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Drinking Habits

Sugar Cravings And Alcohol: What’s the Connection?

July 5, 2023
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 5, 2023
19 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 5, 2023
19 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 5, 2023
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 5, 2023
19 min read

You're almost all set: you’ve got your favorite corner of the couch, and it’s time to rewatch a little Ted Lasso. The only thing missing is a drink, so you open that bottle of wine or crack a beer. Now, that's an image of a cozy evening we can all appreciate, isn't it?

But wait — you suddenly find yourself with an irresistible urge to devour a plate of brownies or dig into the ice cream. Sound familiar?

As it turns out, sugar cravings during and after indulging in alcohol are common. Cravings for sweets can also show up as part of a hangover and during withdrawal. What’s going on here? And what about sugar cravings after quitting alcohol? Let’s find out!

What Is Sugar, and Why Do We Crave It?

Before diving deeper into how alcohol and sugar intersect, it's crucial to understand what sugar is and the many forms it takes.

A person eating donut with alcohol

All sugars are carbohydrates — organic molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They’re mainly found in plant-based foods, but they also appear in some animal products like milk. Depending on their structure and complexity, carbohydrates can be classified into three main categories:

  • Monosaccharides. These are the simplest form of carbohydrates, consisting of a single sugar molecule. Examples include glucose, fructose, and galactose.
  • Disaccharides. These consist of two monosaccharide molecules joined together. Sucrose (table sugar), which is made of glucose and fructose, is a well-known disaccharide. Lactose (milk sugar, from glucose and galactose) and maltose (from two glucose units) are other examples.
  • Polysaccharides. These are complex carbs, made up of many sugar molecules linked together. Common polysaccharides include starch (found in grains and tubers), glycogen (the form in which our bodies store glucose), and cellulose (a major component of plant cell walls).

Types of Sugar

Sugars represent the simpler forms of carbohydrates — the monosaccharides and disaccharides. Unlike complex carbohydrates (such as beans, oatmeal, and potatoes) that offer sustained energy and other nutritional benefits, sugars provide a quick energy boost because they are more easily and rapidly absorbed and metabolized by the body.

There are a few different types of sugar:

  • Glucose. A primary source of energy for our bodies, glucose can be found in our bloodstream, and it's what doctors are measuring when they check blood sugar levels.
  • Fructose. Found in many fruits and vegetables, it's sweeter than glucose and is metabolized differently in the body.
  • Sucrose. Fructose is often combined with glucose to form sucrose. This is the white granulated stuff you might dump into your morning coffee or use in baking. It's extracted from sugar cane or sugar beet plants.
  • Lactose. This sugar is found in milk and dairy products, and it’s made of glucose and another sugar called galactose.
  • Maltose. Found in certain vegetables and grains, maltose consists of two glucose units.

It's also important to differentiate between natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars are those inherent in whole foods — for example, the fructose in an apple or the lactose in milk. Added sugars are those incorporated into foods or beverages during processing or preparation, such as the sugar in a can of soda or a candy bar. These include high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, dextrose, barley malt, and agave nectar, to name a few.

Our Brain on Sugar

So what makes our favorite sweets so tempting? Sugar triggers a release of dopamine — the "feel-good" neurotransmitter — in the brain. Dopamine exists to reward us for behaviors that keep us alive, such as eating a good meal, accomplishing tasks, and reproducing.

Traditionally, humans have struggled to get enough food to survive. As a result, dopamine rewarded us when we ate calorie-dense food that gave us much-needed fuel — and sugar is not only calorie-dense, but a quick source of energy. In our era of abundance, this mechanism is a bit outdated, but it still exists, and it’s the same reason we crave those burgers and french fries (talk about calorie-dense!).

This is why we feel a burst of pleasure or satisfaction when we consume sweet foods or drinks. However, repeatedly spiking our blood sugar levels can have adverse effects on our health, possibly leading to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Sugar and Alcohol Addiction

When we drink alcohol, our bodies see it as a toxin and prioritize breaking it down over other metabolic processes — including the process of maintaining optimal blood sugar levels, another essential (but slightly less urgent) function carried out by the liver. As a result, introducing alcohol into the system can lead to a sudden spike in blood sugar levels.

The body responds to this initial surge by secreting insulin to manage the spike. As we continue to drink, our blood sugar levels may start to drop, inducing sugar cravings. As a result, drinking can ultimately lead to lower-than-normal blood sugar levels, causing that familiar, gnawing hunger — especially for something sweet.

Over time, the double blow delivered by sugar and alcohol can spell trouble for the body — especially for the liver, which is already vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Science shows that overdoing high-fructose sweeteners, which are often found in both alcoholic drinks and sweets, can cause fatty liver disease.

The Willpower Factor

Moreover, alcohol is notorious for loosening our inhibitions and weakening our willpower. Yes, our resolve about maintaining a balanced diet seems to disappear after a drink or two — and it’s not really a matter of willpower. Alcohol impacts the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control. Under the influence, the PFC has a more challenging time doing its job, making it easier to give in to that sweet tooth.

The Buzz About Dopamine

Let’s go back to dopamine for a minute. Alcohol also has a sneaky way of hijacking our brain's reward circuits. It stimulates the release of dopamine despite providing no tangible reward.

So, when the alcohol starts to wear off, and the dopamine levels dip, the brain craves another hit. One option is another drink, but sugar is another quick and easy solution to keep the dopamine party going.

In addition to dopamine, alcohol also affects levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for mood regulation. There are healthy ways to get a serotonin boost — for example, through exercise or from certain foods, such as salmon. However, when the brain gets used to the quick serotonin “freebie” provided by a drink or a box of cookies, it starts to expect it, causing cravings for one or the other as soon as our levels drop. This is also why mixed drinks often lead to more sugar cravings than wine or clear spirits — the brain gets used to the sugar hit that comes with the booze!

Diagram about managing sugar cravings

Sugar Cravings Before and After Drinking

While the connection between sugar cravings and alcohol is backed by science, it's essential to understand how this relationship evolves based on the stage of alcohol consumption. Why do alcoholics crave sugar? What’s the connection between sugar and alcohol addiction? And why do we get sugar cravings after quitting alcohol?

Here's a brief breakdown:

  • Sugar cravings while drinking. As we sip, introducing alcohol into our system can lead to a sudden spike in blood sugar levels, igniting those sweet cravings.
  • After drinking alcohol. Once the glass is empty, our stabilizing system hunts for a sugary pick-me-up. The liver, which typically helps in glucose production, is busy metabolizing alcohol, leading to a potential dip in glucose levels. This is when we’re most likely to crave sweets as the body seeks a quick energy source.
  • During hangovers. Nursing that groggy head? Your recovering body yearns for a sugary energy surge. A hangover is the body's way of telling us it's recovering from the toxins introduced by excessive alcohol consumption. One symptom can be hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, resulting from the liver's prolonged focus on metabolizing alcohol. This hypoglycemia can lead to intensified cravings for sugar as the body seeks to restore its energy balance.
  • During alcohol withdrawal. Why do we find ourselves craving sugar after quitting alcohol? Breaking free from alcohol's grip, the body searches for familiar sugar highs. During withdrawal, the body is relearning to function without alcohol. It's common for those in withdrawal to experience a range of symptoms, including a disrupted glucose metabolism. The body might crave sugar as it associates it with the same pleasure and reward mechanisms activated by alcohol.

Keeping Cravings in Check

Sugar is one of the most difficult substances to quit or cut back on. In fact, studies regularly show that sugar is more addictive than cocaine.

Understanding the science behind the situation is half the battle; recognizing where you are in this cycle can help you anticipate, understand, and manage sugar cravings better. Now let's explore some steps that can help manage these cravings:

  • Stay hydrated. As a diuretic, alcohol leads to dehydration, which can sometimes be confused with hunger. So, drink plenty of water before, during, and after drinking to keep dehydration (and false hunger) at bay.
  • Watch the labels. The World Health Organization recommends a maximum of 25 grams of sugar per day. And don’t ignore those so-called “diet” foods — a single cup of low-fat vanilla yogurt can be loaded with a whopping 34 grams of sugar!
  • Go for protein. Consuming protein-rich foods before or while drinking can slow the absorption of alcohol, helping maintain blood sugar levels and keeping cravings in check. So the next time you're choosing snacks, think cheese, chicken, or chickpeas.
  • Choose your drinks wisely. Not all drinks are created equal. Some cocktails are loaded with sugar, which can intensify cravings. Opt for low-sugar options instead.
  • Taste-training regimen. Start by slightly reducing the sugar in your regular meals and drinks. For example, if you typically add two teaspoons of sugar to your tea, cut back to one and a half. Over time, your palate will adjust, making overly sweet foods and drinks less appealing.
  • Start a mindfulness practice. By being in the moment, you can become more aware of when and why you crave sugar. This awareness can help you pause before reaching for that candy bar, letting you make a conscious choice and not just impulsively satisfying a craving.

Sugar and Alcohol Addiction: Finding Your Sweet Spot

Our body and brain can pull some tricky stunts when alcohol is in the mix, but remember — you've got the upper hand. With a better understanding of what's happening, you can stay ahead of those pesky sugar cravings and outsmart sugar cravings after quitting alcohol, enjoying life without the looming shadow of the sugar monster!

Remember, it's all about finding what works best for you. Everyone’s body and mind is unique, and so are our responses to alcohol and sugar. Experiment, mix and match, and find your own unique recipe for dealing with sugar cravings after drinking. Here's to a sweeter journey and healthier habits!

Summary FAQs

1. What triggers sugar cravings after drinking alcohol?

Drinking alcohol can lead to lower-than-normal blood sugar levels, causing a desire for something sweet. Additionally, alcohol stimulates dopamine release, and as it wears off, our brain seeks another dopamine boost, often from sugar.

2. Why do we often choose sugary foods when our inhibitions are lowered?

Alcohol impacts the prefrontal cortex, which controls decision-making and impulse control. Under its influence, this part becomes less effective, making it easier to give into sugar cravings.

3. How does alcohol interact with our brain's neurotransmitters?

Alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine, creating a “feel-good” sensation. It also affects serotonin, which is responsible for mood regulation. When these levels dip after alcohol wears off, our brain craves another boost, often from sugar.

4. What's the difference between sugars and carbohydrates?

All sugars are carbohydrates, but not all carbohydrates are sugars. Sugars are the simpler forms, like monosaccharides and disaccharides, providing quick energy. Carbohydrates also include complex forms, like polysaccharides, which offer sustained energy.

5. Are there naturally occurring sugars and added sugars?

Yes. Naturally occurring sugars are found in whole foods, like the fructose in fruit. Added sugars are incorporated during food or beverage processing, such as the high fructose corn syrup in sodas.

6. How can one manage sugar cravings after drinking alcohol?

Some strategies include staying hydrated, choosing low-sugar drink options, consuming protein-rich foods, engaging in physical activity post-drink, developing a post-drink ritual, using naturally sweet spices, and trying aromatherapy with specific essential oils.

7. Why is sugar consumption a concern in relation to alcohol?

Both sugar and alcohol can strain the liver. Consuming high amounts of fructose, commonly found in alcoholic drinks and sweets, can lead to conditions like fatty liver disease. Overconsumption of either can also lead to other health concerns.

Say Goodbye to Alcohol-Related Sugar Cravings — and Maybe Alcohol as Well

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

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