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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Food Addiction and the 'Physical Allergy'

When AA got its start, it began with several 'revolutionary' concepts:

- Will-power is not enough to cure the alcoholic
- The cure for alcoholism is spiritual in nature
- Alcoholism has a physical component based on an atypical reaction to alcohol which is referred to as an 'allergy'

Since that time, the concept of physical dependence has been well-studied.  We now know about dependency, and its withdrawal aspect, which occurs when the human body adjusts itself to the 'poison' of the substance being ingested and comes to 'need' it.

What is trickier to understand, however, is that this allergy which the founders of AA spoke of is not as much about dependency and withdrawal as it is about the experience of intoxication itself.  In a nutshell: some people like being drunk, and others do not.

I know a number of people who do not drink heavily because anything more than being a little 'high' is very unpleasant.  They like being in control of their faculties and resent the loss of coordination, vision problems, and mental slowness that comes from the second or third drink.  However, there are many people who enjoy this feeling, and for a small percent, the feeling of intoxication is extremely pleasant.

This last group has the 'allergy' or unusual reaction to alcohol.  They are immediately effected by it in a profound way that leaves them desiring more.

So, now the question comes up: can a person have a 'food allergy' in this same way?  Can food itself have an 'intoxicating' effect?

I think there are two ways of looking at this intoxication: physically and spiritually.  

In the first case, physical intoxication it made up of two components, the first being the effect of the chemical itself directly against the human body, and the second being the body's release of chemicals to combat the effects of the chemical.  In the case of alcohol, the alcohol and its metabolized components have a direct effect on the body.  It is rather complex, so if you are interested, you can read more here:

However, the second and actually more difficult aspect to explain is how two people can go through this same chemical experience and yet derive two entirely different experiences, either pleasant or unpleasant.  Human beings can derive a variety of opinions from the same object: one person 'loves' spinach, while another person 'hates' spinach.  The spinach is the same, but the perception is different.

This gets to the crux: the allergy spoken of in AA is more about the individual's 'opinion' or perception of the experience of intoxication.  For example, I've had several major surgeries in the last few years and been given a pain medication that I hate, yet I've known quite a few people who absolutely love the drug I was prescribed and abused it heavily as addicts.

Years ago, a fellow told me this story.  He was new to AA, and one of the 'Old Timers' told him, "Kid, there's good news and bad news for you about this disease.  The good news is that this disease a a problem of perception.  The bad news is, that's a big %@#& problem!"

Addiction is a matter of perception, and as we all know, perceptions are often impossible to change.  A bad experience can often ruin our further enjoyment of an activity or place.

This now goes back to food: the experience of food can become an addiction, and while the food addict can remedy many of his underlying problems through the Steps, his real battle is to work with God in modifying his experience of food without the 'ecstatic' component.

For many addicts, this ecstatic experience largely has to do with context.  So, water tastes 'better' if you have been working in the sun for an hour without a break than it does sitting on your couch on a Saturday afternoon watch TV.

The food addict will experience less ecstasy if he has worked the program and dealt with the underlying issues that made food seem all that more important than it is.  As his own sense of well-being and happiness improves the perception of a 'need' dissipates.  However, because he has developed the 'expectation' of food as a highly-pleasurable experience, he must constantly watch his intake and the conditions under which it occurs.

This perception issue is a big problem.  

I will discuss more about this in terms of how the Fathers of the Church wrestled with this 'appetitive' issue.  Our understanding of this is not new.  Ascetics have struggled with it for years.

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