Today I want to talk about sugar cravings, it’s something I get asked about a lot but it’s also something without a simple answer. There are many different reasons that we crave sugar and refined carbohydrates.
The key to breaking the cycle of sugar cravings is to first understand why we are driven to seek out these foods in the first place. It can range from mineral deficiencies & stress to poor sleep & digestion.
The following are the 8 usual suspects that I see in my clinic on a regular basis and they are often found in combination with each other. In my descriptions below, I use sugar and carbohydrates interchangeably as they are broken down to the same thing (glucose) and used in the same way within our body:
- Mineral deficiency: We can often find ourselves reaching for the sugary white stuff if we are lacking in key minerals. Magnesium is top of this list; other key signs of magnesium deficiency are muscle cramps; headaches; poor sleep quality; low energy and difficulty relaxing. Magnesium is used in over 300 reactions in the body and without it, we don’t function very well. It is found in foods such as dark leafy greens, seeds/nuts, and whole grains.
- Digestive system problems: Our digestive systems have a complex balance of microbes which are fundamental to our health. When these overgrow or become out of balance, we can see a change in our health. Craving sugar can be a sign that these microbes or ‘bugs’ have become overgrown. It’s even been demonstrated that they can drive our behaviour and direct us to seek out sugar which is their main fuel source!
- Low serotonin levels: The majority of serotonin produced in our bodies is made in our digestive system. If our digestive systems are not functioning well and we have symptoms such as bloating, wind, constipation and mood changes then chances are we have lower than normal levels of serotonin. Low serotonin can drive sugar cravings and other mood changes such as depression, anxiety, and poor concentration so ensuring our digestive function is working well will help to address this as a driver of sugar cravings.
- Poor sleep: If you wake up regularly through the night or are a night owl who doesn’t like going to bed early, then chances are you’re not getting enough quality sleep. This is a key driver of sugar cravings for several reasons. When we don’t get our 8 hours of sleep, the hunger hormone (ghrelin) is produced in higher than normal quantities and the hormone that tells us we’re full (leptin) is produced in lower quantities, so we have the urge to eat more without the usual satiety handbrake. Also, poor sleep usually means low energy during the day, so we reach for foods that give us an instant energy boost.
- Stress & HPA axis dysfunction: HPA axis is your stress response system in the body and it really deserves its own blog post, it’s something I treat regularly and is the driver of a lot of health issues I see in my clinic. But for the purpose of sugar cravings, when we are exposed to constant daily stress, be it emotional stress or physical stress such as dehydration or physical illness, our HPA axis becomes dysfunctional and the end result is that ‘nonessential’ functions such as digestion and immune health become switched off. This can make you crave refined carbohydrates and sugar. Getting on top of stress is fundamental in controlling sugar cravings.
- Dehydration: Craving sugar can be a sign that we are dehydrated, in an evolutionary perspective, our ancestors wouldn’t always have access to clean drinking water and would seek out fruit that was high in sugar and water content. It’s not always easy to distinguish between sugar craving and dehydration, so I always recommend starting with a glass of water when you get the urge to eat sugar.
- Blood sugar imbalance: One of the key reasons your body is craving sugar or refined carbohydrates is that is maybe having difficulty maintaining your blood sugar levels. Insulin puts the sugar we eat (including carbohydrate that gets broken down into sugar) into our cells to be used as fuel for energy. If we have what is called insulin resistance, then this function doesn’t work properly. The result is higher than normal levels of blood sugar and lower than normal levels of sugar inside your cells. What this does in your body is sending out the signal that you are starving (despite how much food you are consuming) We then find ourselves facing an almost insatiable urge to consume more and more sugar and carbohydrates. Unless we address this insulin resistance this cycle will continue. Signs of insulin resistance are weight gain around the abdomen (the classic ‘apple’ shape), carbohydrate/sugar cravings, regular ankle swelling, Polycystic ovarian syndrome, high blood pressure, and skin tags. This would be diagnosed using a fasting insulin blood test at your GP and it can be successfully managed using dietary/lifestyle modifications and herbal medicine.
- Hormonal imbalance: A drop in oestrogen around such as prior to menstruation or at the menopause can also increase sugar/carbohydrate cravings. If you have PMS or are experiencing moderate to severe menopausal symptoms, chances are that low oestrogen is partly to blame for your sugar cravings. Addressing this using certain herbs and lifestyle modification (including stress management as this has a major impact on hormonal balance) can go some way to addressing the cravings.
Also remember, sugar is highly addictive. I’m not just talking about the refined white sugar you add to food, I’m also talking about any refined carbohydrate that the body turns into sugar as a source of fuel. When you do a google scholar search for sugar addiction there are literally hundreds of thousands of results, it’s a big topic and not one with an easy answer. However, if we go through the above in a stepwise manner and address any that relates to us then we can start breaking the cycle.
The other thing to consider is that sugar is a commonly used numbing tool, something that takes us away from having to face whatever issues we need to address, so this is something I’d also consider when looking at cravings. Are their places within that you don’t want to look at? Our bodies are great at giving us these little clues to these deeper things going on inside.
Finally, there are some key herbs and nutrients that we can add to our daily routines to help manage sugar cravings:
- Cinnamon: You can use powdered cinnamon (1tsp daily) and add it to a hot drink or smoothie. This is a key herb used to regulate blood sugar.
- Gymnema sylvestre: This is a herb used to support blood glucose regulation and reducing the sense of taste for sweet foods, it is easy to source at a health-food store and is generally safe and well-tolerated.
- Chromium: Is a mineral that can help to reduce sugar cravings, again through its action on blood sugar regulation.
- Eating more bitter food can reduce sugar cravings. Foods such as rocket and kale are excellent additions to your daily routine.