Caffeine In Early Recovery

coffeeOccasionally someone asks if they should give up coffee when they get clean and sober, since caffeine is “just another drug.”

Although some treatment centers recommend going caffeine-free, and some replace “regular” with decaffeinated, it’s beginning to seem more and more like that isn’t necessarily a good idea. If something isn’t making our lives unmanageable, it can usually wait until we’ve been in recovery for awhile.

In any case, there is a broad range of beneficial effects from consumption of caffeine, including increases in the levels of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine and glutamate. Many of the symptoms of withdrawal and post-acute withdrawal are associated with low levels of these chemicals, so there is good reason to think that the benefits of drinking coffee in early recovery may offset the disadvantages, which include shakiness and insomnia, among others.

Recent research has also shown that the antioxidants in coffee, along with the antioxidant effects of caffeine itself, benefit long-term coffee-drinkers by destroying free radicals in the body that are associated with heart disease and Alzheimer's.

Please keep in mind that we are referring to reasonable levels of consumption. More than 300 mg. of caffeine (one Starbucks Pike Place brewed) within three or four hours can cause anxiety, and even one cup of brewed coffee can cause elevated blood pressure in those who aren't used to drinking caffeinated beverages. As is true of most things not used in moderation, it is pretty obvious that sucking down too much joe won’t do us a lot of good, but a couple of cups of fresh-brewed coffee won’t be likely to do most of us any damage, either.

Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired — A Major Cause Of Relapse

Folks who abuse alcohol and drugs often have problems controlling their blood sugar when they stop using. That can be due to poor eating habits, but it can also be due to craving the stimulation that we receive from eating sweets. (It can even be related to diabetes. Alcohol is particularly hard on the pancreas, the organ that produces insulin.) Whatever the cause, fluctuating blood sugar (glucose) can cause a variety of problems, from grumpiness to inability to think clearly — even relapse.

How can low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) be related to relapse? Simple. When we were using, our sugar fluctuated frequently because of our poor eating habits, and most of us drank or used drugs when hungry instead of getting a good square meal under our belts. That often relieved our symptoms, and over time we came to think of feeling hungry as needing to use. OK? Combine that feeling with anger and an inability to think clearly. Does that sound like a recipe for relapse to you?

Breakfast of Champions (Not)

Here's how it usually goes: I start feeling hungry, so I have a snack — usually a “high-energy” snack, like a donut or candy bar. Maybe I wash it down with a cup of coffee, or one of those monster energy drinks that us recovering people — still seeking relief from chemicals — seem to love so much. I just gave myself a nice jolt of sugar from the snack, and maybe the drink had sugar added, too. In addition to that, the caffeine causes my liver to release a chemical called glycogen, which is rapidly converted by the body to even more sugar.

The result is that I get a huge blast of sugar all at once, and my blood glucose shoots up. This causes my pancreas to produce a lot of insulin (the chemical that allows glucose to enter the cells from the blood). This provides a quick jolt of fuel to the cells, and combined with the adrenaline prompted by the caffeine, it gives me a real lift. Wheee!

The lift is short-lived, however. As soon as the blast of insulin brings my blood glucose back down, I'm hungry again and back in the dumps. I may even be worse off than when I started, because sometimes the blood sugar will fall even lower than it was before. Candy and caffeine work in the short term, but not for very long. Smoking makes it even worse. It's easy to see what happens next: we have another Twinkie and some more coffee or Red Bull (or maybe just the caffeinated, sugary drink). Zing! There we go again.

We can chase our blood sugar curve all over the map that way, and all we'll get out of it in the long run is  jitters, insomnia, and perhaps worse.

Hello? The smart thing to do when we're hungry is eat. It's best to:

  • have a good breakfast (coffee and donuts is not the breakfast of champions).
  • have a low sugar snack mid-morning
  • eat a reasonable lunch
  • snack again in the afternoon
  • and have dinner.

Another snack before bedtime will help us sleep. If we do it right, breaking our meals up into three meals and three snacks, we can actually end up eating less than usual, because we won't be devastatingly hungry at any point.

Better nutrition, calmer, better mood, clearer thinking, better interpersonal and work relationships, better sleep, less chance of relapse, and a possible start at some weight loss. What's not to like? Give it a shot. Next time you're starving, avoid sugar and caffeine, eat a package of peanut butter crackers, and see what happens.  Let us know how it goes.