March 10

Broken Minds in a Broken System

Cory grew up in a violent home. He turned to alcohol at an early age. He also suffers from schizophrenia. When he drinks, he sees the world as a threat and responds in kind. He was released from prison a few months ago after a decade for making a threat he did not have the ability to carry out.

Cory needs psychiatric help. He’s been on a waiting list for months. Now he’s back in jail, awaiting trial for getting drunk and making a threat he had neither the means nor the knowledge to act on.

Jack, too, grew up in a violent household. He turned to drugs at age 12 and lived on the streets for a time. He recently graduated from a recovery house and is trying to live clean and sober. But Jack suffers from bipolar disorder. When he gets manic, which is about every other week, he gets paranoid and believes the world is out to get him. The only way he knows how to manage this is through self-medication. Needless to say, he hasn’t stayed clean for more than a few days at a time.

Jack, too, has been on the waiting list to see a psychiatrist. In his desire for help, he went to the emergency room and was hospitalized, but the medications they put him on didn’t help. He wound up back there again last week, in a suicidal depression after a week of manic behavior and drug use. The doctors changed his medications and sent him home.

These two men, both of whom want to change their lives, may be just statistics for most people, sad stories that we want to believe are the exception rather than the rule.

I don’t have that luxury. Like them, I have struggled with addiction. Like them, I suffer from mental illness– in my case, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). And like them, I struggle to get help in a broken mental health system.

When Trauma Comes Home

My recent troubles began, like so many things, with Covid. The isolation caused by the pandemic not only led to depression, but eliminated a lot of my regular coping mechanisms. Visiting friends and working at the library became impractical if not not impossible. My world shrank to our home, and my family became my social circle. Between Covid and the weather, my 6-year-old, special-needs son has only been to school about one day a week this year, causing his problem behaviors to multiply and adding to my emotional challenges.

Meanwhile, our political situation deteriorated, frighteningly resembling a traumatic situation I experienced almost 30 years ago. I’ve done a lot of work on my trauma over the past two decades, but now the nightmares returned. So did the irritability, depression, and sensitivity– all classic symptoms of PTSD.

I’d been seeking help. It took over two years to find a practitioner who dealt with trauma (and accepted my insurance), and I’ve only been working with her for a couple of months.

About two weeks ago, unbeknownst to me, my 16-year-old intentionally startled my wife. She let out a blood-curdling scream. And something inside me snapped. I left the house and drove around for two hours, unable to deal with my feelings and the world around me. I scratched myself because the pain felt good.

After much internal consideration of less desirable alternatives, I went to the hospital. They shipped me to a facility two hours away, where I received medication and watched TV for a week. (I hate TV, so this was not a relaxing vacation.) Then they released me, advising that it would take weeks to know if the  medication was really helping. The side effects are arguably worse than the PTSD symptoms they are intended to treat, and the psychiatrist I saw after leaving the hospital immediately discontinued the medication.

Our Broken System

Our mental health system is broken. It doesn’t do prevention or healing, it manages crises. Getting an appointment if you’re not in crisis can be difficult or impossible, even with health insurance. Waiting lists are long for those who are not bad enough to be hospitalized.

For those requiring hospitalization, our system uses a “catch and release” approach, diagnosing and medicating patients, then sending them home before the effects of the medication on that specific person become evident. How often have we heard a psychiatrist, following up on a hospital visit, say, “I don’t know why they selected that medication!” When side effects crop up, refer to the previous paragraph. Your options are to suffer, or go back into crisis management. Six years ago, I was hospitalized three times– once for the condition, and twice to deal with the life-threatening side effects of the supposed treatment of the condition.

And our system doesn’t do healing. Instead, it manages crises of symptoms with medication. It works for some, but many do not find relief. This approach pays little attention to addressing the underlying condition– much like using pain pills without treating the broken bone.

There are exceptions. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, for example, has been shown to reduce both the frequency of crises and, for some conditions, the need for medication. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is incredibly effective in treating trauma. Long term inpatient substance abuse treatment, when paired with mental health care for underlying conditions, can be very effective not only in treating addiction, but in preventing future mental health crises. But there isn’t enough of it. In fact, in many communities, there isn’t enough mental health care available, period.

A system is defined as “a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.” By that standard, our mental health “system” isn’t a system at all. The parts don’t work together. Some parts are missing.

Does ignoring our mental health make the problem go away? Hardly.

An estimated 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of jail inmates have a mental health problem. –“The Processing and Treatment of Mentally Ill Persons in the Criminal Justice System
Few of these prisoners get treatment. Most will return to incarceration after being released.

Counting the Cost

We pay for our nation’s mental health problems, whether or not the treatment is effective. But instead of recognizing the problem, we ignore it or criminalize it. By official estimate, we pay $80 billion per year to incarcerate 2.3 million people, But that doesn’t include the out-of-pocket costs to the families of the incarcerated. One wonders, what kind of a nation would rather pay for jails and prisons than treatment facilities for its sick citizens?
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the nation, and the 2nd leading cause (behind accidents) for Americans aged 10-34. Yes, you read that right: Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for children 10-14 years old, and continuing well into their 30s. Yet we’d rather argue about gun control than address the cause, which is mental illness.
With nearly 1 in 5 Americans living with a mental illness, you’d think we’d pay more attention to it. That’s almost one person in every American family. But we seem to be too ashamed of mental illness to admit this medical affliction– as if having diabetes, for example, was a moral failing.
Mental illness is NOT a moral failing. And that’s why I post about it. Go a few rounds with our mental health care “system,” and you may begin to see our national denial the way I do: Mental illness is not a crime, but ignoring it is.
September 7

The Medical View of Addiction

Medicine has struggled to understand addiction. This may be because it’s not entirely a medical problem. But science doesn’t consider spiritual aspects, and for the purposes of this discussion I’m willing to leave those aside.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the “bible” for diagnosis by professionals. The current version is DSM-V. Not surprisingly, the previous version was DSM-IV. The newer version introduced some major changes to the way substance abuse disorders are diagnosed.

DSM-IV, issued in 1994, generally offered two categories of substance abuse disorders: substance use disorder, and dependence. These corresponded to chronic abuse of a substance, and physical dependency on the substance. There were codes for various substances, distinguishing for example between opioid dependency and alcohol dependency. The DSM-V (2013) combines there and streamlines the diagnosis. As this summary explains, DSM-V

does away with separate “dependence” and “abuse” diagnoses and combines them into “substance use disorder.”

The current version sees substance abuse as a spectrum rather than two separate conditions.

While this does make diagnosis easier, it appears to me to move substance abuse treatment backward by failing to recognize the complexity of factors at play.

For example, let’s consider physical dependence. Anyone who takes opioids (or other physically-addictive medication) over a long period will become physically dependent. It doesn’t matter whether they began using for pleasure, or if they were prescribed the drug by a doctor because of a medical need. They will need the drug to avoid going into withdrawals, which are typically both painful and disorienting. And in the case of alcohol (and certain other drugs), withdrawal can be life-threatening. Someone dependent on alcohol, for example, will crave it. And the cause of this craving is biological: they’ll go into withdrawals if they don’t get it. This is what DSM-IV described as “dependence.”

Yet dependency alone does not indicate whether that person will return to the drug once separated from it. When the physical dependency is relieved through a withdrawal process, medically supervised or not, there is no further need for the drug. Many people, once relieved of their dependence, take what might be described as the sane response: they never touch it again.

On the other hand, let’s consider what is sometimes described as “risky use.” A person who is not dependent on a substance nevertheless seeks it out and abuses it. The cause of this is not physical but psychological. Whether they seek pleasure or to kill the pain of some past trauma, the drug serves a purpose in their lives. They choose to pursue it of their own free will. This is what DSM-IV described as “substance use disorder.”

Interestingly, substance use disorder does seem to be a spectrum. Some people are able to choose to quit of their own volition. Others need help to quit. And some pursue their obsession with the substance, as Alcoholics Anonymous observes, “into the gates of insanity or death.”

These two, very different, facets of substance abuse are combined in DSM-V into a single spectrum. Yet the opioid crisis should show us the fallacy of this “improvement.”

One of the popular news items in the opioid epidemic is the number of people who began using because an opioid was prescribed by their doctor for a medical condition. (Here’s an example.) This theory presumes that chronic physical pain is the cause of opioid use that results in dependence. And this may well be for some people.

Yet many, perhaps most, opioid addicts struggle with a condition I can only describe as “addiction.” Yes, they are physically dependent. Yet once separated from the drug, whether through rehab or incarceration, they return to it despite its adverse effects on their lives. Not because of physical pain, but because of a psychological obsession with what the drug does for them.

At the very least, in these people we can see an overlapping of two distinct conditions: dependency and an obsession to use. These are not the same. One is physical, the other is psychological. Both need to be treated for successful recovery. Yet without recognizing the difference between the two conditions, how can they be treated?

This is true for any drug user. For a successful result, a person who is dependent because of chronic pain must be treated differently from one who is not dependent but seeks the drug by choice. Yet in the case of the addict, who has both conditions, treating one or the other is simply pointless. Not only is it ineffective, but the failure of this approach erodes confidence that recovery is possible.

And recovery is possible! While success with opioid addiction recovery from a medical perspective remains dismally low, tens of thousands have recovered through other, non-medical methods. These include Twelve Step groups like Narcotics Anonymous, religious based programs like The Bridge Ministry, and many others.

Because when withdrawals end, that’s when the real healing begins. Now that we don’t have a physical need, how do we live without the psychological need? Medicine doesn’t do that. Even psychology tends to fall short in offering resources.

Perhaps this is because they don’t really understand what an addict needs, because the vast majority of medical professionals have never experienced it.

But those who have been there and recovered do know. It is to them we should look for answers. Oddly, that seems to be the one place science hasn’t looked. Which may be why their understanding of addiction and recovery sometimes seems to be moving backward.


For more on addiction, read my book, The Soul of an Addict, available in Paperback and Kindle editions.

October 8

What Is Addiction Treatment?


How is addiction treated in this country? There’s no single answer. There isn’t even a standard for what makes treatment successful. Some measure years of abstinence. Some seek moderation, but don’t consider abstinence to be part of recovery. Others seek temporary reduction in use through incarceration, or simply a reduction in socially unacceptable behavior.

One reason for this is confusion about the nature of substance abuse. Science recognizes three categories: the risky user, the physically dependent person, and the addict who returns to the substance repeatedly even after being separated from it. Medicine, on the other hand, used to recognize the first two categories. But the DSM-V, the latest version, combines all substance abuse under the single label, “Substance Use Disorder.”

Another reason is the disconnect between science and medicine on the one hand, and public policy on the other. For example, the largest single “treatment” provider for drug users is the prison system. More than half a million nonviolent drug offenders are incarcerated, at a cost to the taxpayers of around $15 billion per year. While there are some drug treatment programs in some prisons, the majority of inmates do not receive drug treatment. The National Institute of Health cites public desire for retribution rather than rehabilitation as a major barrier to drug treatment in prisons.

The amount spent on incarceration pales in comparison to the $30 billion or more spent annually on treatment facilities. In 2017, over 4 million Americans received treatment in a variety of settings. Of these, 2.5 million attended a treatment facility, residential or outpatient. Others may have received help from doctors, psychologists, or Twelve Step programs. Of the treatment facilities, 53% received government funding, meaning they are prohibited from using any spiritual or religious approach, including the Twelve Steps.

A more startling statistic is that of the 20 million Americans who needed treatment in 2017, only 12% received it at a treatment facility. Another 7% received treatment at non-specialty facilities. Still, 81% of those who needed treatment didn’t get it. The most common reason, cited by 41%, was lack of insurance coverage.

Some 10% of treatment facilities provided Medication Assisted Therapy (MAT), in which physical dependence on heroin or other opiods are treated with methadone or buprenorphine– long-acting opioids that are much harder to quit after long-term use. Of these, 95% still offered methadone, while 65% offered a choice between the two substitutes. There was no indication of how many facilities used these replacements for detoxification only, and how many used ongoing maintenance. (I’ll post another time about the nightmare of “methadone maintenance.”)

So what does all this tell us? First, most Americans who need help for substance abuse don’t get it.

Second, there’s a wide variety of approaches to treatment. Some, like prison, embrace the belief that if you punish someone enough, they will somehow magically change. Others, like substitution therapy, seek to reduce the criminal and health effects of addiction, but do not seek to actually treat addiction. Still others seek to return the sufferer to “social” use. Those that do seek abstinence measure it in various ways: abstinence for the duration of the program, or at 90 days, or at a year, or at 5 years.

A study of veterans in Twelve Step programs found that 70% of those who participated for a period of months were still abstinent at 16 years. In contrast, some treatment facilities that don’t use the Steps have abstinence rates around 10% at one year.

The most successful treatment approaches, at least for those who suffer from true addiction, seek total abstinence and a changes way of living. As noted in my previous post, it’s not enough to just get someone off drugs. Addiction is a way of life, a purpose for living, and a moral framework. For treatment to be successful, these old ways of being have to be replaced with new ways of being.

To be successful, treatment does not focus on moving away from drugs, but toward a suitable new way of life.

October 3

The Mystery of Addiction

It’s no secret that addiction is a problem in our society. It’s also no secret that, despite some advances in science, it’s not easy to treat. This is because the nature of addiction remains elusive. We can see this in the argument between those who insist it’s a disease, and those who insist it’s a choice. Some psychologists now argue that it’s both.

I don’t disagree. There are biological factors. And addicts make bad choices. I contend that, while addiction displays characteristics of both disease and choice, neither category is sufficient to explain the phenomenon.

Let me be clear that I’m referring here not to the occasional, risky user, nor to the person who becomes physically dependent on a substance but is able to abstain once separated from it. Addiction refers to those seemingly bizarre cases, now numbering in the millions, in which people return to the substance over and over, even after physical dependence has ceased.

Here’s the issue: if a person is miserable enough to want to quit, and if they have been separated from the biological need to use the substance, it makes absolutely no sense for them to return to the drug that made them miserable– unless there’s something else going on.

Enter Kent Dunnington. In his book, Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice, he argues that addiction is a habit in the classic sense expressed by Aristotle and Augustine. The behaviors of an addict are preconscious decisions habituated (programmed) by past reward/punishment experiences. I find flaws in Dunnington’s case for addiction as only a habit. But this introduces a third category to consider, and offers another dimension of options for understanding and treatment of addiction. The Twelve Steps, for example, can be described as a method of rehabituation.

Yet Dunnington goes further. We are habituated to our behaviors based on our view of the purpose of life. If, for example, we believe that the goal is to be wealthy, we’ll work hard and accumulate money. If it’s to seek thrills, all our efforts will point toward that goal. If it’s to follow Jesus, we’ll put our efforts into the behaviors that the Gospel describes (none of which include accumulating wealth). Indeed, James K. A. Smith argues that we can tell what we love much more reliably by what we do than by what we say we love.

Dunnington describes how addiction fills a need for transcendental experience, moral certainty, and purpose for life that are lacking in our secular society. In other words, it plays the role of a religion. Dunnington, a Christian, describes addiction as false worship. Yet he recognizes the diligence with which addicts undertake this worship, arguing that the Church could learn something about commitment from the “prophetic challenge” addicts present. Anyone who knows an addicted person can attest that we will sacrifice anything for our god, even our lives. The god may be false, but it’s the one to which we have willingly or unwillingly devoted ourselves.

If addiction is a religion adopted in response to the unsatisfying “spirituality” of secular materialism, this has implications for addiction treatment. To put it simply, the goal of treatment is not to get people off drugs– it is to replace one religion and way of life with another. This is where the disease model fails: medicine is not equipped to address the spiritual and moral nature of addiction.

Obviously, if addiction can play the role of a religion, a replacement is not limited to the Big Five: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. For example, in the same ways that addiction serves as a religion, the Twelve Step programs do also. But, with thousands of years of practice and tradition, the established religions do have much to recommend them. I’ve found the healing power of Christ to be unique among them, but I do recognize that adherence is a choice.

From an objective perspective, my point is that it’s not enough to get a person off drugs and tell him or her to go get a job. The question that has to be answered in order for an addict to stay clean is this: “What’s the point?” Only when we can provide an answer for that question do we begin to offer hope to those mired in substance addiction.

August 5

Addiction, the Alt-Right, and Sociology

This wasn’t going to be my next post on the subject of addiction, but the mass shootings over the weekend changed my mind. At least one of the shootings was racially motivated.

What do mass shootings and the alt-right have to do with addiction? I believe they stem from common causes, namely a national ethos that gives no meaning to life other than accumulation of wealth, and a rising wealth inequality that makes the national purpose unattainable for increasing numbers of people.

But first, let’s start with some demographics. The alt-right draws primarily from the white working class. Mass shooters come primarily from the white working class. According to Ann Case and Angus Deaton, “deaths of despair,” which include overdose, alcoholism, and suicide, are rising fastest in the white working class. To understand any of these these problems, we have to ask ourselves what’s happening in the white working class.

Case and Deaton have done significant research on this. Focusing on deaths of despair, they note that only in the white working class have deaths of despair risen in proportion to the drop in income. In this demographic group, there is a direct correlation (or, technically, an inverse correlation) between income and morbidity (death). Why this correlation does not exist in other demographic groups is an interesting question, but beyond the scope of this post. I suspect minorities, because of a history of being left out of American prosperity, are less invested in the “American Dream,” and thus less despairing as the American Dream slips away, but I have no proof of that.

Statistically, whites are more likely to sink into despair over economic factors. And economic factors have not been kind to the working class over the past few decades. This has resulted in decreased life expectancy. Since 1979, opioid overdoses among whites have increased more than twice as much as opioid overdoses among blacks, from a slightly lower rate to a rate twice as high. The suicide rate among whites is more than twice as high as any other demographic group, with the exception of Native Americans who have a higher rate.

We can speculate about the cause of this despair. Unlike other economically excluded groups, the white working class used to believe they could attain the American Dream. It’s increasingly clear that they can’t. They have lost a reason for being, or telos–the main telos put forward by our economically-motivated society.

Moreover, whites are more likely to adopt Evangelical religious beliefs. Some 76% of evangelical Protestants are white. It’s difficult to generalize about this group because there is significant diversity, but there are some typical commonalities. At an Evangelical church I once attended, the pastor was fond of saying, “Any conversation about the Gospel begins with one question: Are you sure you’re going to Heaven?” This focus on afterlife was accompanied by attention to grace to the exclusion of works. They had us memorize Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” But never did I hear anyone read the next verse: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

What does this have to do with morbidity? Consider a person who finds himself or herself in despair. That person looks for solace at church. The church’s answer is, “It will be better in Heaven.” Is that not incentive to hurry the process along? Add to this a persistent link to the prosperity Gospel–if God has blessed you, you will prosper–and the religious outlook for the white working class isn’t exactly stellar.

Okay, you say. Perhaps this explains the rise in deaths of despair. But what does any of this have to do with the alt-right?

I’m glad you asked. Patrick Forcher and Nour Kteilly at the University of Arkansas have compiled a psychological profile of the alt-right. In their summary, the researchers noted that alt-right supporters:

  • Were more likely to be white
  • Were less likely to have more than a high school education
  • Were not optimistic about the current state of the economy.

These characteristics were shared by non-alt-right Trump supporters as well. Thus, the alt-right is, as expected, a subset of the white working class that has been negatively affected by the upward redistribution of wealth.

One big difference between the two was that alt-right supporters were more optimistic about the future of the economy. Their alt-right beliefs gave them hope for the future, much more so than their non-alt-right peers. This suggests that the rise of alt-right is a response to their deteriorating economic status.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Fascism grew in Germany during the Great Depression that devastated the German economy. Forscher and Kteilly note similarities between the rise of the alt-right and the rise of the British National Party among the depressed working class.

What this does tell us is that a broad spectrum of American problems, including suicide, alcoholism, drug overdoses, alt-right activity, and, I maintain, mass shootings, are directly related to the economic decline of the white working class.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. Clearly there are factors that drive this demographic’s symptoms, especially compared with other demographic groups that are even more economically excluded. For one view of these causes, I recommend Joe Bagaent’s Deer Hunting with Jesus, which documents the decline in influence of rural America. The losses of the white working class are not just economic, they are political as well.

Liberals may not like that this formerly-privileged group is taking up more of our attention than other groups that have never been privileged. But it is historically true that those who are losing privilege are a greater threat than those who ever had it. This is an issue we need to address.

But more than that, we live in a society that values our existence in dollars. Under this philosophy, economic loss can only lead to despair. There is no other source of hope.

As a Christian, I look to the Gospel. We are not judged by how much wealth we have. The purpose of life is not to accumulate. Nor is it to survive until we die and go to Heaven. “The Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). It is here, though it is (quite obviously) not fulfilled.

Christians have the Kingdom to offer those in despair. Are we showing it to them?


July 29

Addiction: The Crisis We Can’t Handle

You’ve read the news. Drug use has become an epidemic and a crisis. The statistics are staggering: Since 1979, drug overdoses are up 1,460%, and opiod overdoses among whites are up 2,627%. [1] According to the government agency SAMHSA, some 30 million Americans over the age of 12 use illicit drugs, and 83 million more abuse alcohol.

Yet our answers to this crisis are most often misdirected: we restrict access to drugs, and we incarcerate the abusers, compounding their problems by giving them a criminal record that prevents meaningful employment. Almost half of all federal prisoners (45%) are locked up for drug offenses.

The irony is, we claim to be a capitalist nation. The law of supply and demand, we insist, will regulate the market. Yet none of our solutions addresses the basic problem: people want to escape their reality. Demand exists. But I’ll deal with that in another post. What’s important for this post is that the War on Drugs is economically ridiculous. Any economist will tell you that reducing supply does not reduce demand, it just raises the price.

The second irony is that most of those who want to quit can’t get help. According to SAMHSA’s report, 20 million Americans sought treatment in 2017. Of these, 89% did not receive it.

That’s right. Only about 1 in 9 of those who needed treatment received it.

The same report details the reason they didn’t get it. The most common reason? Lack of insurance coverage. They either didn’t have insurance, or their plan didn’t cover treatment. (And just try to find a treatment facility that will take you if you don’t have cash!)

We’ve spent over a trillion dollars of taxpayer money– $31 billion in 2017 alone– in a doomed “war” to eliminate the supply of drugs. It hasn’t worked because the laws of economics can’t be repealed. Supply will seek to meet demand. We have to eliminate demand.

Yet those trying to get off drugs can’t get help.

It costs around $30,000 per year for each person we incarcerate for drug crimes. The average prison sentence for drug possession is 3 years. For the cost of one year of incarceration, these people could instead get a 30-day inpatient rehab and 90 days outpatient rehab. Not all will be successful at kicking their addiction. But some will. And these are people who (1) won’t be buying more drugs, and (2) won’t be costing the taxpayers money for prisons and emergency medical care.

Instead, they’ll be getting jobs, contributing to society, and above all, telling others about the nightmare they survived. Recovering addicts and their stories could be the best advertisement for staying off drugs!

Isn’t that a better way to spend a trillion dollars?

For those who think such an approach is impractical, check out this evaluation of the Gloucester Initiative, in which police refer addicts seeking help to treatment instead of arresting them. According to the police chief, “It costs the program $55 per individual treatment, whereas it costs $220 to send a low-level drug user through court.” In the first year, 90% of those who sought treatment received it. The followup evaluation showed that, yes, 40% of those surveyed did return to drugs after completing the program. But do the math: 60% didn’t.

Our current national drug policy is flawed. It has been from the start. It doesn’t help, and it may actually make things worse.

But there are alternatives.

As more and more families struggle with addiction, perhaps the stigma will begin to disappear. Perhaps we can talk about addiction logically, rather than emotionally. And perhaps we can find real solutions for those who suffer.



[1] Statistics drawn from Jeanine M. Buchanic, et. al., “Exponential Growth of the USA overdose epidemic,” Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg, 2017, 2 (, accessed September 22, 2018). “Drug Overdoses,” National Safety Council (, accessed September 22, 2018). Monica J. Alexander et. al., “Trends in Black and White Opioid Mortality in the United States 1979-2015,” Epidemiology 29:5, September 2018 (, accessed September 22, 2018).

May 4

Autism and the Glycemic Index

“Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. We now know that there is not one autism but many types, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences.” —Autism Speaks

I’m on the autistic spectrum. As a child, I was hopeless in social situations, always saying the wrong thing and unable to read body language. I also grew up on Tang, Frosted Flakes, Milky Way bars, and Kool-Aid. In my late twenties, I cut sugar out of my diet because I found that when I ate sugar, I couldn’t talk. It was like my brain locked up and wouldn’t process input. Recently, I ate a muffin that had a reduced amount of sugar in it. Within minutes, I began stuttering and floundering for words. This was during a discussion in a seminary class, so the timing was poor.

Is there a link between autism symptoms and sugar intake? A 2015 study suggests there is, and anecdotal stories from parents of autistic children abound. Other parents of ASD kids say their kids aren’t affected–and maybe they aren’t, though often the parents say their kids don’t “get hyperactive” from sugar. My own experience indicates that hyperactivity is not the only visible response. From the outside, I look like I’ve been sedated after I eat sugar. Someone who didn’t know better might think this is a good thing. But inside, I’m churning, trying unsuccessfully to process and respond to the stimulus coming in. It’s miserable.

But I do like something sweet now and again. Can you imagine going through life never having another dessert? Sugar-free commercial products are an option, though almost all contain artificial sweeteners, which I try to avoid. And the ones with sugar alcohols (like sorbitol and maltitol)– well, I won’t gross you out by describing the intestinal symptoms they cause me.

For home-baking, stevia is an option. It’s a natural plant extract with no sugars and no calories, but it’s a little too sweet and has a weird aftertaste when used alone. Stevia requires just a tiny amount, so it doesn’t bulk up a recipe like sugar does. That doesn’t matter if you’re sweetening fruit, but a cake requires the bulk and consistency of sugar to come out right. Ask me how I know. There is a 1:1 stevia product, which is stevia mixed with maltodextrin so it performs in recipes like sugar. The only store I’ve found in my area that carries it is Walmart. Amazon carries an equivalent, Stevia in the Raw, which is a bit more expensive but delivered to your door. Like stevia itself, I find the 1:1 mix has that weird aftertaste.

(Also beware of baking mixes that contain stevia and sugar, like Truvia or SugarLeaf for example, because they sort of defeat the purpose.)

So what’s the answer?

Enter the glycemic index.

“The Glycemic Index (GI) is a relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels.” —University of Sydney

In other words, the higher the glycemic index ranking, the faster the food item causes blood sugar to rise. Glucose is rated 100. The Glycemic Index website recommends a rating of 55 or less for general health. A Harvard website ranks table sugar (sucrose) at 65, honey at 61, and fructose at 15. Clearly fructose is better for those sensitive to sugar. (Studies have shown that excessive use of fructose can raise triglyceride levels, particularly in men, so it’s not something one should eat all the time.)

The other day I was looking at a carrot cake recipe that called for a total of four cups of sugar (including the cream cheese frosting). Even using fructose, that’s a lot of sugar. But it’s easy to cut that in half while still making the recipe work. I use half fructose and half 1:1 stevia. The stevia provides sweetness with no calories or glycemic effect, and the fructose is a slow-absorbing sugar that moderates the flavor of stevia. I see the 50/50 mix as a “best of both worlds” approach.

In the frosting, I substituted neufchatel for cream cheese. That’s just a lower-fat version made with milk instead of cream. I did that not because I’m autistic, but because I’m trying to eat healthier. I also added an extra package of cream cheese to the frosting to increase the protein and further cut back on the sugar concentration. I also thought the cake might need more frosting than the recipe called for, as is sometimes the case, but I had frosting left over.

Herein lies another helpful hint: A lot of recipes can be modified a little, or sometimes a lot, to reduce the sugar content. For pies, the volume of sweetener can be cut in half and a 50/50 stevia-fructose combination can be used instead. So if your pie calls for 1 cup of sugar, skip the sugar completely and try it with 1/4 cup 1:1 stevia and 1/4 cup fructose instead. Imagine: where a recipe calls for a whole cup of brain-scrambling sugar, you may find it works just as well with 1/4 cup of slow-absorbing fructose bolstered with stevia.

If my experience is any indication, your autistic loved will thank you!