It's the point at which having a cocktail is more important than looking at your child's art project. It's the moment you huddle outside your office in freezing temperatures to have a smoke. It's the panic of a morning meeting without coffee or an afternoon without chocolate. Few of us are truly free from alcohol, nicotine, caffeine or sugar; addictions can be subtle, sneaking up on us unawares.
In fact, most of us lean on chemical crutches without even realizing it. Some have been dietary staples since childhood, while others are time-honored coping tools. And that's the lure of addictive chemicals: They help you cheer up, calm down or just get by. And despite the certain health damage they cause, you can't quite give them up. Here, you'll find lifestyle, diet, herb and supplement tips to help you kick four socially acceptable—and often encouraged—substances that most of us are all too familiar with.
Addictive chemicals aren't inherently bad. Sugar and caffeine both increase energy. Caffeine and nicotine improve short-term concentration. Even alcohol, in moderate amounts, lowers heart disease risk. So when does comfort become curse? When your body stops working without the extra help.
Many addictive substances mimic neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine, dopamine and serotonin, that influence mood and thinking. Eventually, they can sabotage the body's ability to produce brain chemicals on its own. Without a natural supply of neurotransmitters, problem solving, mood, concentration and a range of other mental capabilities suffer. Outside chemicals quickly put things right again. The physical relief is genuine and sets up the next step—believing you can't function without coffee or a cigarette. When physical and emotional cravings for an addictive substance become so powerful that getting a smoke or after-work cocktail interferes with your job or relationships, then you've got a problem (see "Are You Addicted?").
Giving up sugar or coffee requires a strong resolve to replace bad habits with healthy ones. Filling the void previously satisfied by nicotine or alcohol requires even harder work—sometimes a lifetime's worth—and may require changing jobs or finding new friends. It's a daunting prospect, so be ready. Twelve-step recovery programs shine at providing members with strong social support. Join one or take their lead and rally friends and family to help. Know ahead of time what you will do instead of drinking or smoking, because when cravings come calling, you must be prepared.
"The first step is to make a profound commitment to changing your life," explains David Wolfson, ND, of San Diego. "Without that, nothing else will work. Beyond that, natural remedies will help."
Who's Your Master?
One addiction is easily traded for another. Recovering alcoholics commonly turn to nicotine and smokers may take to coffee in a quest to maintain an artificial rush. And sugar, the most basic of buzzes, is entwined with all three.
Sugar. It's simple. Without sugar, you'd die. "Sugar is not an addiction," stresses Wolfson. "It is an absolute need. It is perfectly normal to crave sugar—it's the primary fuel source for our cells." So don't fight your body's need for a late-afternoon snack. Feed it.
The question is, which sweet to eat. Refined simple carbohydrates such as table sugar, corn syrup and white flour rush the bloodstream. Once there, they spark serotonin release and spike energy levels. Just as quickly they're gone, leaving fatigue, aches and depression in their wake. Eventually, your body may lose its ability to adjust blood sugar levels, resulting in hypoglycemia and adult-onset diabetes. High-sugar diets are also associated with arthritis, headaches, obesity, and of course, cavities.
Control blood sugar levels and you're less likely to have intense cravings in the first place, says Wolfson. First, make sure you're getting enough fuel. Feed your body what it needs—complex carbohydrates from beans, fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and whole grains. They also supply sugar, but at a manageable rate. Cook with low-sugar alternatives, including maple syrup, molasses, or stevia. Try herbs such as fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare) or cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia), which are naturally sweet but provide nutrients.
Second, avoid blood sugar dips, which create a sense of urgency. Eat at regular intervals, snack frequently and don't skip meals. Eat more protein and fats, particularly raw or uncooked fats such as flaxseed, hemp seed and olive and avocado oils for lasting energy.
Chromium, one of the trace minerals typically removed from refined grains, is an important blood sugar regulator, says Wolfson. In addition, the B-complex vitamins, particularly B5, will help decrease sugar cravings and control blood sugar.
Finally, relax. The adrenal glands secrete cortisol, a hormone that controls blood sugar levels, but constant stress can overtax, and even damage, them. Try yoga, deep breathing and exercise.
Caffeine. Found in coffee, tea, cocoa and cola, caffeine increases heart rate and blood pressure. In moderate amounts, it curbs fatigue and enhances alertness, but too much caffeine usurps the body's natural rhythms. "Coffee makes us ignore what our bodies are really trying to tell us," says herbalist Brigitte Mars, author of Addiction-Free Naturally (Healing Arts Press, 2001). The result may be agitation, insomnia or heart palpitations. Heavy use can set off more serious conditions, including arrhythmia, high blood pressure and indigestion. Such symptoms are even more pronounced in former smokers. Nicotine helps metabolize caffeine, and without it caffeine accumulates and may deliver unexpectedly powerful effects.
Abruptly cutting off caffeine may invite headache, exhaustion and mood swings. So go easy. Drink one less cup a day, or substitute low-caffeine alternatives such as green and black teas, chicory and roasted dandelion root blends, or yerba maté. "Even though maté is a stimulant, it doesn't seem to provoke anxiety, cause insomnia or be addicting," says Mars.
Caffeine is a diuretic and depletes stores of magnesium, calcium, zinc and other trace minerals—many of which, ironically, are also needed to buffer coffee acids. A good combination mineral supplement will help make up the difference.
If you still feel fuzzy without your caffeine, Mars recommends ginseng (Panax ginseng) and ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) for mental alertness. And remember, the best energizers are regular exercise, sleep and high-protein foods.
Nicotine. Considered more addictive than alcohol, nicotine exquisitely mimics acetylcholine, a mood-altering neurotransmitter. It binds to nerve cells and prompts the release of other chemicals that increase circulation, constrict blood vessels and heighten alertness. As the body clears nicotine, it relaxes, but the longer you smoke, the shorter the pauses become, and the more nicotine you need.
Smoking reduces life expectancy, point-blank, by up to 15 years, according to the American Cancer Society. It cuts a gash of illnesses ranging from cancers of the esophagus, lung, mouth, pancreas and throat to chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease and stroke. Smokers also age prematurely, lose their sense of smell and taste and are prone to infections.
If you smoke to relax, try meditation and stretching exercises. Cut back on coffee and drink lots of water and fresh vegetable juices to flush away the nicotine. Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) contains the alkaloid lobeline that helps satisfy nicotine cravings. In large doses it can cause vomiting, so stick to small amounts or check with your health care practitioner. Calming herbs such as oat seed (Avena sativa), skullcap (Skutellaria lateriflora) and basil (Ocimum basilicum) can settle withdrawal jitters. "Oat seed is very calming and strengthening to the nerves," says Mars. "It helps to reduce anxiety, and it actually decreases the desire for many substances, including caffeine, alcohol and tobacco."
To keep hands and mouth busy, chew licorice roots and cinnamon sticks, or sip liquids through a straw. If you must nibble, limit snacks to raw vegetables or sunflower seeds that both nourish and distract. When you feel the urge to smoke, breathe (see "Little Rituals"). Deep breathing exercises increase oxygen intake and strengthen the lungs.
Finally, replace the nutrients smoking leaches from your body. "Nicotine interferes with B6," explains Wolfson. "Plus, the toxins and free radicals contained in smoke deplete the body's stores of vitamins C and E." Eat colorful, nutrient-rich foods, such as kale, squash and broccoli, and take an antioxidant supplement.
Alcohol. Like sucrose, alcohol is a simple sugar (ethanol) that speeds into the bloodstream. What isn't eliminated by the liver hastens to the central nervous system and impairs physical coordination, speech, thought and reflexes. It may either relax or exhilarate mood. Heavy drinking increases the risk of cirrhosis, diabetes, heart disease and stroke, in addition to the risk of fatal accidents caused by drunkenness. Unlike other diseases, alcoholism has profound social consequences—often ruining marriages and ending careers.
Many alcoholics have low blood sugar, and hypoglycemia may well be one cause of their addiction. So pay attention to your diet. Avoid sugars that increase alcohol cravings and trigger mood swings. Turn instead to the foods you likely neglect while drinking—protein-rich fish, lean poultry, tofu, legumes and nuts. Liver-cleansers, including tart apples, carrots, beets, burdock and raw dandelion root, help repair alcohol damage, says Mars, while celery, bananas and tomato juice with lemon can dampen powerful cravings.
If you drink for the rush, exercise. You'll feel more alert and less depressed. Mood-lifting foods, such as black beans, fava and lima beans, stimulate the natural production of dopamine, while St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) alleviates mild to moderate depression. "It has a tradition of being used for alcohol, caffeine and even tranquilizer addiction," says Mars, who cautions against using alcoholic herbal tinctures. Use capsules instead.
Vitamin B1 depletion is a classic consequence of alcoholism, but heavy drinking also robs the body of vitamins A, B-complex, and C, and the minerals calcium, magnesium and zinc. So supplement. "People who are addicted have nutrient imbalances," says Wolfson. "And until the body is in balance, imbalances may feed into the addiction and fuel the need for more alcohol."
Few are able to give up addictions on willpower alone. When combined with strong social support, natural remedies can help you move toward a healthier life lived on your own terms—not propped up on chemicals.
Catherine Monahan is a health and science writer and a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.