What is an addiction?
Is it just having a ‘soft spot’ for something? Or is it something that’s simply worked its way into your regular routine? When exactly does a food, substance or behaviour stop being just something you love and become an addiction?
We can consider that some ‘addictions’ are healthy, or even necessary. For example, we’re all addicted to food and water on some level, because they literally keep us alive. And we may consider ourselves ‘addicted’ to a certain food because we love it, but if that food is nutritious – and we eat it in a good balance with other foods – then it doesn’t have to be a problem. The same applies to behaviours too: for example, some of us may consider ourselves ‘addicted’ to exercise, but this can be a good thing as long as we don’t overdo it, take time for rest and recovery, and listen to our bodies to know when to stop.
But in general, when we talk about addiction we mean a behaviour that has an overall harmful effect on the health or wellbeing of the individual – or those of the people around them. An individual who is ‘addicted’ in this sense may show reduced control and an inability to resist or stop the behaviour – whether it’s drinking, gambling or working their way through the cookie jar. And they may be less able to recognise the harmful consequences of their behaviour. When substances or behaviours take a grip on us, they hold the decision-making power. That’s when it’s time to take back control.
If you recognise that you may have an addiction, the good news is that you’ve already taken the first step to putting yourself back in the driving seat by buying this book.
The burden of addiction
The table below shows the leading risk factors for death worldwide (data from 2009)1.
Risk factor Deaths (millions) Percentage of total deaths
1 High blood pressure 7.5 | 12.8%
2 Tobacco use 5.1 | 8.7%
3 High blood glucose 3.4 | 5.8%
4 Physical inactivity 3.2 | 5.5%
5 Overweight and obesity 2.8 | 4.8%
6 High cholesterol 2.6 | 4.5%
7 Unsafe sex 2.4 | 4%
8 Alcohol use 2.3 | 3.8%
9 Childhood underweight 2.2 | 3.8%
10 Indoor smoke from solid fuels 2.0 | 3.3%
We can see that many of the leading causes of death worldwide are controllable risks either directly due to addiction – tobacco use, alcohol use; or that often have addiction as a factor – high blood pressure, high blood glucose, high cholesterol, overweight and obesity.
Food-related addictions have the biggest impact
In the UK, addiction levels are increasing for alcohol and certain drugs like cocaine, while smoking cigarettes and use of some other hard drugs is decreasing. But the biggest addiction problems relate to food – often sugary, processed or ‘fast’ foods. Over-consuming these poor-quality, high-calorie foods, coupled with low levels of activity, is at the cornerstone of the world’s obesity crisis. With it come some serious health problems that can be just as life-shattering as any other addiction.
But… whatever your addiction, help is at hand
Whether your addiction is to a food, another substance, or a behaviour, the plan outlined in this chapter can help you break the cycle and take back control.
QUICK-START 10-STEP PLAN FOR ADDICTION
If you’d like to get started immediately, here are the ten basic steps.
1. Identify consumption patterns by keeping a log or diary
Keep a log of how much of the food, substance or behaviour you’re having/doing, and how often. This step helps to get rid of the first obstacle to overcoming an addiction: denial. Do this, and you’re already half way to winning the battle.
Note too how your moods are affected by your intake.
2. Identify triggers for your addiction – e.g. stressors or habits
Does coming through the door after work trigger your cravings for a glass of wine? Does stress at work make you reach for the packet of biscuits every time?
3. Embark on a reduction then avoidance plan
For some substances, such as hard drugs, abstinence might be required. But for others, such as caffeine, reducing gradually then aiming for moderation can be the best approach. Reduce from the easy places first – the place where you least ‘need’ that substance. With caffeine, for example, you might start by cutting out the mid-morning or mid-afternoon cups, and gradually reduce to just one cup in the morning.
4. Tell the people around you what you are trying to do
Establish a support circle. Or team up with a mate who is going through the same thing. This helps to make you accountable and gives you support.
5. Nutrition is key
Whether your addiction is food-related or not, good nutrition plays a crucial role in taking back control. Balance your blood sugar, eat nutrient-rich foods that nourish your brain and body, and avoid foods and drinks that drive your brain to crave more addictive substances. It’s particularly important to address your nutrition before you challenge a long-term addiction in order to have a good chance of success. We’ll go into more detail about nutrition and supplements in the next sections.
6. Prioritise sleep
Good sleep is key to beating addictions. See our chapter on Sleep. Calming, sleep-supporting supplements can help: magnesium, theanine and taurine are among the top choices (see the Supplements section below).
7. Beat the binge with aminos
The amino acids taurine, glutamine, glycine and NAC (n-acetyl cysteine) can be used ahead of key binge times, to help kill the cravings (see the Supplements section below).
8. Replace addictive patterns with healthier alternatives
This could mean going to the gym rather than going to the pub – it will give you a different kind of buzz! It could mean or having a ‘virgin’ (alcohol-free) G & T or a healthy snack when you get in from work to stop you reaching for a beer or glass of wine.
9. Prepare for setbacks
We’re not machines; if we were, we wouldn’t get addicted in the first place. Setbacks will happen – it’s how we deal with them that makes the difference. The key is to not give up just because you feel like you’ve ‘fallen off the wagon’. Take the next day as a new beginning and start afresh.
10. Reward positive steps
Make sure your support circle is around to give you positive feedback.
If you’re saving money from giving up your addiction (e.g. smoking) then treat yourself to a holiday or buy something nice with the money you’ve saved (as long as it’s not related to the addiction itself!).
Eating yourself out of cravings
Now let’s learn more about the importance of good nutrition in beating an addiction. Get these steps in place before you challenge an addiction.
1. Balance your blood sugar
Blood sugar ‘dips’ make you feel tired, irritable and hungry. In this state, you’re more likely to give in to your ‘vice’ food or substance to get rid of that empty feeling. And you’re more likely to feel the effects of stress, which can also cause cravings.
So, what causes blood sugar dips? One common trigger is eating too many refined, processed or sugary foods. They’re quickly broken down into glucose, which cause blood sugar (blood glucose) to spike quickly, followed by a ‘rebound’ dip as the glucose is taken out of our blood. As glucose is our primary source of energy, our energy levels then follow suit.
For comprehensive information on balancing blood sugar, see chapter XXXX. As a reminder, the key points are:
• Avoid refined and processed foods and sugary snacks, replacing them with ‘real’ or whole foods.
• Have something healthy to eat every two to three hours, at least while you’re dealing with cravings. Three meals a day with one snack between breakfast and lunch and one snack between lunch and your evening meal can be a good starting point.
• Eat a good serving of protein with every meal.
• Stock up on healthy snacks to eat between meals if needed.
For more on sugar, see the separate box on The Impact of Sugar in Addictions.
2. Eat real foods
We’ve seen previously why eating ‘real’ foods and avoiding refined and processed foods is critical for most aspects of health and performance. In beating addictions, it’s important for two main reasons.
Firstly, real foods nourish your body and brain with vitamins and minerals, as well as natural healthy fats and proteins. Vitamins and minerals are needed by the body to turn food into energy, to make neurotransmitters that help our brain function normally and help us feel good, and to make vital antioxidants and detoxifying agents such as glutathione (more on glutathione below). Basically, the better nourished you are, the less your body and brain are going to ‘need’ your vice to make it through the day. It’s as simple as that.
Secondly, real, unprocessed foods are naturally good for balancing your blood sugar, as we saw above. They generally contain either fibre or protein, or both – which help to slow down the release and absorption of starches and sugars in your foods, providing that steady and slow supply of glucose into your blood and energy to your cells.
3. Get your healthy fats
Around 60 per cent of the dry weight of our brain is made up of fat. So, fats literally ‘feed’ our brain and can affect memory, behaviour and mood. And lack of the right kinds of fats can play a part in cravings and addictive behaviours.
So, what are the ‘right kinds’ of fats?
Omega-3 fats are especially important – especially DHA, the primary omega-3 fat in the brain. Studies suggest that a lack of omega-3 fats in our cells can increase risk of binging, having sugar withdrawal symptoms and relapsing after beating an addiction. The best natural source of DHA and EPA (another important omega-3) is oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, trout and herring. Your target is to eat at least three portions of oily fish per week. Fish oil supplements can be a good top-up – or replacement if you really don’t like (or can’t eat) fish – see the section below on Addiction-Fighting Supplements.
Flax seeds and chia seeds provide a different type of omega-3, which is still good for us, although not as directly useful for the brain. Make sure you grind your flaxseeds and chia seeds so that you can absorb the nutrients inside their tough shells.
Other healthy fats include extra virgin olive oil, which is associated with heart health and can be high in antioxidants. Coconut oil, coconut milk/cream and coconut flesh contain medium-chain fatty acids, which burn more quickly for energy than other fats and have immune and gut-supporting properties. (Coconut oil is also a good choice for cooking at high temperatures.) Nuts and seeds are sources of essential omega-6 fatty acids, which are beneficial in their natural forms (i.e. not as vegetable oils) and in a healthy ratio with omega-3s. All of these fats are also good for balancing hunger levels and energy to prevent cravings.
Trans and hydrogenated fats, on the other hand, are always bad news. They are found in many processed and ‘junk’ foods. They can replace those important healthy fats in our cells – including in brain cells – and affect how they work.
Getting too much omega-6 in our diet in comparison to omega-3 – often via vegetable oils and foods made with them – can also be detrimental.
See our chapter on Fats for more information on the different types of fats and how to get enough of the right ones.
4. Get plenty of cysteine for glutathione
Two of the keys in combatting addiction are having efficient detoxification and antioxidant processes happening in the body. And for these, we need plenty of glutathione. This is a substance that our body makes itself from three amino acids found in our foods: cysteine, glycine and glutamic acid. While all are necessary, the one that’s most often lacking is cysteine – and so this is the one we need to focus on specifically. Cysteine is found in egg whites, fresh meats, dairy, whey protein, garlic and onions, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and oats.
Cysteine is one reason why getting enough protein is vital when dealing with addiction: protein-rich foods (the egg whites, meats, dairy and whey protein in this case) are highest in cysteine.
5. Get heavy-handed with the spice rack
Not only can spices make foods taste amazing, they can also help fight addiction. Cinnamon is key as it can help regulate blood sugar. And many spices including turmeric, cinnamon, star anise, ginger and chilli have potent antioxidant properties.
To get your spices, avoid opting too often for takeaway or restaurant curries, especially if one of your goals is fat loss. You’ll find that plenty of our recipes include spices – and if you’re looking for other recipes, choose options that are based on lean meats, fish or vegetables, and that use minimal oil.
1. Multivitamin and mineral
We’ve already seen how vitamins and minerals are vital for energy, for brain function and for producing neurotransmitters that help us feel good. A multivitamin can help top up what we get through food, and help correct any deficiencies that might result from the addiction (for example, alcohol can deplete B vitamins and magnesium; smoking is known to deplete vitamin C). Choose a high-strength multi such as AminoMan Advanced Multinutrient Formula.
2. Omega 3 (fish oil or equivalent)
To top up your omega-3s, a fish oil supplement can be helpful. Take a high-strength, high-quality fish oil such as AminoMan Omega 1250. Take three to six capsules a day with meals while dealing with your addiction, and drop down to one capsule afterwards for general health. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, or can’t take fish oils, then look for a plant-sourced omega-3 supplement made from algae that contains DHA and preferably EPA – a good example is Together Omega-3. Omega-3 supplements based on flaxseed oil or other seed or nut oils will not be as effective.
3. Amino acid blend
Amino acids are essential for helping to fight addictions. They can play a direct role in producing brain neurotransmitters, affecting mood and cravings, and many of them are involved in antioxidant and/or detoxification systems in the body. Amino blends can be especially helpful to take at times when cravings strike, such as when you get in from work, or when you feel stressed.
See our separate breakout box on amino acids.
AminoMan Focus Formula. A blend of amino acids and plant extracts designed for brain neurotransmitter support, including for dopamine. It can help with focus and concentration, mood, energy, drive and general wellbeing. Take it when you get home from work or during the day to fight off cravings.
AminoMan R5 Aminos. As well as supporting recovery from training/exercise, R5 Aminos is designed to help with relaxation and restful sleep. This formula includes glutamine, 5-HTP, glycine and inositol, all of which play a role in its calming effect. Take it 20 minutes before bed.
Nip alcohol cravings in the bud
If you crave a drink when you get home from work, try making a big glass of ‘virgin’ G & T – no gin but lots of tonic, fresh lemon juice and ice. Drinking this seems to take away that initial drive to drink alcohol. Afterwards, resisting becomes much easier for the rest of the evening.
Alternatively, when booze cravings strike this is a great time to take an amino acid blend that includes taurine, glutamine and inositol – it will help replicate that relaxed feeling you get from alcohol. Mix them with half-and-half fruit juice and water, or some low-sugar cordial.
Notice that both these drinks include some sugar. This is because alcohol cravings can be related to low blood sugar, so giving a little boost to your blood glucose helps take away the cravings. This is not ideal on a long-term basis, but can be useful when you’re initially trying to cut down.
Are your genetics getting the better of you?
Some people are genetically more sensitive to dopamine and feelings of reward, so are more likely to form dependencies. That’s why habits often run in families and gives rise to the term ‘addictive personality’. But genetics are not the ultimate deciding factor. Anyone can become addicted, whether it runs in your family or not. And even if you do have that genetic susceptibility, you won’t necessarily become addicted – and you can beat an addiction. You may just need more long-term support from good nutrition, supplements and herbs to thwart your addictive hard wiring, as well as the awareness to avoid falling into that addictive pattern.
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