Chapter 1: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Are you aware of yourself, smart and sensitive to others' feelings? Are you committed to your own personal growth? Do you care about things deeply? Do your friends value you and respect your opinion? Are you successful in your work? Are you usually confident and hopeful about your future?
But do you sometimes feel your confidence slip away, leaving you in self-doubt and despair? Does it seem "crazy" that you can be so clear one day and so desperate the next? Worse, you may drop from the heights to the depths in the same day. It's almost as if another person were inside you.
You hate to admit it, but you can be moody and impulsive. You want to get things done, but your attention drifts. You lose energy and get tired. You crave sugar and turn to sweets and snack foods to get yourself going again. Sometimes you eat compulsively. You put on weight. You seem to have no self-discipline. You often feel depressed and overwhelmed.
You may have consulted your doctor. You may have gotten counseling from your pastor or a psychotherapist. You may have been put on Prozac or one of the other antidepressants. But something is still wrong. Your life is still not the way you want it to be and you can't seem to find an answer that works.
If this description fits you, you may be sugar sensitive. Your body chemistry may respond to sugars and certain carbohydrates (such as bread, crackers, cereal and pasta) differently than other people's. This biochemical difference can have a huge effect on your moods and your behavior. How you feel is linked to what you eat -- and when you eat it.
Listen to Emily's story:
I was overweight, depressed and exhausted all the time. I had a lot to be grateful for in my life, but something was wrong. Why didn't I feel better about myself? Why was my battle with those extra twenty pounds so hopeless? Why didn't I have the energy to do more in life? I was so discouraged.
I drank several cups of coffee a day, snacked on gummy bears, and ate healthy foods like pasta, vegetables and fruits. I avoided fats and high-calorie desserts. Sometimes I grazed throughout the day, sometimes I'd skip meals and eat only once a day. Although I had tried lots of diets, I always regained the weight I lost. I would start an exercise program, stick to it for a few weeks, then go off my diet and stop exercising. I still was overweight and hating it. I felt like a failure in this part of my life and I was ashamed of it.
Often I couldn't sleep and I was plagued by anxious feelings. Sometimes my heart would start racing for no reason. I had sudden outbursts of crying or anger. I tried therapy, figuring I was just "not right." But it wasn't enough.
So I went to my doctor and told her my long list of problems. She looked concerned and ordered a series of exams. I too was concerned. Maybe I was starting menopause early. I even worried I might have a brain tumor. A week later my doctor called. "I have good news and bad news," she told me. "The good news is that you are not in menopause and you don't have a brain tumor. The bad news is that I don't know what is happening. Your lab tests and your physical exam results are all normal."
Frustrated and depressed, Emily came into my private practice in Addictive Nutrition. She told me she was a recovering alcoholic with nine years of successful sobriety and had heard that I was using nutrition to help people with her symptoms. After listening to her story and asking her some questions about her background and her eating habits, I recognized what was wrong. I had seen it time and again in women and men seeking help for compulsive eating, alcoholism, drug addiction or this strange collection of symptoms that had not responded to other treatments.
Emily was neither clinically depressed nor suffering from the effects of a bad childhood. She was not weak-willed or lazy. She was sugar sensitive. Emily had a special kind of body chemistry that made her more vulnerable to the mood-altering effects of sweet foods and refined-flour products than her friends were. She was caught in a vicious cycle of highs and lows controlled by her blood sugar levels and her brain chemicals. Emily responded to sugar as if it were a drug.
Sugar sensitivity turns a person into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's like having two different people live in your body. From one moment to the next your fine sensitivity and openness turn into moodiness and irritability. Your confidence and creativity dry up, only to be replaced by low self-esteem and hopelessness. Your visions for the future dissipate into the frustration born of not following through.
This emotional Ping-Pong remains inexplicable without an understanding of sugar sensitivity. Like Emily, millions of people who have sugar-sensitive bodies are caught in the pain of not understanding a problem that controls their lives. Sugar-sensitive people seem to know instinctively that something is wrong but cannot make sense of what it is.
Do you feel this way? If so, your intuition may be right on target. If you are sugar sensitive you are not inherently weak-willed or without self-discipline. Your behavior reflects a skewed body chemistry which you have tried to correct unconsciously by self-medicating with sugars and carbohydrates.
Your sugar sensitivity is a problem that you inherited. You did not create this dilemma. It is not your fault. What's more, it is a problem that can be solved. I have an answer that you have been seeking for a long time. Clear and simple, the solution to sugar sensitivity makes perfect sense. As you begin to understand how your blood sugar levels and brain chemicals work and interact, you will start to appreciate the power of your own body. Instead of being driven by your body chemistry, you will begin to chart your own life. You will find a straightforward explanation for the behavior you have struggled with for so long -- and a straightforward solution based on giving your body the kinds of foods it needs to keep your emotions in balance and your life in forward gear.
This book tells the story of sugar sensitivity.
Naming the Problem
The story of sugar sensitivity comes out of my own personal history and my work with thousands of clients in addiction treatment. After a long career in public health I started an addiction treatment center in 1988 because I wanted to make a difference in people's lives. The typical recovery rate for alcoholism is dismally low. People relapse. People relapse again -- and again and again. Although addiction experts have tried many alternatives, the picture remains pretty grim. A 25 percent success rate is considered good. But accepting not being able to help three out of every four people who came into my clinic was out of the question for me. I knew there had to be a better way -- and I set out to find it.
My determination to beat the odds comes out of my personal history. When I was sixteen my father died of alcoholism at the age of fifty-one. He was a brilliant, sensitive man who couldn't find his way out of the bottle. They say he loved to party as a young man; by the time he reached middle age he was drinking a fifth of vodka every day.
My father stayed sober for one year, the year I turned eleven. He was a career officer in the Air Force and his superiors had threatened to discharge him from the service if he didn't stop drinking. So he went into detox and rehabilitation for the first -- and only -- time. I remember that year well. With my father sober, life was so much better for all of us. Everything I had secretly dreamed of was happening and we finally lived like a normal family.
One year later, despite being sober, my father was discharged from the Air Force for alcoholism. Past job evaluations had followed him and the Air Force did not recognize -- or perhaps did not believe -- his commitment to sobriety. In losing his job, my father was cut from his lifeline. His sobriety and our family's newfound stability careened rapidly downhill. Five years later he was dead.
It took me twenty-five years to grieve the loss of my father. At the time I felt only relief -- relief that I no longer had to be ashamed of his drinking. All I wanted then was a normal teenage life. After Dad's death, we all colluded in creating a family myth that he had died suddenly of pancreatitis. In reality, he had been dying of alcoholism for five years, but not one of us ever talked about it. We just carried on, folding our wounds into the tapestry of our lives, each trying to make sense of the tragedy alone.
"Don't Tell. Don't Feel. Don't Share."
My history has shaped me deeply. Because of my father's alcoholic behavior I learned to pay close attention to the interpersonal dynamics around me. I learned to immediately "read" the emotional temperature of almost any situation. I learned to grow up early, become a high achiever, be the hero in my family. Most of all, I learned the inviolable rules of an alcoholic family:
"Don't tell. Don't feel. Don't share."
"What you see isn't really happening."
"Everything is fine, even though you feel something else."
I learned to live in dissonance. I kept confronting the discrepancy between what the folks around me said was true and what I experienced in my body and in my heart. I challenged my mother about the lies of our family life. I challenged my religion teachers about the difference between what the church said and how people acted. I constantly asked questions about the gap between the ideal and the real. I studied everything I could to try to find a solution for the dilemma of this discrepancy. I wanted to live what I believed and I wanted the world to do the same.
At nineteen, still dreaming of the perfect family, I married and had three babies in rapid succession. But the gap between my ideal life and my real life still loomed large. Although smart and successful both in school and as a new parent, I was overweight and subject to extreme mood swings and sudden drops in energy. Sometimes I was filled with self-confidence and felt clear and focused. At other times I would drift into a sort of "la-la land" and forget to buy milk for the children. My husband thought he'd married Dr. Jekyll and ended up getting Ms. Hyde, too. He wondered how my behavior could change so quickly. As for me, I didn't really notice my own behavior. I was well trained to overlook dysfunction, including my own.
My marriage stopped working when my youngest child was six months old. Neither my young husband nor I knew how to make a relationship work or how to ask for help. Single again, I returned to college, worked full-time and threw myself into the task of raising my children. In the evening, after I had put everyone to bed, I sat on the couch with Coke and popcorn, reading philosophy and folding laundry.
When I was twenty-six I came down with mononucleosis, which damaged my liver. Because my liver was impaired, alcohol made me sick, so I stopped drinking. It was a straightforward decision, but it probably saved my life. As with most children of alcoholics, I was a sitting duck for alcoholism. My body chemistry was primed to need alcohol, and had I kept drinking I would have gone from enjoyment to dependence to abuse.
Turning to Sugar for Solace
But abstinence from alcohol nudged me onto a different path of addiction. Alcohol hadn't hooked me, but sugar, ice cream, pasta, bread and soda did. These seemingly harmless foods wrapped me in a cocoon so thick and numbing that I never missed the alcohol.
When I finished college I went on to complete a master's degree in management and counseling. The high-achieving child of an alcoholic that I was, I was hired as the director of a nonprofit program before I even finished my degree. Eighteen months later I was promoted to supervise a hundred staff members. On the outside I appeared successful, competent and skilled. On the inside I was running from my own feelings. I sensed a huge pool of pain swirling below the bravado. I wasn't aware of the impact of my father's alcoholism on me and I hadn't a clue about what was driving my life.
Finally, at the age of thirty, I could no longer ignore my pain. I realized I needed help and I went into therapy. Because I was the head of a community mental-health center, I thought I should maintain the appearance of being emotionally "together." So I traveled two hours and a hundred miles each way every week to see my therapist. She encouraged me to express my anger. "I won't," I would say. "Anger kills. It isn't safe." For a whole year we argued. Finally I let myself go and got angry. But my anger was directed not at my father or my family -- it was directed at my therapist. I was angry about the direction of my therapy and the dissonance I felt between what she was saying and what she was doing. Two days later she committed suicide. It was hard for me to understand that her death was not my fault. I was just thirty and no one even knew I had been in therapy. "Don't tell," "don't feel" and "don't share" still drove my response to pain.
I didn't have the skills to make sense of the pain so I turned to doughnuts, a new town and a new job. Perhaps a new life would make things better. I moved to a place near the ocean. I was comforted by the sea. I lived next door to an ice cream parlor. I was comforted by the ice cream. I gained more weight. The early pattern my ex-husband had identified continued. I was still Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde. When I was good I was very, very good, and when I wasn't, I fell apart. I tried hard to hold it all together, but when I hit forty I realized that my life would unravel if I didn't try again to face my pain. The old gap between my inner feelings and my external life had stretched to the limit.
My solution then was to move to California, where the softness of the hills, the sound of the sea and the openness of the people all soothed me. I reconnected to the child within me who loved to swim and dance and laugh. I started feeling good about myself, but my weight and my mood swings continued to plague me. After every diet I gained back the weight I'd lost. Because I thought my problem with food had its roots in emotional wounding, I worked on my inner development for years. I read hundreds of books, attended dozens of groups and seminars, and filled countless journals with poetry.
No matter how much inner work I did, though, I seemed to be fighting a losing battle. The needle on my bathroom scale was now nearing 240, but I thought the problem was just a matter of willpower. When I developed enough discipline, everything would be fine. As time went on and things didn't change, I lived with deeper and deeper feelings of inadequacy.
Lessons from the "Drunks"
In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- an inner sense of hopelessness, I continued to be committed to helping others heal. I was asked by the county I worked in to start a treatment center for alcoholics and drug addicts. To me, the idea of doing this work felt like "coming home" and I leapt at the chance. Once the clinic got going I found myself frequently abandoning my desk to work directly with our clients. The alcoholics who came into our clinic mirrored both my father's story and my own. They were trying to keep their lives from crumbling beneath them.
Although I had spent twenty years working in public health, I only really began to get it about alcoholism and drug addiction when I heard these people's halting voices and listened to their painful stories. What I learned was that what we were doing -- counseling, support groups and pleas for abstinence -- didn't work particularly well. Even "good" treatment done by sensitive, caring and trained professionals didn't help much. Our clients kept relapsing despite their best intentions to "work the program." Our recovery rate was no better than the national average. I needed to find out why.
The more I listened to the "drunks," the more I was struck by some missing link between what I heard them say and what I felt. I knew in my heart that their addiction to alcohol was not about a lack of willpower. I knew drinking wasn't just an easy way out to escape unpleasant feelings. Something else was going on. I was convinced that if I discovered this missing link our treatment program for alcoholism might succeed.
At the same time there was a troubling discrepancy between my work at the clinic and my own life. Although I hadn't used alcohol in eighteen years, I had never been in any kind of recovery program. I didn't see my compulsive use of food, particularly sugars and carbohydrates, as an addiction. I just thought I was fat and that this was a function of my early childhood issues. A thousand failed diets had convinced me that I was a slug who couldn't get it right. Since I was successful on the outside, I hid my feelings of despair and put in even longer hours.
Yet as I worked with alcoholics and drug addicts, I started being drawn subtly into recovery. At moments, I wished I were an alcoholic myself so I could put words to my own suffering. I didn't have a name for my story then, but I began to see that I was going to have to live out the ideas I was teaching. I didn't want to just teach recovery, I wanted to have it.
This meant I had to confront my past. So I started learning what it meant to be the child of an alcoholic, what it meant to be codependent, and how playing the role of the hero -- taking responsibility for others' needs instead of my own -- had shaped my professional development. My ending up in charge of an alcoholism treatment center, surrounded by a "bunch of drunks," was no accident. By the grace of something much bigger than myself, I stayed with the process -- working on myself while I worked with the men and women at my clinic.
Discovering Food as Pharmacy
My recovery focused on using the Twelve Steps which originated in Alcoholics Anonymous and started with the idea of surrender to a "higher power." The idea of surrendering to a higher power didn't work for me. But surrendering to something "deeper" did. So I handed my life over to the something deeper and asked for help. One day, by chance, a friend told me that she had been following a food plan that had really worked for her. She was eating protein and vegetables. I tried it and started losing weight, which surprised and pleased me. But even more astounding was what happened to my moods and behavior. I didn't crave sweet things. I didn't dream about bread and pasta. My emotional ups and downs evened out. I wasn't confused or foggy at certain times in the day. I was able to think clearly. I got things done. I set goals and moved toward them without a constant struggle to stay focused.
Although I had done a lot of work on my inner self, I knew the changes I was experiencing were not psychological. They were physiological. I hadn't suddenly gotten my act together. Something had happened in my brain and in my body, and it felt like the missing link I'd been searching for. I had changed my food -- mostly by cutting down on sugars and starches -- and subsequently experienced a huge change in my physical and emotional well-being. I began to wonder whether, being the child of an alcoholic, I had inherited an alcoholic's body chemistry. Perhaps alcoholics and compulsive eaters like me are hypersensitive to sugar. Perhaps my body physiologically craved sugar the same way my father's body had physiologically craved alcohol. If so, I thought, wouldn't this hold true for my clients as well?
So I went to my clients. Asking these men and women what kinds of foods they ate revealed data that was no surprise to me. My clients' eating habits closely resembled my own previous eating patterns. No wonder I felt such an affiliation with these "drunks"! Almost none of them ate breakfast, few ate regular meals, most ate a very high percentage of white bread, pasta and cereal, and all ate a great many sweets. Whenever I talked to clients who were unable to stay sober, I found they were eating primarily sweet things and refined-flour products.
Almost immediately I added nutritional awareness as one of my clinic's steps to recovery. I put together a food plan for sugar-sensitive people, a plan based on protein, complex carbohydrates (like whole wheat, potatoes and brown rice), fruit and vegetables. The food plan was simple, easy and affordable. The plan I developed filled in the gaps I had experienced in my friend's program when I had used it myself. I intuitively knew that eating only protein and vegetables wasn't the best alternative -- our bodies need more carbohydrates on an ongoing basis than her plan provided. But if I kept the basic concept, added complex carbohydrates and continued to minimize the use of sugars, I was sure the revised food plan would work. I also added an educational component directed at the addictive personalities of my clients.
I told my clients that this food plan was not a diet but a way of eating for life. I explained to them my theory about sugar sensitivity and how it might be predisposing them to alcoholism. When I told them that eating sugar could sabotage their recovery from addiction by priming them to crave alcohol, they sat up and paid attention. Then they tried the food plan -- and got remarkable results.
As my clients changed their diets, their lives began to improve in a number of ways. Compared to other clients we had seen at the clinic, their withdrawal symptoms passed more quickly and gave them less discomfort. Their mood swings mellowed. Their cravings diminished. Their energy increased. They were more enthusiastic and commited to their recovery than ever. People who had never been able to achieve sobriety began getting -- and staying -- sober.
After using the food plan with several hundred men and women, I found we were achieving unusual success with alcoholics and drug addicts. The track record told me it was time to establish a scientific basis for the changes I saw coming from my food plan. I decided to leave my job and sell my house to start working on my Ph.D.
Finding Out Why It Worked
My doctoral research took me into professional journals and academic textbooks on nutrition, endocrinology, psychopharmacology, psychiatry and addiction. I learned about the wide-ranging effects of blood sugar and the powerful emotional impact of certain brain chemicals, chemicals which can get pushed out of balance by an overuse of sugar.
One of these brain chemicals, serotonin, was becoming better known to the public, thanks to the advent of Prozac, the new antidepressant that boosts serotonin levels and brings feelings of optimism, creativity and peace of mind. To my astonishment, the other brain chemical I was learning about, beta-endorphin, was as critical to emotional well-being as serotonin but was not being discussed outside scientific circles. My reading showed me that beta-endorphin has a direct impact on a person's self-esteem, tolerance for pain (including emotional pain), sense of connectedness to others and ability to take personal responsibility for action. You'll learn all about this amazing brain chemical later in the book. For now, let's go back to my story.
As I worked on my doctorate I found that all of the biochemical facts I was learning fit with my clinical results to form an elegant and compelling story. My research confirmed my suspicions -- and the name I had given to that story. Sugar sensitivity has a basis in rigorous science. I was amazed that no one was telling the public about it.
For my doctoral dissertation I conducted a study to measure the effect of my food plan on the toughest audience I could find -- multiple-offender drunk drivers. These people -- mostly middle-aged men -- had not been able to stay sober despite huge court sanctions and intensive drunk-driving education and counseling. All of them had already gone through an entire forty-hour first offender program, had paid thousands of dollars in fines and fees, and had now lost their driver's licenses for eighteen months. I worked with a group of thirty of these "hopeless" alcoholics for four months and at the end of my outpatient treatment program, 92 percent of them had gotten sober and stayed sober. These clients weren't drinking and for the first time in their lives they were experiencing recovery. Eighteen months later I checked back with them and only a few were back to serious drinking. The rest maintained their sobriety or had significantly reduced the level of their drinking. These same results continue as the program has grown to serve close to two hundred people.
In addition, my success with sugar sensitivity went far beyond helping people to stop drinking. At the same time I was working with drunk drivers, my private practice was filled with women and men who were overweight or ate compulsively, adult children of alcoholics who felt tired, crazy and depressed, and former addicts and alcoholics who, though clean and sober, still didn't feel well.
I became known as "the lady of last resort." When people had tried everything and still felt rotten, they came to me. I explained to them how their blood sugar, serotonin and beta-endorphin worked and showed them how to use my food plan. When they tried it, these people experienced the same miraculous shift that my drunk drivers and I had experienced. Not surprisingly, word began to get out. More and more people from across the country called me for help. I promised I would write a book about sugar sensitivity and the crucial role of beta-endorphin.
Potatoes Not Prozac is that book. It offers you a simple program for counteracting the effects of sugar sensitivity and shows you how to make that miraculous shift happen in your own life. What's more, you will be able to do this without going on another deprivation diet. You will not have to throw away the foods you love. You will not have to make radical changes that drive you crazy.
The seven-step program you'll learn is a gentle, simple process that respects your style and your needs. You will be able to read your body and design a food plan that works for you. During this process I will help you understand the "why" of feelings you have never been able to resolve. You will come to understand what you have known intuitively but been unable to name. You will find an answer you have been looking for.
Potatoes Not Prozac is for every child of an alcoholic and every man and woman who is tired of looking good on the outside while feeling bad inside. It is for everyone stuck in addiction, depression, low self-esteem and compulsive behavior. This book is my story and it is your story. It is the story of all of us who have waited so long and tried so hard to get free of these "crazy" feelings and our Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde behaviors. One powerful answer is biochemical. One answer is sugar sensitivity.
Copyright © 1998 by Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D.