Sugar Cravings: Understanding Why and How to Overcome Them
Sugar Cravings: Understanding Why and How to Overcome Them
Do you have a “sweet tooth” or feel like you always need a sweet treat at the end of a meal? Do you crave bread or experience brain fog or feel fatigue after a meal? Do you often fuel your day with cookies, cake or candy? If any of these things ring true for you, they could be signs that you have an unhealthy relationship with sugar and may be using it to increase energy, feed a gut bug or balance your hormones and brain chemistry. Excess sugar in the diet may not only lead to sugar addiction and obesity, but to other, more serious illnesses, such as increased risk for heart disease, fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s and colitis. (1,2,3,4) It may also lead to mood imbalance, immune system suppression, cavities, depletion of important minerals and nutrients needed to support teeth and bone health and inflammation throughout the body.
The amount of sugar the average American consumes has continued to rise through the generations. At the end of the 1800’s this equated to about 5 pounds of sugar each year. By 2010, the average American was eating approximately 130 pounds per year, about 2-3 pounds of sugar a week or over 30 teaspoons a day. (5) No wonder chronic illness is on the rise. From sweetened coffee drinks, soda, sports drinks and processed foods, it’s hard not to be seduced and addicted to the white stuff.
Why is it, then, that we keep reaching for that cookie even though we want to lose weight or know it will make us sick? Is it that we are weak and lack will power or are the cravings rooted in the mind, body and behavior? Once we understand why we are craving sugar, it can help us learn how to address that craving. Continual practice will eventually help reduce the control sugar has over us.
Sugar for energy – Carbohydrates (which break down into sugar), proteins and fats are the primary sources of fuel we use for energy. Carbohydrates are our quickest form of energy and are found in simple table sugars, processed foods, fruits, vegetables or grains. When we consume sugar, the body (pancreas) produces insulin, a hormone that helps take sugar from the bloodstream into the body’s cells for energy. If too much sugar is consumed at once, there is a large demand for insulin to take sugar out of the bloodstream. Blood sugar levels then drop down, and this can make us feel tired and in need of another hit of sugar for energy.
When you find yourself reaching for something sweet, consider that it may be your body’s way of calling for more energy. Longer-term energy can be achieved by including a protein and fat with your carbohydrates. In other words, instead of reaching for the pretzels, candy or a muffin to boost that mid-afternoon lull, you may feel better energized with a food choice such as veggie sticks with hummus or an apple with nut butter.
Blood sugar swings, mood and cravings – When blood sugar swings from too high to too low, it causes us to crash and not only feel fatigued and hungry but more moody. This effect is often termed as being “hangry,” the combination of being hungry with irritability and even anxiety. This is because when blood sugar drops too low (from being too high), it triggers an alarm in the body that signals for the release of cortisol and the stress hormones known as adrenalin and noradrenalin. When there is constant flow of these stress hormones we feel more stressed and possibly even anxious.
This is further compounded when we don’t eat sugars or carbohydrates with any or enough fat, protein and fiber, which all help to mitigate blood sugar surges. As we continue to consume sugar and insulin levels stay high, the cells gradually start to become “deaf” to insulin’s signaling. This can lead to insulin resistance and, eventually, even type II diabetes. High levels of insulin also keep us in fat storage mode, as the body has nowhere else to store sugar once the primary storage places for it in the liver and muscles have been filled. Eating too much sugar also puts us at more risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. (2,3) In order to keep blood sugar from swinging to such extremes and to slow the response of insulin, include a healthy fat, fiber and protein with every meal and snack.
What’s the carbohydrate content of your meal? Is it loaded with bread, pasta, rice or potatoes? High carbohydrate meals will intensify your craving for a sweet treat afterward due to the blood sugar spike and then drop, leaving you wanting more. Instead, build in some healthier sweetness during the meal, such as including a sweet potato or fruit that you balance with a healthy fat and protein. Gradually change the desire for intensely sweet food by switching to lower glycemic sweeteners such as stevia, yacon or natural fruit sugar, such as that in bananas or dates. Stop grazing and keep distinct times for snacks and meals, which allows sugar to clear more efficiently from the bloodstream and turn off insulin signaling.
Yeast and bacteria overgrowth/parasites – An overgrowth of candida, a yeast that’s normally present in our gut, in addition to bacteria or parasites, may be driving sugar cravings as these organisms derive energy and flourish from sugar consumption. Symptoms of candida and bacterial overgrowth or parasites may include: strong cravings for sugar, bloating, brain fog, fatigue, itchy skin, vaginal yeast infections and jock itch, nail fungus and deep ridges, multiple food sensitivities, anxiety and depression.
We promote better gut balance by feeding the good gut bacteria and starving the bad. We do this by eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as well as fermented foods that contain probiotics, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut or kimchi. At the same time, we need to stay away from added sugar in the diet and processed foods. If dietary means are not enough, then deeper testing may be useful. Candida often times does not show up in a stool test but can be found in an Organics Acid Test (O.A.T.) The best test for a parasite and broader understanding of the gut microbiome is a DNA/PCR stool test, such as the GI-MAP test. If an overgrowth of bacteria is suspected in the small intestine, then a lactulose breath test would be the most accurate way to measure it.
Hormonal Imbalance – For women that are ovulating, there may be increased cravings for sugar during the luteal phase or right before their menstrual cycle. During the luteal phase, estrogen and progesterone levels are fluctuating, which may contribute to blood sugar instability and deficiency in serotonin, our feel-good hormone. This is when a woman is more likely to say things such as, “Give me chocolate—now!” Keeping blood sugar balanced can significantly help to curb cravings and keep you more in control of your eating.
Brain addiction – Harvard researchers did a randomized, blind and crossover study to measure the activity in the part of the brain responsible for addiction, the nucleus accumbens, after drinking a low glycemic index milkshake and then again, after drinking another shake that tasted the same, had the same calories, but had a much higher glycemic index. What they found was that the high sugar milkshake caused a spike in blood sugar and insulin and an increase in hunger and cravings 4 hours later and, the nucleus accumbens lit up. (8) What this shows us is that foods with different types of calories react differently in the body and foods that spike blood sugar can become biologically addictive. What foods are higher glycemic? Processed foods, sugar, white flour, and even too much white potatoes and white rice.
Sugar as a reward – Are you using sugar as a reward? There are several other mechanisms that affect why we crave sugar, which have to do with our neurochemistry. When we have low levels of beta-endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, we unknowingly use sugar as a way to boost them. Beta-endorphins are neurochemicals that act as our natural painkillers. When we have adequate levels, we feel good about ourselves and are able to cope well. Sugar can temporarily increase beta-endorphin levels, which leads to increased self-esteem and resilience to stress. Dopamine is a brain chemical that helps motivate us and increases alertness, focus and pleasure. Sugar increases the release of opiates in the brain, which then releases dopamine to give us pleasure, alertness and a reward-type feeling.
Sugar to calm- Serotonin is considered our feel-good brain chemical. It helps to quiet the brain and create a calm and relaxed state of mind. When we eat sugar, the hormone insulin elevates, which increases the amount of serotonin in the brain. When we keep eating sugar and insulin remains high, we may feel good temporarily, but doing this can cause long-term issues such as adrenal fatigue and insulin resistance.
Better, natural ways to increase endorphins, dopamine and serotonin are exercise, especially weight lifting and weight bearing types, massage, laughter, spicy foods, dark chocolate, meditation and playing music. (6,7) Also, ensure that you have enough of the basic building blocks for these neurotransmitters, such as clean proteins, B vitamins and vitamin D.
In addition to the physiological and psychological underpinnings, learned behavior may also contribute to sugar cravings. Sugar may fulfill an underlying need for nurturing and comfort. As a newborn, you may have experienced that first sweet taste from breast milk along with the comfort and security of your mother’s arms. Jung’s theory was that we may turn to food and be drawn to sweets because of unmet emotional needs. Sugar can help to quell anger, sadness, loneliness and unresolved emotional issues. Over time, turning to sugar becomes a habit.
Other things that prompt our desire for a certain food can be environmental. In my home, when I was growing up, we always had dessert after dinner. Dessert was an anticipated post-meal treat, which became a hard habit and behavior to break. It might also be the shop you walk or drive by every day on your way home from work. It may be that when you go to a certain restaurant you always get the same dessert. It might be the habit of eating a snack during a T.V. show or movie—such as popcorn, which quickly breaks down to sugar. In order to change our habits, we have to change our patterns of behavior to disassociate ourselves from them. This might be as simple as changing your route home from work or switching your post-dinner ritual from having dessert to drinking a delicious tea, taking a short walk, brushing your teeth immediately after eating or something that provides a similar sense of closure to a meal. Having sweets available, in the house, makes them difficult to resist, so an obvious step is to give them away or throw them out.
If we want to succeed in overcoming sugar cravings, we need to address all areas regularly. Understanding the “why” can help us with the “how.” Self-knowledge and self-observation helps us not to overeat or eat the wrong things. When we meditate and do other stress management techniques, we increase blood flow to the frontal cortex, which is responsible for self-control. Stress decreases heart rate variability (HRV), and meditation has been shown to improve HRV. People with better HRV have been shown to have better self-regulation, emotional regulation and sense of calm.(9)
In summary, eating too much sugar may:
Give you false energy
Cause blood sugar swings, keeping you in fat storage mode and potential for insulin resistance, Type II diabetes, mood issues and cravings.
Cause yeast overgrowth or feed a gut bug
Create female hormone imbalance
Cause biological addiction and temporary increase of our feel-good brain chemicals
Become learned behavior and habit forming
3 steps to overcome cravings:
Awareness – Understand why you are reaching for something. Is it a blood sugar dip, habit, boredom, a behavior caused by a deeper physiological need or unmet psychological need? Take a few minutes to think about what it is you are really craving or why before indulging in that craving.
Management – Manage the cravings by making sure you have balanced blood sugar, hormones and gut bacteria. Strive for eating a healthy fat, fiber and protein with every meal and snack. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to build a healthy microbiome and, if necessary, rule out gut bugs or yeast by getting tested. Engage in activities that help boost the brain’s own natural feel good hormones, such as doing weight bearing exercise, eating spicy foods and dark chocolate, laughing, getting a massage, meditating and playing music. Change your environment and rituals to reduce sugar temptations.
Practice – Keep practicing awareness and management to help make better choices. Over time, cravings will diminish and you will have the resources to manage them if and when they show up again.
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