So, recently, I heard a rant about the evils of artificial sweeteners. Sigh. I hear a lot of these rants. Specifically, it was how “artificial sweeteners make you fat” because apparently they cause your insulin to spike just like sugar, and then — since you don’t have blood sugar to scavenge, you get reactive hypoglycemia. This was delivered as received wisdom — complete with a pretty chart — to a captive audience, by a “licensed naturopath” from BasTyr. There’s so many things wrong with that, I don’t know where to start.
I drink a lot of Diet Coke. Always have. Love the stuff. And I struggle with my weight. It’s not because of the Diet Coke; it’s because of the everything else. But, to satisfy my own curiosity, I started looking on Google Scholar for links between sucralose (Splenda) and insulin. Now, there are some links between artificial sweeteners and hormones that trigger hunger, and the jury’s not yet in on the overall and long-term safety of artificial sweeteners (some studies show an alteration in gut flora from the sweeteners, and gut flora are really important to weight and blood sugar maintenance). However, sugar (in all of its forms, including “all natural” and “organic” forms) has a clear, documented history of being bad for you in these areas. So we have one, that might be bad for you, but we don’t know yet, and one that definitely is bad for you. Which do you pick?
Anyway, after my little research binge, I decided to stop drinking Diet Coke for a week. I lasted four days. This hiatus wasn’t because “OHMERGAWD Splenda [or Nutrasweet, or even the much-maligned saccharine] will KEEEL YOU!” but rather because it didn’t add any nutrition to my diet, and was just an added expense, lots of acid in my system, and just… why? I knew that quitting caffeine would give me a raging withdrawal headache, so I substituted about an equal amount of coffee, and called it a day.
Now, earlier in the week I’d run out of sugar free popsicles. I ate those as an (almost) free “sweet treat” when I had sweets cravings. I usually bought them in bulk, but again, I figured “meh… why bother? No nutrition, nothing good for me, more money, I’ll just skip it.” The idea was to see how I felt at the end of a week and re-evaluate.
I started noticing something… odd. First, I started craving Diet Coke. And popsicles. Anything sweet, really. I mean, really craving it. Like, fantasizing. And I was thinking about other stuff I don’t usually think about — candy bars and ice cream and… well, anything sugary and sweet. I never realized what a sweet tooth I have! And I never realized how much I use Diet Coke to fill that sweet tooth.
But it went deeper. I have been sober for about seven months now. For the most part, it’s been easy. I almost never have physical cravings. Once in a while, the thought of a beer seems lovely, but not at the price I’d have to pay. But all of a sudden, I found myself thinking about alcohol. Weird…
And, it went deeper still. Of course, I can’t drink, so I didn’t. I did resolve to start drinking Diet Coke again if the alternative was to risk my sobriety. But before that, I had a weird moment of… clarity. I have this bizarre need to tap my feet or shake my legs sometimes. It’s like… nervous energy. In fact, when I introspected, I realized that my sweets cravings and my alcohol craving were both tied to this… restlessness I felt. I felt like something was “buzzing” in my chest, like I was “wound up” and needed a way to release it. Whenever I felt that feeling surge up, I would crave a sweet treat, or alcohol, or have to jiggle my feet. Someone at my class suggested that these symptoms sounded like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, so I looked it up. Sure enough, that sounds like me. Exactly like me.
But I don’t feel anxious. In fact, right now, my life is about as peaceful as it’s ever been. I don’t drink, so I don’t have the chaos surrounding that. My job is boring, but going relatively smoothly. My legal troubles are on simmer — I’m doing what I have to do to stay out of trouble. I’m even paying my debt down. And I have a quiet, work-from-home job where I spend most of the day relaxing on the couch with my puppies. What on earth could be anxiety-provoking about that?
But… it fits. I’ve had anxiety disorder in the past. I used to have panic attacks, and I still do have bursts of anxiety. Usually it’s when I haven’t slept (or am, god forbid, hung over). But it’s unusual, and I know how to deal with it, and it goes away. But reflecting on the symptoms — the tense, “clenched” feeling, the buzzing feeling in my body, the restless foot-tapping, even the feeling like doom is just an unlucky roll of the dice away — yup. I have GAD.
So, a couple of things. First of all, is my drinking an attempt to medicate away my GAD? I never really thought about it before, but very often I’d drink because I felt “bored and restless.” But that’s the way I described my anxiety, before. I thought I was just bored; I never connected that with anxiety. Was the alcohol an attempt to soothe that constant, low-level anxiety? I have commented before how I love the first few drinks, that feeling of “ahhhhhh…” like I am finally completely relaxed. Have I just been trying various coping strategies to distract me from constant, underlying anxiety? The implications of that are staggering; if I can improve the GAD, maybe almost all the other “bad habits” I have will improve.
Second, I have been paying attention to this feeling. This “restless,” nervous energy feeling. One of the things I’ve noticed is that it goes away, and stays away for some time, after specific events. Getting out of my house. Getting some exercise. Socializing with people I trust. This should be a clue! All of these things are things I avoid, and yet all of them seem to be healthy ways to soothe my underlying restlessness and anxiety. I should Do Them More.
Finally, I’m woefully unaware of my “true feelings,” if this is all valid. I thought I was just “a little bored” but mostly lately really relaxed and peaceful. But if this is true, I have actually basically been wrestling with anxiety all my life. Maybe it just doesn’t usually break into my consciousness — I don’t know. But if I have this hard of a time identifying something as fundamental as anxiety, what else am I missing? It makes me both fearful and hopeful; it makes me fearful because I realize I really don’t know myself very well. I think I know when I’m hungry, angry, lonely, tired. But it seems like I really don’t.
It makes me hopeful because it means there’s still room to grow. My life story isn’t written yet; if I can work on this — maybe mindfulness meditation will help me get more in touch with my own thoughts and feelings? — I might be able to significantly improve my quality of life.