Late night refrigerator raids, Mid-afternoon candy binging. A chocolate bar needing to be a standard requirement for being in the purse. Sugar cravings...we have all had them and know what kind of madness they can create when they kick into full swing. But did you know that when we have sugar cravings it's a sign that our bodies are out of balance and are really asking us for the nutrients and lifestyle support we are lacking?
I am no stranger to the insatiable desire for all things sweet. For years I snarfed down chocolate bars and peanut M&M's by the fist-full every afternoon at work and always had a stash in my desk drawer. And every day I would wash it all down with a stiff Starbuck's triple latte (yes, you read that correctly...TRIPLE LATTE), otherwise I wouldn't make it through the drive home with out bonking out at the wheel One day I literally drove into the back of a UPS truck because I fell asleep at the wheel. Thankfully we were going super slow so no one got hurt and only my license plate got bent. But that's a story about my battle with severe adrenal burnout that I will save for another day.
In my conversations with my clients and friends in general, sugar cravings are a part of daily life for so many. It doesn't help that the food industry has laced pretty much every packaged food with sugar of some form or another (there are over 50 different names for sugar) causing us all to become addicted to it. Sugar is the new unconsciously chosen drug of choice for society and it becomes a constant game of Duck & Cover once you realize what's going on. But it's more than just the strategic engineering of our food supply or a lack of willpower that keeps us needing more of the sweet stuff. It's what is physiologically going on in our bodies, specifically our gut and the effect of prolonged stress. Let me explain...
Serotonin is a powerful neurotransmitter which is also known as the "feel good hormone". Recent research has revealed that the majority of our serotonin is found in our gut, not in our brain which has been the traditional belief for years. When our serotonin levels are balanced, we are happy and can sail through each day with ease and our brain is given the proper signaling for it to send a message to us that we are full and should stop eating. But when our serotonin levels are too low, it triggers the body to crave sugars and refined carbohydrates (which are metabolized into sugar by the body) in order to bring serotonin levels back into balance again. When this happens, there isn't much that is going to stop you from seeking out the wrong foods to satisfy your body's need to balance this hormone. When we Hoover down these sugar-laden, refined carbohydrate foods, our serotonin levels rapidly increase, making us feel all warm and fuzzy. But before long, the serotonin levels crash, our mood goes back into the toilet and we end up craving more of the wrong foods which promotes further serotonin crashes and a vicious cycle of binge eating happens.
So how do we balance our serotonin levels and prevent these crazy sugar-filled extravaganzas? Serotonin is manufactured when our bodies are provided with the amino acid, tryptophan, so when we are low in tryptophan, our serotonin levels drop. But it isn't always easy to get enough of this vital amino acid. Tryptophan has to compete with other amino acids for uptake by the brain. Protein malabsorption, zinc deficiency, lack of water and a sluggish liver are also factors which work against the body receiving adequate intake. We also need to ensure we have adequate amounts of the co-factors that help with the absorption of tryptophan, including magnesium, vitamin B6, iron and vitamin C. Perhaps the biggest hindrance to our bodies maintaining adequate tryptophan levels are pro-inflammatory proteins known as Cytokines. These Cytokines are involved in our body's immune response and actually degrade the tryptophan that is in our system. Cytokines are released in response to viruses as well as foods that trigger an immune response in the body such as saturated fats from animal proteins, as well as trans fats found in processed and fast foods. We can reduce this Cytokine activity by increasing our intake of healthy Omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidant rich foods and fiber, and reducing our intake of saturated fats that come from animal proteins.
Don't be a Turkey...
Of course, everybody knows that a big holiday turkey meal will send you into a sleepy stupor, especially when combined with a glass or two of wine But this has less to do with the tryptophan in the turkey than it has to do with the fact that too much food was eaten during the meal and was washed down with a sugary dessert and sugary alcohol. After one of these meals, our brain gets a massive surge in serotonin and our body ends up having to work furiously to try and digest all that food. Think about this...the average Thanksgiving meal runs in the range of 4500 calories so the amount of effort that our digestive system has to put in to break this massive load down is tiring work! In addition, that turkey is filled with the saturated fats which trigger the inflammatory Cytokines which degrade the tryptophan we ingest from the meat.
So, it's probably going to surprise you when I say that plant-based sources of tryptophan are a better option because they are are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants and fiber, and don't trigger the Cytokine response that degrades the tryptophan. Per 100g serving, these plant-based sources of tryptophan contain more tryptophan than a 100g serving of turkey or chicken:
There are also supplements which you can take to increase your tryptophan, and subsequently, serotonin levels. But supplementation is not a substitute for adequate dietary intake. Best to start with a wholesome diet and only supplement if you don't notice any improvements.
Candida, or Candida Albicans, is a fungus that is a normal inhabitant of our digestive tract. But there are things that can make Candida get unruly and take over leading to plethora of health issues and symptoms, including sugar cravings. You see, sugar is the food that Candida lives off of. So the more sugar-laden foods and refined carbohydrates we eat, the more Candida grows and the more Candida tells the body to ask for more of the food it desires. Candida can display in the body in many ways, from a coated tongue, to skin rashes, fungal nail infections, low energy, brain fog, digestive issues and more. It is often caused by antibiotic use which kills off all of the bad AND the good gut bacteria, leaving Candida to take over and rule the gut. If you suspect that you may have an issue with Candida overgrowth, contact your health professional to review your symptoms because the longer Candida is left to proliferate in the body, the harder it can be to get rid of. Clearing Candida is a fine art and involves herbal supplementation and, more importantly, elimination of all foods that feed the beast. Not addressing the issue will open you up to a host of other chronic health issues, so the sooner you eliminate it the better you will feel and the faster you will kiss those crazy sugar cravings goodbye.
Stress is perhaps the biggest trigger for sugar cravings. Most of us are no stranger to emotional binge eating of sugar-filled sweets when there is a lot of stress happening in our life. Lord knows I did it on a daily basis before I got on my path to clean eating, emotional balance and healthy living. I later learned that it was the result of years of chronic stress which led to my adrenal glands becoming completely exhausted and this is a battle which I continue to try to manage to this day.
Now you're probably wondering "what the heck are adrenal glands?". Well, our adrenal glands are part of our endocrine system and they sit atop our kidneys. They are responsible for secreting some of our sex hormones, aldosterone (a hormone that regulates the levels of salt and water in our blood stream) and, most importantly, they are responsible for releasing our stress hormones, epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are the stress hormones immediate stressors, like when you have an unexpected scare or when you're being chased down by a lion who wants to eat you for dinner. Cortisol, on the other hand, is the stress hormone that is released into our system over longer periods of chronic stress. For example, prolonged relationship stress, financial stress, hating your job, the death of a loved one...these are all things that will send our adrenal glands into overdrive with the secretion of cortisol. Now, the adrenal glands can handle this for a period of time, but after a while they get tired and just burn out, as was the case with me. When this happens, we experience:
So, it goes without saying that stress management is something that everyone needs to work on, especially in this day and age when we are all feeling like there are not enough hours in the day for all of the things we need to accomplish. It is vitally important to take time every single day to do something that calms your nervous system and allows your body to recover from the constant barrage of stress and the resulting cortisol flooding. For the record, this does not include sitting in front of the TV and marathon watching Orange Is the New Black on Netflix (wink, wink). But food also plays a significant role in the health and well being of our adrenal glands and our body's ability to cope with stress. To nutritionally support your adrenal glands I recommend:
If stress has taken more of a toll on the body, as was the case with me, therapeutic supplementation may be required as well as some pretty serious lifestyle changes, both of which should be monitored by a natural health professional to ensure you are on the right track and making progress. I can tell you from personal experience, that supporting your adrenal glands and making determined choices to reduce stress in your life will work wonders for how you feel and eliminating sugar cravings.
Sugar cravings do not have to rule your life, nor should they. When we can determine what the imbalances are that are responsible for us needing to make frantic trips to the convenience store for a Snickers bar, and then support our bodies through proper nutrition and lifestyle changes, the cravings will dissipate. And with sugar being a significant contributing factor to a plethora of inflammatory conditions in the body, including Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes, it is vital that we eliminate as much of it from our diet as we can and find healthier alternate options. In doing so, we become more balanced, vibrant and blissfully healthy!
Jill Taylor is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She is the mom of two pretty awesome teenagers, s very dramatic dog, a hedgehog and a snake (yikes!). Jill assists her clients in achieving true wellness through thoughtful and compassionate dietary and lifestyle coaching. Feel free to visit the "Contact" page to get in touch. Jill would love to hear from you!