FAIRBANKS - Audrey Sunnyboy noticed a troubling trend when she entered the drug and alcohol treatment field in 1990.
"I was watching people and was realizing that most of the Alaska Native people did not recover from alcoholism," she said. "And as I was going along, I would ask, 'Did you ever go to AA?' Then they would say, 'No, because I didn't want to talk."'
Sunnyboy said the realization that Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program does not work for everyone, especially people who are reluctant to talk about themselves, is what led to her interest in providing an alternative form of treatment.
Sunnyboy, a 57-year-old certified traditional counselor, has opened the Sunny Denyaave Center, an office where she hopes to help alcoholics and drug users quit by repairing their bodies through nutrient replacement and proper diet.
Her strategy is based on the work of Joan Matthews Larson, a Minnesota doctor who operates nutrition-based recovery centers and has written books about her approach.
Sunnyboy spent a year working at Larson's Health Recovery Center in Minnesota in 1999 and has been trying to start her own center in Alaska ever since.
The technique is based on the theory that drugs and alcoholism are treatable physical diseases.
"The way AA looks at it and the way most people look at it is as weak-willed, psychological behavior," Sunnyboy said. "What (Larson) and the other doctors say is that that is not so. An alcoholic or person who is addicted to drugs is not nutritionally sound."
With her rented office in Regency Court Mall, Sunnyboy said she plans to coach clients through a six-week program aimed at repairing the body through introducing a host of vitamins and nutrients and improving the diet. Curbing drug and alcohol cravings can be as simple as changing what people eat, she said.
The main culprit for promoting alcoholism is sugar, she said.
"Sugar and alcohol cause the same reaction in the body," said Sunnyboy, whose computer desk is stacked with books including a sugar-free cookbook and William Duffy's "Sugar Blues."
Sunnyboy explained that sugar and alcohol consumption both result in the pancreas increasing blood sugar and releasing insulin. Continued sugar consumption, she said, causes the pancreas to become "trigger happy," producing an imbalance that leads to feelings of irritability and cravings for alcohol and drugs.
She said that reducing a person's carbohydrate intake and adding high-protein foods to the diet will stabilize the body. Combined with the introduction of vitamins, everything from magnesium to vitamin B, the goal of the improved diet is to replenish nutrients needed to restore balance in the body and brain.
"That's what this treatment program does is to explain why the body does this," Sunnyboy said. "You control the cravings with nutrition, you learn to eat smaller, protein-packed meals, you learn how to maintain your body."
Sunnyboy, who quit drinking and doing drugs at age 40, said she first became interested in nutrition-based recovery after reading Larson's "Seven Weeks to Sobriety." In the book, Larson theorized that alcoholics fit into one of four categories based largely on body composition - most are hypoglycemic - and that dietary changes can improve someone's condition in almost every case.
Nutrition-based recovery methods are gaining popularity in the drug and alcohol treatment field, said Ann Dapice, vice-president of T.K. Wolf, Inc., a Tulsa, Okla.-based recovery and research center that formed as an alternative to traditional methods.
Dapice said the main factor preventing nutrition-based recovery and other programs that treat alcoholism as a physical defect from gaining widespread acceptance is that AA is still considered to be the only treatment option.
"You've got a very old guard of alcoholism and drug treatment people," she said. "They say it's a disease, but they treat it like it's a moral issue. It's very hard to convince old 12-step people to change."
Sunnyboy's first test subject was her fiancee, Harry Littlefield. A disabled Vietnam veteran, Littlefield said he started drinking and doing drugs almost every day during the 1990s after his deteriorating physical condition ended his ability to work as an electrician.
Littlefield said he gradually built up his body through taking nutrients such as cod liver oil and calcium. Once he added an improved diet, Littlefield said he started feeling better, first physically then mentally.
"After she built me back me up from all the vitamins and everything, I could think a lot better," he said, adding that he quit drinking and drugs about two weeks after starting the program.
Sunnyboy said that she put up her own money to rent her new office. She said that after spending a year working with Larson, she made it her personal goal to bring the program north. Sunnyboy acknowledged that she faces plenty of challenges in trying to operate a center based on a technique that is not widely accepted.
However, she said, many effective practices, such as Dr. Robert Atkins' low-carbohydrate diet, were not popular at first.
"They laughed at him until he passed away," she said.