“Eat too much sugar for too long, and you’ll find that your brain rewires itself to look something like the brain of a heroin or cocaine addict.” ~ bodyecology.com
Opioid addiction is truly a problem, but I wonder why we’re not talking about an addiction that’s equally deadly and addictive: sugar.
I know it, because I’ve been addicted to both and I’ve recovered from both. I kicked opioids 10 times easier than I kicked sugar.
I’ve had a sweet tooth since childhood. I’ve never met a cookie, cupcake, or a brownie I didn’t like. I lived for muffins and banana bread. I love chocolate in every form, from a plain Hershey bar to fine Belgian truffles individually weighed and wrapped from a 5th Avenue chocolatière.
Because I ate a healthy, standard American diet—a good amount of fruits and vegetables, little fast food, no fried foods, and because I was always thin—I never thought twice about a sugar addiction. I didn’t even know there was such a thing.
Then I got cancer in 2012. The doctor told me diet didn’t matter. “There is no scientific evidence that changing your diet improves your chance of survival,” he said in his matter-of-fact voice both when I was diagnosed and after my hysterectomy when I asked if changing my diet would help me stay cancer-free.
I was told to go live my life. We had gotten “good margins” with the surgery (they cut all the cancer out) and I had a full five-year prognosis (cancer-speak for “it shouldn’t come back”). I went back to my life and my healthy standard American diet with daily treats.
But the cancer did come back—and with a vengeance. In February 2016, I was diagnosed with recurrent cervical cancer and it was deemed “incurable.” Again, I was told diet wouldn’t make a difference.
However, I had just been handed a death sentence I wasn’t willing to accept. I was going to see my then eight-year-old son graduate high school, dammit! I was not ready to leave him yet.
I became a sponge of how-to-beat-cancer books, videos, and podcasts. Over and over, I came across people who had cured their own cancer, and almost all of them had given up sugar as part of their recovery.
I got a nutritionist (several, in fact) through my two-year healing journey. On the top of every nutritionist’s list (except the hospital oncology nutritionist, interestingly enough) was to eliminate sugar.
The theory is this: cancer feeds on sugar.
Medicine knows cancer feeds on sugar because the definitive test to determine if a patient has a solid-tumour cancer is a PET-Scan that injects radioactive sugar to see if the cancer cells light up like a Christmas tree. Cancer gobbles up sugar the way Cookie Monster attacks a cookie.
So if modern medicine tests whether or not we have a disease by giving us sugar, doesn’t it stand to reason that sugar feeds cancer? Conversely, if we starve the cancer of sugar is there a chance it will die off like an unfed goldfish that a four-year-old won at a fair and forgot to feed? I believed it could, and I had nothing to lose except every food I’ve ever loved.
I was a petulant child about cutting sugar. First, I cut out the 3:00 p.m. mini-chocolate bars and handful of M&Ms at the office. Afternoons weren’t the same without my little sugar fix. Next, I got rid of my nightly cookie treat. I replaced it with Kind Bars or peanut butter.
As the months progressed we stripped down the layers of sugar like an onion. I realized sugar was in everything I ate. My nutritionist wanted me under 25 grams of a sugar a day, which is five grams below the World Health Organization’s recommendation of only 30 grams per day for women my size.
I got rid of Kind Bars, nut butters, condiments, crackers, cereal, and even fruit. Bananas were now a comfort food only to be enjoyed on really bad days. I ate homemade bone broth, pasteurised chicken and eggs, and organic vegetables.
I was doing a lot of other things to heal: increasing my spirituality, releasing repressed emotions, laughing more, meditating, and undergoing chemotherapy. On the food front, I also gave up gluten, soy, alcohol, dairy, and legumes.
Miraculously, I was getting better. I wasn’t able to link my lack of sugar to the decreased cancer cells, but holy hell did I want a muffin. When we eat foods high in sugar, it triggers the release of a chemical called dopamine. Without it, we go through the same type of withdrawal as a cocaine/heroin addict.
At the same time as I was going through my sugar withdrawal, the chemotherapy was knocking me to the ground. I had been in significant pain while the cancer grew, but once I started chemotherapy, I ended up in the hospital with what felt like late-stage labor pain—except this time, it wasn’t a contraction so it never let up.
After a four-day hospital stay to get the pain under control, I left with a Fentanyl patch on my arm, Dilaudid in my purse for breakthrough pain, and OxyContin just in case. Until that moment, I hadn’t even liked taking vitamins, and here I was now, taking opioids. I didn’t know what these drugs were, and I didn’t care. I was out of pain.
I was fully lucid on the drugs. I still worked my fancy-pants advertising job without skipping a beat. The drugs took the edge of the pain off, both emotional and physically. Off the opioids I was a shrieking banshee. On the opioids, I was Unikitty in Lego’s Cloud Cuckoo Land.
It was only because the opioid epidemic was getting national attention that I even realized how highly addictive these drugs were. First, I read that OxyContin was made from the same stuff as heroin. Now I finally understood why someone would be addicted to heroin.
OxyContin felt like being in my body without all the edges—like I was living my life as a happy observer. Like when I read a good book and feel like the character. I could see why someone would want to stay in this story.
Then I discovered the Fentanyl patch I was on was 10 times stronger than heroin. Oh, cuckoo. Cops, firefighters, and paramedics were dying just by touching the kind of Fentanyl patch I was reapplying every three days. I could kill my son and husband if I left one on the counter.
What had I gotten myself into? The Wonder Bread teetotaler panic alarm was blaring in the back of my head.
I asked my pain team how to get off the opioids. The response was, “You don’t. You’ll only increase from here.” They assumed I was going to die. Their job was to make sure I died pain-free. They weren’t worried about me getting addicted because I wouldn’t live that long.
None of my medical team believed—as my family and did—that I was a force of nature. So I tried to wean myself off. I waited longer and longer to put the patch on. Thinking the night sweats were caused by the cancer. Rationalizing the electrical sensations in my nerves—like they were an exposed wire in a rainstorm—was just a weird side effect of the chemo.
It wasn’t until I visited a school mom for tea during a patch-free day that my opioid addiction became clear. As I tried to impress this gracious, kind, mother-of-the-year type, my body freaked out. I couldn’t sit still. I danced around the room like Gumby, apologizing profusely. I couldn’t complete a sentence without jerking some part of my body as the nerves were electrified. My 100 pound emaciated chemo frame was one minute hot like a potato fresh out of the oven, and the next shivering like a child who stayed outside too long on a snowy day.
I had to accept I was addicted to opioids. I couldn’t live without them. I refused to be an addict as much as I refused to be cancer statistic. I steeled myself for the next part of my healing journey. Now, in addition to healing cancer and kicking a sugar addiction, I had to kick an opioid addiction.
I went back to my pain team and made them come up with a plan to start to reduce my dosages. They went along with it, I’m sure thinking once the pain started again, I’d be back. But again, miraculously, I started to heal. After nine months on opioids, I was able to wean myself off completely.
My personal opioid crisis seemed remarkably easy compared to the other battle I was waging against my sugar addiction. The physical withdrawal was more immediate and dramatic with opioids, but sugar was a long, painful, mental and physical game.
I cried. I cheated. I craved.
Walking down the grocery aisle, the memory of the sweet flavor and chewy, crispy texture of my favorite candy bars was as lustful as the memory of a sexy night with a one-time lover on a beach. If I fell off the sugar wagon I couldn’t stop eating more.
One scoop of peanut butter would become half the Costco jar. One gluten-free cookie became the whole batch.
“While sugar doesn’t have the same reputation as street drugs, know that you’re up against a substance as formidable as cocaine or heroin.” ~ bodyecology.com
We’re so busy thinking and talking about the opioid crisis that we’re missing an epidemic that’s making us fat, miserable, diabetic, hypertensive, and even causing or worsening ADHD symptoms. Sugar is the root cause or can exacerbate almost every modern medical condition. It provides no nutrients, rots our teeth, messes up our liver, disrupts our sleep, and it is highly addictive.
I’m no dietitian or nutritionist, but here are some tricks to weaning off sugar that helped me, so maybe they can help someone else:
Take it slow.
Like any addiction, there will be withdrawal. Our bodies have grown accustomed to having sugar. Without sugar, our bodies will crave simple carbohydrates to fill the gap. Bread, pasta, or a muffin will seem imminently more appealing. Try eating a good fat instead: avocado, nuts, bulletproof coffee. The fat fills us up which dulls the craving because at least the belly is full. Mentally we may still want the muffin, but not physically.
Don’t try to go cold turkey.
Like opioids, sugar triggers dopamine in our brains. It causes a euphoric high. That’s why it’s called a sugar high. And like all addictions, we need more and more of it to achieve the same high. Therefore, just like how I had to wean myself off opioids, I also had to wean myself off sugar slowly. First eliminate the obvious sugar. Try one of these tricks a week. Step-by-step, our bodies and minds will adjust to life outside a sugar high.
>> Drink coffee black instead of light and sweet.
>> Make water the primary drink by eliminating all soda, juice, and so-called “health” drinks. Even a single 20 ounce bottle of Vitaminwater has 32 grams of sugar, which is above the World Health Organization’s recommendation for an entire day’s consumption.
>> Replace candy with fruit when a midday pick-me-up is required so it’s a natural sugar high.
>> Just say “no” to desserts. It will also save money, calories, and sugar spikes.
>> Grab a glass of water at the first sign of a sugar craving. Often we’re just dehydrated when we think we’re hungry. Drinking more water will improve skin and digestion, so it’s always a good thing.
Address the emotional factors around why we eat sweets.
Sugar foods are comfort foods. We have a hard day or we’re emotionally wounded by whatever jackass thing our misogynistic boss or insensitive husband said. We want a comfort and reward. I used to call it a “cookie day.” We just need to find another way to care for ourselves and lick our wounds. Maybe a bubble bath or going to bed early with a good book. Self-care with a cookie is ultimately counterproductive.
The easiest way to not eat sugar is by not having it around. And when it’s gone, keep it gone by not buying any more. When I got serious about eliminating sugar, I purged my kitchen of all the ways to cheat. I gave candy away to friends and co-workers. I made my family treats like it was Mardi Gras followed by a serious Lent. I even made my frugal self actually throw food away. Like a drug addict who needs to flush their drugs, all sugar temptation needs to be removed.
Delete, don’t replace.
Getting rid of sugar doesn’t mean buying a bag of Splenda instead. Artificial sweeteners are just that; “artificial.” Sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose come from a lab. Their chemicals are even worse than sugar. These fake sweeteners are sweeter than natural sugar and change our taste buds to the point that fruits and naturally sweet things don’t taste as sweet. In addition, researchers found that saccharin is as addictive as cocaine in rats (in fact, they prefer it).
What’s the point? If sugar withdrawal is as bad as drug addiction, why bother with the pain? Why limit our pleasure because sugar tastes good?
For me, it is a matter of life or death. I believe sugar feeds my cancer. Therefore, I will forget the delicious smelling chocolate chip cookie in hopes to grow old with my son and husband. But knowing what I know now about sugar’s devastating health effects, I wonder if dropping sugar 10 years earlier would have prevented it. It certainly would have helped my digestion, improved my mood, purified my skin, and eliminated my insomnia.
I had to learn that giving up sugar is a choice many people can’t make. Some people would rather die eating their cake than live without it. I had to learn to honor that choice. I had to learn to let people make bad decisions.
Each of us is given that choice.
Author: Tracy White
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Copy editor: Callie Rushton