For individuals recovering from alcohol abuse, managing alcohol cravings can be a daily struggle. Here are seven strategies to help prevent relapse. Experts recommend recognizing triggers, avoiding high-risk situations, communicating effectively, building a support network, eating a nutritious diet, exercising and enjoying healthy, fun activities.
1. Recognize Triggers
An urge to drink can be set off by external or internal triggers. Recognizing these and avoiding them are key to quitting drinking and maintaining long-term sobriety. In many cases, getting involved in other activities can help.1
External triggers: People, places, things or times of the day associated with drinking opportunities or behaviors can easily cause relapse. High-risk situations are more obvious, predictable and avoidable than internal triggers.1
Internal triggers: An urge to drink may feel like it arises out of thin air, However, these triggers are typically set off by a fleeting thought, a positive emotion such as excitement, a negative emotion such as frustration or a physical sensation such as a headache, tension or anxiety.1
2. Avoid High-Risk Situations
The best strategy to prevent drinking is to avoid high-risk situations. Do not buy or keep alcohol at home. Family members can assist in this by not drinking alcohol at home or in the presence of loved ones in recovery. Avoid social situations in which alcohol is served. If you feel guilty about turning down an invitation, remind yourself that one day you may have the willpower to abstain when others are drinking around you. Avoid stopping by bars, even if you tell yourself it will only be for a few minutes. It is also ill advised to get together with old drinking buddies. Stay connected to other friends and suggest activities that don’t involve drinking.1
3. Communicate Effectively
Understanding alcoholism can help family members be more supportive and help you avoid triggers. It is best to have a conversation with your spouse, partner and other family members right after rehab and periodically thereafter so they understand the different aspects of recovery and associated challenges. Communicating effectively not only means expressing your views calmly and clearly, but listening to your family’s concerns.
4. Build Support Networks
Surround yourself with positive influences and people who help build your confidence and self-esteem. Without this support, it is difficult to make the necessary life changes required for long-term sobriety. The availability of a healthy social network is particularly vital during the early months of recovery. Ongoing attendance at support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and regular meetings with your sponsor are also key to maintaining sobriety.2
5. Follow a Nutritious Diet
Proper nutrition and hydration are key to the healing process because they help restore both physical and mental health and improve the chance of recovery. Macro- and micronutrient deficiencies can lead to depression, anxiety and low energy, all of which can trigger a relapse.3 Some foods are better at improving digestion, promoting steady blood sugar throughout the day and supporting brain chemistry. Healthy digestion optimizes the absorption of amino acids, vitamins and minerals to help reduce cravings. Steady blood sugar normalizes insulin and leptin, the hormones responsible for regulating hunger. 4 Eating adequate lean protein helps ensure the brain produces optimal levels of neurotransmitters associated with reward and feelings of well-being.
Individualized nutrition counseling and comprehensive nutrition education programs have been found to improve three-month sobriety success rates in people with substance use issues.5 A nutritionist who understands the particular needs of alcohol recovery can help create attainable meal plans and nutrition strategies. If you wish to get started on your own, here are a few helpful tips.3
- Don’t make major changes immediately. Gradual dietary improvements will result in better compliance with your new nutrition regimen.
- Eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day.
- Choose foods that are low in fat and include adequate amounts of lean protein to help rebuild muscles. Red meat and chicken are not the only sources of protein — peanut butter, walnuts and salmon are also good options.
- Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to get the necessary vitamins, fiber and minerals. Bananas are a known remedy for hangovers due to the potassium and are also a great choice in recovery because they increase dopamine and serotonin levels naturally.6 These important neurotransmitters help reduce recovery-related depression and anxiety.
- Because alcohol is converted to sugar in the body, when you stop drinking, the body craves sugar. Avoid processed, simple carbohydrates and opt for whole grains instead. A good choice is whole-grain bread because the complex carbohydrates metabolize slowly and kill sugar cravings for longer.
- Water is the single most important nutrient for your body. Besides a multitude of health benefits, it is required for every function of the body and can help reduce alcohol cravings.7
- Vitamin and mineral supplements may be helpful during and after recovery (including B-complex, zinc, and vitamins A and C).
Getting involved in physical activity may be a good way to replace self-destructive behaviors because exercise is believed to stimulate some of the same circuits and neurotransmitters in the brain as many addictive substances.8 As with nutrition, starting out slowly is more likely to result in sticking to your new exercise routine. Walking is a great place to begin and an activity you can do outside or inside on walking tracks or even at shopping malls. An optimal routine should focus on both cardiovascular exercise and strength training.
7. Enjoy Healthy Activities
It is common for alcoholics to give up activities they once found enjoyable. Part of recovery is about rediscovering hobbies and activities from one’s past and developing new interests. This will help alleviate boredom, which can trigger relapse and enable you to pursue fulfilling, healthier alternatives. The sky is the limit on the types of hobbies one can pursue — antiquing, arts and crafts, cooking, reading, going to movies and team sports are just a few of the ways one can enjoy leisure time and meet new friends.
Keep in mind there is not a universal best way to quit drinking long term. You may need to experiment until you find a combination of strategies that works best for your unique situation.
- Handling urges to drink. Rethinking and Drinking website. https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/tools/Interactive-worksheets-and-more/Stay-in-control/Coping-With-Urges-To-drink.aspx Accessed December 19, 2016.
- P-15 Questions & Answers on Sponsorship – Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous website. http://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-15_Q&AonSpon.pdf Accessed December 19, 2016.
- Salz, A. Substance Abuse and Nutrition. Today’s Dietitian. 2014:16(12):44
- The Hormones of Fat: Leptin and Insulin. The Paleo Mom website. https://www.thepaleomom.com/the-hormones-of-fat-leptin-and-insulin/ Published October 23, 2012. Accessed December 19, 2016.
- Grant LP, Haughton B, Sachan DS. Nutrition education is positively associated with substance abuse treatment program outcomes. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004;104(4):604-610.
- Foods That Reduce Alcohol Cravings. Livestrong website. http://www.livestrong.com/article/314904-foods-that-reduce-alcohol-cravings/ Updated June 13, 2015. Accessed December 19, 2016.
- Reduce Alcohol Cravings: 4 Proven Remedies. Stop Drinking Alcohol website. http://stopdrinkingalcohol.com/reduce-alcohol-cravings/2/ Accessed December 19, 2016.
- Collins N. The Telegraph. January 11, 2012. Alcohol releases addictive endorphins, study shows. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/9007356/Alcohol-releases-addictive-endorphins-study-shows.html Accessed December 19, 2016.