker hit. A high sugar diet can certainly cause hypoglycemia for a nondrinker, but alcoholism and hypoglycemia often go hand in hand.
In fact, alcoholism and hypoglycemia that results in excessive sugar consumption often lead to many of the same health risks:
But back to our original question: How does excessive drinking lead to hypoglycemia?
Because alcohol is a sugar, drinking alcohol causes the pancreas to produce insulin, which takes sugar out of the bloodstream. When this happens, blood sugar levels fall well below normal, creating a sense of malaise.
In response to low blood sugar, the adrenals release adrenaline that causes the liver to release glycogen (stored glucose) and restore your blood sugar levels temporarily. Excess adrenaline causes discomfort and irritability. This cycle continues until nervous exhaustion becomes the norm.
Hypoglycemia is a metabolic rollercoaster: Alcohol and/or sugar intake, followed by a pleasant high, followed by insulin release, followed by low blood sugar and misery, followed by adrenaline release, followed by anxiety and cravings, followed by more alcohol or sugar, and so on…
Eventually the adrenals become fatigued, leading to depression and further emotional instability.
Over time, the adrenals become less able to produce adrenaline and the body becomes more resistant to insulin. Blood pressure fluctuates abnormally, metabolism slows, and cravings for alcohol and/or sugar become endless.
An alcoholic who is hypoglycemic relies on alcohol not just to normalize brain chemistry, but to temporarily increase blood sugar and feel okay. A drink grants relief until blood sugar levels inevitably fall, at which point the alcoholic experiences a screaming full-body urge for more alcohol.
I experienced this cycle myself when I drank, and it was pure hell. I had no idea that my alcohol cravings had anything to do with my body’s inability to regulate my blood sugar. Nor did I have any clue that drinking had caused this problem in the first place.
Over the past few decades, science has begun to shed light on why alcoholism and hypoglycemia co-occur:
- Chronic alcohol consumption inhibits liver enzymes required to maintain stable blood sugar levels, exacerbating hypoglycemia (source)
- Alcohol significantly redistributes blood flow to the insulin-producing portion of the pancreas (source)
- At Health Recovery Center in Minneapolis, 88% of alcoholic patients were found to be hypoglycemic (source)
- The Hypoglycemia Support Foundation acknowledges the significant symptom overlap between alcoholism and hypoglycemia (source)
Joan Mathews Larson, a pioneer of orthomolecular addiction treatment and founder of Health Recovery Center, cites some interesting studies on alcoholism and hypoglycemia in her groundbreaking book, 7 Weeks to Sobriety:
According to endocrinologist John Tintera, M.D., “by far the most important part of the physiological treatment of alcoholics is the complete restriction of easily absorbed carbohydrates.”
Tintera points out that hypoglycemic blood sugar swings in recovering alcoholics create symptoms that are very similar to “deep-rooted emotional or psychiatric disorders.”
Beating Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)
I’ve written on this blog about the alcohol withdrawal timeline, which ends for many people with post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). This slippery state of existence lasted months for me, because it took a long time to discover the diet changes, supplements, and lifestyle strategies that finally helped me transform my life.
But if you want to avoid being a dry drunk in a hypoglycemic malaise, there’s one simple change you can make now…
AVOID EXCESS SUGAR
Experts like Joan Mathews Larson will advise that you swear off sweets for the rest of your life. They will also tell you to quit drinking anything containing caffeine, which releases adrenaline. Perhaps I’m endowed with resilient physiology, but I’ve had a lot of success with a less drastic approach:
Sometimes I’ve felt a little foggy on Monday mornings, especially if I’ve consumed cheesecake and dark chocolate ganache the night before. But I’ve cut my sugar to such low levels that I don’t even want sweet things that much anymore. Whereas my sweet tooth was insatiable when I quit drinking, these days a small bite of the chocolate cake is all I want.
It’s hard to crave sweets when you’ve just eaten a grass fed steak. Unlike Twizzlers, fresh meats and eggs and cheeses contain good saturated fats that will help you restore feel-good chemicals in your brain.
After cutting excess sugar from your diet, you’ll almost certainly feel a major difference in your emotional stability within a few weeks.
Here are three more tips to help ward off hypoglycemia by improving your metabolism and hormonal health:
Rhodiola rosea is an herb that has been proven to be effective at restoring adrenal health. I still take this supplement on days that I have to train 6 or more people. I don’t feel anything when I take it, but I notice that I’m able to come home and write a lot without feeling fatigued. I’ve had good results with rhodiola rosea from Supernova Naturals.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that psychological considerations are unimportant in alcohol recovery. I’m a huge fan of meditation and deep breathing techniques. Reading books by Anthony Robbins and learning neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) helped me enormously after I’d begun to repair my system from years of alcoholic damage.
But it’s not all mind over matter. Your mind cannot thrive without a healthy brain, which is made out of matter. Your physical health, beginning with nutrition, is the groundwork for your mental improvement.
If your blood sugar is out of whack and your stress hormones are elevated all day long, your efforts at mental reconditioning and spiritual transformation will be difficult uphill battles, if not outright impossible.
A Personal Anecdote
I briefly knew an addiction counselor whose defining trait seemed to be irritability disguised as grittiness. She spent most of her days in an office lined with trinkets that all turned out to be filled with various brands of candy. She was extremely overweight, had joint pain, and rarely smiled. I once heard her tell an alcoholic patient: “You’re successful in sobriety when you can sit in a chair and not be suicidal.”
Really? Is sitting in a chair the most that any so-called recovering alcoholic can hope for in this life? What’s the point of even trying? Fortunately, I know now that the bland, bitter, depressing sense of life so common in “sobriety” is caused by a refusal to address one’s own lifestyle and nutrition. This woman meant well, but it was clear that her sugar problem kept her from being healthy, feeling good, and perceiving the blatant connection between alcoholism and hypoglycemia.
It’s unfortunate to be an addiction counselor who still meets the criteria of a dry drunk.
Cutting out excess sugar, and only enjoying sweets on special occasions (once per week or less) was one of the best things I ever did to feel better after beating alcoholism. My blood sugar rollercoaster totally disappeared within about a month of quitting drinking. As soon as I quit drinking diet soda, I began to feel stable all the time.
I have a cheat meal once per week, and these days I prefer fried chicken to ice cream. My sweet tooth died when I stopped eating sugar regularly. I love that I’m able to take or leave sugar. I limit my sugar intake to about one or two servings of fruit each day.
Because we’re all biochemically different, it’s definitely possible that some people will have a harder time cutting sugar than I did.
Hypoglycemia is perhaps the most ignored centerpiece of alcohol recovery. But if you’re new to this site, you should also know that nutrient deficiencies caused by alcoholism can persist indefinitely.
These deficiencies will cause anxiety, depression, insomnia and other nasty symptoms until they are fixed.
If you have any questions about alcoholism and hypoglycemia, please leave them in the comment box below.