Australians now reserve two months of the year when they stop drinking and donate the money they might have spent on alcohol to charities. February and July are designated abstinence months and, according to reports in the Australian papers, the effect is by and large positive.1 Charities get sizable contributions and the temporary non-drinkers, according to self-reports, find themselves able to go to a gym on Sunday mornings or for a run rather than nursing a hangover. The one negative effect of giving up alcohol, according to a friend who is a health writer in Melbourne, seems to be a craving for sugary non-alcoholic drinks and sweet snacks.2
The link between a decrease in alcohol intake and increase in carbohydrate intake is familiar to those who have gone through alcohol withdrawal. Sweet carbohydrates such as doughnuts are served at AA meetings, and stories of intense sugar cravings among the newly abstinent are common. It is assumed that the reason for this carbohydrate craving is the need to replace the carbs in alcohol with those in sweet and starchy foods like pastries, chips or crackers. But most alcohol contains very little or no carbohydrate unless it has been added to make an intensely sweet drink like Sacramental wine or as syrup or sweetened fruit juice in a mixed drink. (Distilled alcohol contains no carbohydrates; beer and wine have between two and four grams per drink.) You would have to drink gallons of beer to equal the amount of sugar in a doughnut or cookie. So why do people crave carbohydrates as they go through withdrawal?
The answer may reside in how alcohol and carbohydrates affect mood.
Both alcohol and carbohydrates have the ability to change mood. Both are sought to quell anxiety and other emotionally painful moods such as depression. They may work by different mechanisms in the brain, and each presents its own set of side effects (although no one yet has been charged with a DUIC (driving under the influence of carbohydrates). And the calming effects of both are time limited. When they wear off, more cookies or cocktails may be consumed to renew the sought-after mood elevation.
High protein, low-carbohydrate diets prevent the synthesis of serotonin, the mood calming brain chemical that alleviates depression and anxiety. Interestingly, such diets have been associated with greater alcohol intake than those offering more carbohydrate and less protein. According to a review in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol by O. A. Forsander published several years ago, high-carbohydrate diets were associated with a significantly lower alcohol intake than diets with a high-protein, low-carbohydrate content.3 Might people seek alcohol to relieve emotional distress if their diets prevent serotonin synthesis?
The answer to this question requires further research. But it may explain why some people who can no longer rely on alcohol to ameliorate their moods seek carbohydrates.
It makes sense.
If some drinkers are self-medicating with alcohol to feel better, when it is no longer available they are left with nothing to help their emotional distress. Sugar and other carbohydrates eaten in very small amounts (25 grams) are sufficient to increase serotonin, and take the edge off painful moods. Unfortunately, the effect lasts only about three hours and when it wears off the cravings and the bad moods may return. Thus, the consumption of more sweet carbohydrates repeats.4
The solution may be for people in the early stages of withdrawal to imitate the eating patterns of people who successfully cope with weeks of depression, anger, lethargy and social withdrawal during the late fall and winter. These people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder have a chronic need to consume sugary foods but if they eat whole grain, complex carbohydrates instead, they will experience the same relief that they get eating gumdrops and chocolate bars. Moreover, since the starchy carbohydrates are digested more slowly than sugary carbohydrates, their good moods may last even longer.
So no to candy but yes to rice, whole-grain bread, oatmeal, potatoes, pasta, polenta and low- fat granola. Obviously eating carbohydrates is only one of the many strategies necessary to support people in their quest for sobriety. But the calm, focused mood brought about by nature's own tranquilizer, carbohydrates, may help in the recovery process.