How to Kick Your Sugar Addiction

Elizabeth Garner (name has been changed) is a complete hottie, even by South Beach's ridiculously tough standards. Her butt sits high and tight, her arms are defined, her tummy is toned, and her thighs are lean and muscular. She wouldn't mind my saying that she has a great rack too. Peering through strands of her light-blond hair, her deep-brown eyes are shiny with health and perfectly rimmed with carefully drawn liner, whether she's at the club or doing yoga headstands on a paddle board while wearing a metallic bikini. A manager at a local health club, the 27-year-old has worked in the fitness industry for five years.

To look at her perpetually smiling face and to hear her chronically positive speech patterns, you would never know that Garner struggles with a serious addiction. Well, two serious addictions, actually. Like a number of her family members, she's in recovery for alcoholism -- she's been sober for nearly five months. But as she has gone through the process of eliminating alcohol from her life, she's found an incredible and somewhat baffling draw to another evil substance: sugar. Read on for the specifics of her problem, and a proposed solution from the country's leading expert on sugar addiction.

Most of the time, Garner's eating habits are "good." She eats a lot of vegetables, lean protein, healthful wraps, and organic natural juices and smoothies. Usually, her biggest vice is throwing back cup after cup of coffee and espresso throughout the day. But every once in a while -- say, once a week -- she wolfs down an entire box of cookies, half a chocolate cake, or a big bag of M&M's, and she doesn't know why.

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"It's kind of like a drug. It reminds me of drug addiction and alcohol because the cravings are similarly compulsive. I'll restrict myself from sugar because I know I have problems controlling myself with it. But after a certain length of time, I can't control it any longer," Garner says. "I get this craziness, and all I can think of is a sugar fix. My logical mind goes blank. It's like I'm on autopilot."

Next thing she knows, she's burying her pretty little face in a bag of Lindt truffles.

She says she never makes herself vomit after these binges, which is good, considering this type of bulimic behavior can lead to permanent intestinal problems, hearth arrhythmia or failure, tooth decay or loss, and even death. The downside, though, is that Garner has to sit in misery, waiting for her body to digest the mounds of sugar and fat so she can bounce off and frantically try to burn all of those excess calories. She commonly works out two or even three times a day, a routine she calls "exhausting."

When she came to me for advice on how to get off the sugary roller-coaster ride, I decided to consult an expert on the subject: Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., author of Beat Sugar Addiction Now! and several other titles related to sugar addiction and its effects on the body. The doctor maintains there are four distinct types of sugar addiction, fueled by (1) fatigue, (2) adrenal exhaustion, (3) yeast overgrowth, or (4) hormonal shifts.

Upon hearing about Garner's case, Dr. Teitelbaum almost immediately diagnosed her as a type 2, or "adrenal exhaustion" sugar addict. The doctor explained that when the body's stress handlers -- the adrenal glands -- are so overused that they can no longer function properly, a person can go into adrenal-fatigue mode. The intense sugar cravings that result are the body's frantic attempt to find another source of energy once the adrenal glands are totally tapped out.

"So people get this sudden irritability when they're hungry, and getting between this person and his or her sugar fix is like getting between a mama bear and her cub -- not a really safe thing to do," Dr. Teitelbaum says.

The first part of the solution to this problem can be found at the coffee bar -- but it's not coffee. "[Type 2 sugar addicts should] have a sugar packet in their pockets and pour half of it under their tongue and let it dissolve there," Teitelbaum suggests. "And all it takes is half a teaspoon and it goes immediately into your blood stream, and then your brain says, 'Hey, I'm happy again.' That's enough to beat those sugar cravings back. Then she should go ahead and eat some salted nuts she carries in her purse, or a hard-boiled egg would be good -- a healthy protein source."

Teitelbaum's solution -- one he has used to help thousands of people overcome sugar dependency -- is different from the wisdom of many food-addiction support groups in that it does not advocate total abstinence from white sugar or flour. Instead, he uses principles of biology and psychology to try to bring pleasure back to desserts while avoiding overindulgence.

"Pleasure is good, as long as it's working for you," the doctor says. "If chocolate cake is something I really want, and I'm sitting there and feeling guilty about the prospect of eating it, I'm going to inhale the whole platter and never have tasted it. But if I take a small serving and have that on a plate in my hand, I can walk anywhere in the room with that. So once I get far from the serving dish, then I can savor it with no guilt. Most of the pleasure is in the first two bites. After that you've saturated your taste buds anyway. Twenty minutes later, if you want more, you can have more, but chances are in 20 minutes you'll be thinking about something else anyway." 

The doctor also weighed in on Garner's heavy caffeine habit. "Normally, your blood sugar has to go down to a certain point before the alarm bells [that trigger a sugar binge] go off. When you have a lot of caffeine on board, those alarm bells go off quicker. So you have more of a hair trigger when it comes to these binge episodes." But once again, Teitelbaum does not advocate total abstinence from these pleasurable beverages. "Coffee and tea and most plant-based products are pretty healthy -- they're chock full of antioxidants. But it's when people are overdoing it and their bodies aren't tolerating it that it becomes a problem."

He suggests that Garner quit drinking caffeine after noon and that she opt instead for a natural licorice tea, which has properties that help people recover from adrenal fatigue and fight sugar cravings. (It's thought to reduce the amount of hydrocortisone broken down by the liver, reducing the workload on the adrenal glands.) He also recommends taking vitamin B5 and C supplements or taking a composite supplement specifically designed to alleviate adrenal fatigue.

As far as the link between alcohol addiction and sugar addiction, Teitelbaum says further studies need to be done.

"We don't know the why of the cross-addiction; the mechanism is not clear, but it's very common. That's why if you go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, they often have Twinkie and Ho Ho orgies. [Your friend] should really pat herself on the back for having taken a step to deal with the problem that's causing more harm in her life, and when she's ready, she can tackle this problem too."

To learn about the three other types of sugar addiction and how to treat them, check out jacobteitelbaum.com.

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