Are ‘Mocktails’ Dangerous for Recovering Alcoholics?

Summer is almost here, which means warmer weather, longer days and the season of BBQs, pool parties and dining al fresco. If you’re a recovering alcoholic, it can also mean the added stress of sweating out social events where frosty margaritas, colorful pitchers of sangria, tubs of ice-cold beer and other alcoholic beverages are center stage. “For an alcoholic, life is a temptation to drink,” says Kelly Fitzgerald, a blogger at The Sober Señorita and Addiction.com. “But the summer setting may bring on more of a temptation than winter, simply because there are more outdoor parties in the heat, begging for a cool drink.”

A so-called “mocktail,” or virgin, alcohol-free cocktail, may seem like the perfect solution: Enjoy a festive beverage without feeling like you’re missing out. Yet addiction experts warn that these drinks can, for some, be a slippery slope into using again. “For some people, continuing to act as though you’re having a drink can lead to the eventual addition of a ‘little’ alcohol and then more, leading to relapse,” explains Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, senior science advisor to Elements Behavioral Health, Addiction.com blogger and author of The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Program for Food Addiction.

“Mocktails can ignite the [brain’s] reward center memory of pleasure associated with both the ritual/process of drinking, and the drink itself,” explains Dr. Peeke, citing a study by Nora D. Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse. “In some people, aping the original addictive behavior — including drinks that look real — is enough to eventually ignite the desire for the real thing.”

Know Your Triggers

 Whether it’s the clink of ice cubes, the weight or shape of the glass or the look and smell of a beverage, “any cues associated with your favorite drink are going to elicit all kinds of changes in the brain that initially mimic the changes that elicit cravings in the first place,” notes George F. Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in an interview with Addiction.com. Dr. Koob compares the effect to someone who has just quit smoking and craves a cigarette after simply smelling his or her favorite brand. “There is some point that will come where maybe a recovering alcoholic can indulge in a mocktail without this occurring, but it’s a long, hard road and it’s something that [you] might want to discuss with your cognitive behavioral therapist or the person guiding you through the recovery process,” he adds.

For those who are new to sobriety, the best bet is very often not only to skip the alcohol-free drink, but also to avoid social events that involve drinking, at least for a while. “When you’re newly sober you don’t know what’s going to trigger you. You should expect that you will be triggered and that you will have cravings, and that’s okay,” explains Paul Rinaldi, PhD, director of The Addiction Institute of New York at Mount Sinai Roosevelt and Mount Sinai St. Luke’s hospitals, in New York City. “You have to be conscious and cognitive of what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, where you’re going — all of the time — and it’s very draining and tiring.”

Are ‘Mocktails’ Dangerous for Recovering Alcoholics?But not everyone will need to forgo virgin drinks. For Fitzgerald, who has been sober for two years, mocktails help her to “feel included and fancy,” and she doesn’t chug them or otherwise drink them in the same way she once drank alcohol, she says. The drinks also have the benefit, she adds, of acting as what she calls “sly alternatives” when Fitzgerald doesn’t want to admit why she’s not drinking — a tough thing to navigate for many in recovery. “I know someone who has been sober for 24 years and she always jokes that in the first two years it was too hard for her to tell people why she didn’t drink, but she had no problem lying that she was on antibiotics [and that’s why she couldn’t drink], so [she didn’t mind] people thinking she had a two-year STD,” says Dr. Rinaldi, laughing. “The reality is that people don’t care [what you’re drinking] and many people don’t drink [and] are not alcoholics.”

A Hidden Danger of Booze-Free Beverages

Even if you can tolerate the occasional alcohol look-alike without falling back into using, you may encounter another downside: weight gain. With 20 to 30 grams of refined sugar per serving, virgin margaritas, sangrias, piña coladas and the like are loaded with empty calories. (The World Health Organization recommends 25 grams, or about 6 teaspoons, of sugar per day for an average-weight adult.) Nonalcoholic mixed drinks are much sweeter, thanks to the juices used … [and] many people opt for two servings or more, [so] you can see how quickly those sugar grams can add up,” says Peeke.

In addition, research has shown that sugar can become as addictive as cocaine or morphine, she adds, noting a PLOS One study. “This is especially true of alcoholics and people who are addicted to stimulants,” says Peeke. “The problem is that you can never achieve a complete recovery without allowing the brain’s reward center to heal from the original addiction … Refined sugar continues to over-stimulate the reward center, not fully allowing the biological changes that must take place for optimal and sustainable recovery.”

Peeke, Koob and Rinaldi all agree that good old water — whether plain or sparkling or with a wedge of lemon or lime for a little more flavor — is the best recovery beverage to beat the heat and keeps cravings and relapse at bay. (Though some people in recovery swear by Diet Coke.) “Have a glass of Perrier with a lime in it and carry that around so you have something in your hand and you can sip it,” suggests Koob. “It’s good for you — most of us are dehydrated anyway.”

Do you drink mocktails? If not, why not? If so, what’s your go-to nonalcoholic beverage?

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