The Underlying Causes of Your Sugar Cravings
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
"The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, mostly hidden". – Dr. Mark Hyman
This is a major issue because due to the excess calories many people now consume from highly processed food products, 70% of Americans are overweight and 1 in every 2 Americans has pre-diabetes or Type 2 diabetes. And it doesn't stop there. The amount of sugar a person has in the diet is now believed to increase their risk for serious illness including heart disease, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.
Sugar cravings are often the number one obstacle that many people face when it comes to adapting a healthy diet. While many people try to white knuckle their way through their cravings, the urge for sugar might be an indicator of a deeper problem that needs to first be addressed.
If you're battling sugar cravings it is important to learn what drives the body to desire sugar in the first place.
SUGAR CRAVINGS & YOUR BRAIN
There are several areas in your brain that play a significant role in the sensations you experience when you get a craving.
One is the horseshoe-shaped hippocampus, located in your temporal lobe. It’s responsible for making short-term and long-term memories and it plays a significant role in reward-seeking behavior.
Another is what’s called the “caudate nucleus” and there’s one located in each hemisphere of your brain. The caudate nucleus influences reward-seeking behavior, but is also responsible for habit formation....like snacking on autopilot the minute you walk through the door after work.
The habits formed by the caudate nucleus are like a conditioned response. For example, even if you only work a half day and come home several hours earlier then normal, you will still find yourself snacking on autopilot because you’ve been conditioned to snack after work. This is the power of habits formed by the caudate nucleus.
You can break them but it’s not easy.
Thirdly, the insula, also in each hemisphere of the brain, produces emotions in response to a sensory experience. This links food with a memory. For example if you had warm chocolate chip cookies as a kid, and it was a fond memory of comfort and security, when you are looking for that same comfort and security as an adult you may find yourself craving chocolate chip cookies because your mind has the two linked.
SUGAR CRAVINGS & YOUR DIET
Although your brain can be a challenge to your willpower, there can also be foods present in your diet that will trigger your cravings for sugar.
For example one dietary culprit is low protein intake. Because protein and fats slow the release of sugar into your bloodstream, when you don’t consume enough of them your blood sugar can rise and fall at an abnormal rate.The result? Your body craves quick energy from sugar.
This is why consuming carbohydrates alone (for example a singular cookie, or a piece of fruit, or a bag of chips) will leave you neither full nor satisfied.
Maybe not surprisingly, when cutting carbohydrates from your diet your body tends to crave the quick energy it’s accustomed to, which is why many people experience a ravaging sugar craving the first few days they attempt a low or no-carbohydrate diet. Once your system adjusts the craving dissipates.
Another dietary culprit can be artificial sweeteners. Not only do many artificial sweeteners cause a significant insulin spike, research also suggests you will experience the same cravings, or even eat more food and total calories, when consuming calorie free sugar alternatives.
Further, artificial sweeteners contribute to dysbiosis- bacterial imbalances in the gut. Insufficient good bacteria and/or an overgrowth of bad bacteria can cause cravings for sugar.
Lastly, a diet too high in salty processed foods can lead to sugar cravings. When you eat out, or eat lots of packaged and processed foods, your food has more sodium in it than you probably even realize. The body will try to balance out the salt by asking for sweet, aka sugar.
SUGAR CRAVINGS & YOUR LIFESTYLE
Did you know your lifestyle habits like sleep hygiene can also cause sugar cravings?
Research has shown that even one night of poor sleep can decrease the upper brain function of the cerebrum – the part of the brain responsible for decision making- which can make you far more susceptible to cave in to next-day junk food cravings.
Furthermore your internal clock plays a significant role in managing the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which control hunger and satiety. These hormones get out of whack when you consistently skimp on sleep.
Poor sleep also leads to excess cortisol, your body’s stress hormone. This hormone increases your appetite making you more likely to overeat. Cortisol is also a diuretic which means if you don’t consume enough water you can easily become dehydrated which can cause cravings for sugar.
Is it stress? A stressful life can definitely prompt you to reach for sugar. In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps trigger the body's fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.
But if stress persists, it's a different story. The adrenal glands release cortisol in response to stress. Once the stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn't go away — or if a person's stress response gets stuck in the "on" position — cortisol may stay elevated. This can prompt you to reach for sugar since sugary foods seem to have a feedback effect that dampens stress related responses and emotions. These foods really are "comfort" foods in that they seem to counteract stress - temporarily- and this may contribute to your sugar cravings.
CLINICAL ISSUES YOU CAN LOOK INTO
Check your cortisol levels. Chronic ongoing stress affects your cortisol levels and elevated cortisol will alter your circulating levels of glucose and insulin. There are a variety of testing methods but personally I like the adrenal stress index (ASI), a salivary test. However, a trained professional should interpret the results because factors such as age, gender, timing with the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, lactation, smoking, medications, medical conditions, caffeine and alcohol consumption, caloric intake, and other test results (particularly related hormone tests such as sex hormone levels) will contextualize the significance and meaning of the measurement.
Consider your liver health. If your liver is overtaxed or you have liver disease it can cause sugar cravings. This is because the liver helps to regulate sugar intake by way of a hormone called fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21). Residing in the liver, FGF21 communicates with the brain when you’ve had enough sugar.
Is it low serotonin? Depression or a bad mood can mentally and physically affect cravings too. Sugar consumption increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, memory, and social behavior. Because sugar boosts serotonin, you feel happier, temporarily, so your brain craves this happy chemical again and again.
Also Cándida or a yeast problem can cause cravings for sugar. If intestinal and vaginal bacteria are out of balance, yeasts like Candida can flourish. An overgrowth of yeast in the intestine (or system-wide) can cause strong sugar cravings, fatigue, fuzzy thinking and digestive issues. Treatment with appropriate probiotic strains or eating yeast-free temporarily can help reclaim healthy bacterial balance and eliminates the sugar-hungry bacteria that need sugar/refined carbohydrates to survive.
Check your hormones too. Hormonal imbalances can cause cravings for sugar.
For example, before your period when estrogen is low and progesterone is on its way down, levels of feel-good beta-endorphins in your brain bottom out. This hormonal imbalance can cause intense sugar cravings for women in perimenopause or with PMS as your body attempts to boost serotonin and endorphins.
Also a diet high in sugar can fuel hormonal imbalances by turning off a key gene that controls your sex hormones. Without this gene (sex hormone-binding globulin or SHBG), both testosterone and estrogen can become unregulated. This imbalance can cause fatigue, anxiety, irritability and.... cravings for more sugar.
Mineral deficiencies might be another reason for your cravings. For example an iron deficiency will zap your energy, leaving you feeling fatigued and weak, and it can also be a reason for your cravings because your body will crave quick energy to perk itself up.
Calcium, zinc, chromium, and magnesium imbalances can manifest themselves as sugar cravings too. These minerals help maintain hydration status, which, when you aren’t properly hydrated, can erroneously make you crave sugar when you might just be thirsty.
What to do:
Address your nutritional hygiene. Make sure you’re consuming adequate protein, eating enough healthy carbohydrates, minimizing processed foods and artificial sweeteners and eating naturally sweet fruits and vegetables.
Is it a bad habit? Brainstorm some alternatives the moment you get the urge to dip into the candy bowl. It could be texting a friend or drinking a glass of water. Or replace it with a new healthy habit like snacking on raw veggies!
Make sure you get sufficient, better quality, and consistent sleep. Be diligent about going to bed and waking up at the same time each day to help regulate your circadian rhythm.
Boost your serotonin. Try green tea, walnuts, eggs, or step outside for a walk in the fresh air to naturally boost your serotonin level.
Ensure it’s not a mineral deficiency. Reach for foods or supplements that contain highly absorbable forms of magnesium, zinc, calcium and iron. You can also try chromium. This mineral is lacking in our modern diet, because refined flours and sugars are often stripped of chromium (in addition to other nutrients). A high-quality supplement can help support healthy blood sugar levels and helps lessen carbohydrate cravings.
Manage your stress. Meditation, prayer, yoga, deep breathing and other activities that activate your parasympathetic nervous system can help mange your mental and physical response to stress.
Address your gut health. Eat a wide variety of nutrient dense whole foods to encourage the growth of good bacteria and prevent the growth of bad ones. Add in some natural sources of probiotics from fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut or kimchi.
Test don’t guess. If you suspect something underlying then take the time to run the proper tests and then work with a professional to formulate an effective treatment plan.
As a coach, I work one-on-one with my clients to help them overcome barriers like sugar cravings, by determining the underlying cause of their craving and then working with them to formulate a strategy to eradicate them. To learn more about my holistic approach to health, and how you can overcome your sugar cravings: CLICK HERE.