May 31, 2015 10:38PM
by Lisa Marshall
Through 15 years of alcohol and prescription drug addiction, one prominent Virginia business owner tried it all to get clean: three inpatient rehab centers; talk therapy; Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), spending roughly $200,000 in the process.
“I would follow through for about a year, and then start to feel like I was on top of things and get complacent,” says the 52-year old, who asked that her name not be used. She’d treat herself to “just one drink” and soon find herself in a familiar downward spiral. She last relapsed in October 2012. Three months later, she was on the Interstate in the morning, a half-empty four-pack of mini wine bottles on her front seat, when she swerved and slammed head-on into a semi-trailer truck. She escaped her flattened car with minor head trauma, gratitude that her children didn’t have to “bury their drunk mother,” and a renewed will to sober up and rediscover happiness.
Today, she’s done just that, thanks to a comprehensive, holistic approach that included hiring a life coach that specializes in addiction, overhauling her diet, making time for daily physical and spiritual exercises and reframing her addiction, not as a disease she is cursed with, but as a predisposition she has the power to keep at bay.
“Yes. I was passed a gene by my alcoholic father. Yet that only becomes a threat to me when I make a choice to ingest something that cuts the beast loose,” she says. “I work hard every day, using a whole bunch of different tools to keep that from happening.”
She counts among a growing number of alcoholics and addicts reaching beyond the standard trifecta of 28-day rehabs, 12-step programs and psychotherapy toward an approach that addresses mind, body and spirit. More than 40 million Americans over the age of 12 (16 percent of the population) are addicted to alcohol or drugs, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at New York City’s Columbia University. Yet the standard treatments yield less-than-stellar success rates.
Sixty percent of addicts return to drug use within a year after rehab, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and only 5 percent of AA attendees continue with meetings after 12 months, according to AA research. David Essel, a Fort Myers, Florida, life coach who specializes in working with substance abusers, says that when examining all the data, only about one in 10 addicts or alcoholics that use conventional means alone are still clean after one year. Fortunately, because people vary widely in emotional needs and physiologies, other complementary options are also catching on.
Mending Brain and Body
Enter a group meeting for recovering addicts or alcoholics and chances are there will be a pot of black coffee, plus donuts or cookies. “Having poor eating habits is a primary contributing factor to relapse,” says Registered Dietitian David Wiss, founder of NutritionInRecovery.com, which provides nutrition consulting for recovery programs in Los Angeles. Because substance abuse can deaden appetite and many of the same neurological circuits that drugs and alcohol stimulate are also activated by salty or sugar-laden foods, newly recovering addicts tend to be ravenous and drawn to junk food. “After 30 days in treatment, people can gain 10 to 30 pounds. They often turn back to addictive substances they’ve abused to get their appetite back under control,” says Wiss. (Because smoking deadens taste buds, drawing people to seek out more intense salty or sugary flavors, it exacerbates the problem.)
In a subconscious attempt to get maximum stimulation of now-neglected reward centers in the brain, users often eat little all day, then binge later, leading to erratic blood sugar levels that can impact mood, further sabotaging recovery. After years of abuse, addicts also tend to suffer deficiencies of proteins and good fats—key building blocks of a healthy brain.
“The brain has been rewired due to the use of substances. Without healing it, you can attend all the meetings in the world and you’ll still struggle with cravings,” reports Essel. He starts new clients with 500 milligrams (mg) daily of the dietary supplement DL-phenylalanine, an amino acid precursor to feel-good neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine. He also gives them tyrosine, an energizing amino acid said to quell sugar cravings. For relieving a craving in progress, he recommends 500 to 1,000 mg of glutamine, placed under the tongue.
Wiss says he generally recommends food over supplements, yet asking newly recovering addicts to also revamp their diets can be tough. “I wouldn’t expect anyone to make a big nutritional change in their first week of sobriety,” he says. After that, he encourages small steps: Drink eight glasses of water per day. Eat three meals and three snacks to keep blood sugar stable. Load up on fiber, which can help heal the gut and replenish it with healthy bacteria. Eat plenty of lean protein to promote production of feel-good brain chemicals. Load up on nuts, seeds, fatty fish and other omega-3 fatty acids that suppress inflammation in the brain and have been shown in some studies to quell depression.
Daily exercise is also key, Wiss notes, “Exercise circulates our blood and gets all those healthy nutrients into our brain.”
Physical activities can also help fill the void and even provide a new sense of identity for someone whose self-esteem has been shattered, says Scott Strode, founder of Denver, Colorado’s Phoenix Multisport, which hosts group cycling, running and climbing outings for recovering addicts and alcoholics.
Strode kicked his own cocaine habit 18 years ago by immersing himself first in boxing, then climbing and triathlon. He founded Phoenix in 2007 to help fill what he sees as a gaping hole in recovery support services—a place where people with similar pasts can gather and talk without dwelling exclusively on their dependence issues. He has since served 15,000 people in Colorado, California, and Boston, offering 60 free outings a week for anyone at least 48 hours sober.
“By being part of something like this, you can let go of the shame of being the addict, the junkie or the one that let down the family. Now you are the climber or the mountain biker,” says Strode. He stresses that Phoenix programs aren’t intended to replace treatment. Still, “For some, just that redefining of self may be enough. For others, it’s a powerful tool in a broader toolbox.”
Co-founded in 1935 by an alcoholic named Bill Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous now has 2 million members and has played an important role in many successful recoveries. However, its God-based approach (five of the 12 steps refer to God or Him), a credo that alcoholics must admit “powerlessness” and its emphasis on alcoholism as a defining disease aren’t for everyone. Naysayers point to a 2006 finding by the nonprofit Cochrane Collaboration that states, “No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or 12-step approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems.”
Such concerns have prompted some alternative recovery fellowships, including Moderation Management (Moderation.org), which helps people that want to drink less; and Smart Recovery (SmartRecovery.org), which supports an ethos of self-empowerment via cognitive behavioral therapy, nutritional changes and group discussions. Other programs focus on renewing the soul by applying metaphysical practices to the traditional 12 steps.
“The conventional 12 steps talk about a higher power outside of you,” says Ester Nicholson, a singer, author and addictions counselor. In her book Soul Recovery: 12 Keys to Healing Addiction, she describes a descent into crack cocaine addiction beginning in her teens, and the long climb out of it.
At first, she says, the 12 steps helped her break free of what she calls the “spiritual malady, mental obsession and physical allergy,” that is addiction. But after a decade of being clean, followed by a near-relapse, she discovered meditation and other spiritual practices. “I realized that this higher power can restore me to sanity, but the higher power is actually within me. I found this wonderful bridge between the 12 steps and universal spiritual principals, and it is rocking my world.”
Patti Lacey, 54, an Essel client, likewise found lasting sobriety by extending her toolbox, learning to focus not only on past pain, but on bringing forth her best self. According to the International Coach Federation, which reports an uptick in interest in recovery coaching, a coach helps to establish individual goals and map a journey to success.
Two years into recovery, Lacey still takes her supplements daily, rises at dawn to meditate, attends 12-step meetings and is part of a nondenominational church community. She also regularly meets with her coach to report progress and update goals, including getting a handle on her finances, a frequent casualty of addiction. “Everybody’s journey is different,” Lacey confirms. “What I needed was someone to tell me exactly what to do in the beginning, and then be around to hold me accountable. That changed everything.”
Lisa Marshall is a freelance health writer in Boulder, CO. Connect at LisaAnnMarshall.com.