If You’re Newly Sober, Beware of these Substitute Addictions

If You’re Newly Sober, Beware of these Substitute Addictions

Among the factors that lead to addiction, the brain’s dopamine system is thought to play an especially important role. The dopamine system is involved with motivation and reward-seeking behavior among other things. One reason drugs and alcohol are so hard to quit is that the pleasure from substance use massively over-stimulates the dopamine system, leading the user to fixate on repeating the experience. Often, people find when they first quit drugs or alcohol and for several months after, they feel the lack of this dopamine response. It often feels like boredom, depression, emotional flatness, or loss of interest in things they used to enjoy. However, in normal life, the dopamine system plays a crucial role in our survival. Any necessary activity is reinforced in the brain the same way as drugs and alcohol are, only not quite as powerfully. As a result, many sober people attempt to fill that void with more acceptable behaviors, which may turn into replacement addictions. The following are some common replacement or substitute addictions to watch out for.


Food is one of the most common substitute addictions. We all have to eat anyway and as a basic need, eating is strongly reinforced by the dopamine system. This may lead newly sober people to eat more than usual. This is especially true of foods high in sugar, salt, and fat–all things that were rare in the human diet until relatively recently. Unfortunately, sugar and fat are also high in calories and eating them in excess can lead to problems such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and sleep disorders as well as mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. 

People recovering from alcohol use disorder are especially vulnerable to developing a sweet tooth. Several studies indicate that the majority of people with alcohol use disorder and people recovering from alcohol use disorder–anywhere from 88 to 96 percent, depending on the study–are hypoglycemic, meaning they have low blood sugar. Symptoms of hypoglycemia may include headache, blurry vision, shaking, irritability, hunger, nervousness, sweating, difficulty sleeping, confusion, or fatigue. Having a sweet snack can relieve these symptoms quickly but temporarily. Unfortunately, treating hypoglycemia symptoms with more sugar just leads to a roller coaster of blood sugar levels and symptoms keep returning. Getting hypoglycemia under control typically requires adopting a healthy diet and perhaps getting treatment for liver damage caused by excessive drinking.

An interesting point about substituting food addiction for substance addiction is that it goes both ways. Studies have found that many people who overcome food addiction following bariatric surgery later develop addictions to drugs or alcohol. The same is often true for people who overcome eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.


Since the whole appeal of gambling turns on uncertainty and the possibility of reward, it is one of the few activities that delivers a dopamine response comparable to drugs or alcohol. Most people believe that we get a dopamine response when we engage in a desired activity, whether it’s eating cake or drinking alcohol, but in fact, the dopamine comes in anticipation of a reward. The dopamine response is even bigger if that reward is uncertain, which it always is when gambling. For that reason, gambling is a dangerous replacement addiction. It is even more dangerous when you consider that casinos typically offer their customers free alcohol to keep them playing. The last thing someone recovering from addiction needs is to be offered free alcohol every few minutes. 

Sex and love

Along with food, sex and love are things that are strongly reinforced by nature. Most people are aware that sex addiction can be dangerous because it can damage relationships and increase the risk of sexually transmitted infections and other dangers, but love addiction is problematic too. New relationships are exciting and full of possibilities but that initial rush doesn’t last forever. Endlessly going from one relationship to another may be rationalized by trying to find the right person but in reality it may be an attempt to fill the void left by drugs and alcohol. This is one reason experts recommend having at least a year of solid sobriety before you start dating again.


On the whole, exercise is good for you and should be part of your recovery plan. Many studies have shown that exercise improves mood, reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety, and reduces the risk of relapse. One way exercise is thought to help with mood is that it raises levels of endorphins and endocannabinoids in the brain. These are the same chemicals that make you feel good when you use drugs and alcohol but not quite as intense. Although exercise is generally good for you, some people do get addicted. While exercise addiction is certainly less harmful than, say, heroin or alcohol addiction, it can result in injuries, neglecting your other responsibilities, and generally replacing one unhealthy coping mechanism with another. 

Treatment may reduce the risk of substitute addictions.

Typically, when a transfer addiction occurs, it’s because the addiction is a symptom of an underlying problem that hasn’t yet been addressed. For example, most people who have a substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental health issue like depression, anxiety, PTSD, a personality disorder, schizophrenia, an autism spectrum disorder, and others. It’s crucial to treat these conditions simultaneously with addiction. What’s more, a quality treatment program teaches clients healthy ways of coping with their emotions so they don’t have to rely on substances or replacement addictions. One study found that people who received quality had a significantly lower risk of developing a substitute addiction.

At Patrick Hart Consultants, we provide a number of different services to fit the needs of each individual client. Among these, are helping you choose a treatment provider, helping you develop a treatment plan, helping you establish post-treatment support, and ensuring continuity among the different elements of treatment. Contact us today at 844-262-7970 or Info@PatrickHartConsultants.com or explore our website for more information.

AUTHOR: Hart Consultants