Sugar cravings explained
The average American consumes approximately 72 pounds of sugar each year despite the vast body of evidence linking sugar intake to a multitude of common chronic illnesses. So, why is it so hard to quit the sweet stuff? Fortunately, science can shed light on our love affair with saccharides. The biochemistry behind sugar craving gives us insight into what is happening with our own body chemistry and informs strategies to eradicate these cravings. There are several common reasons that we desire sugar; each one has a different root cause which we will explore here in the context of holistic health.
Sugar begets more sugar
Simple carbs are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream causing a steep rise and then rapid fall in blood sugar. These steep rises and falls can, over time, exhaust the body’s ability to maintain healthy blood sugar levels, which puts us at risk of suffering from both hypo and hyperglycemia (blood sugar that is too low or high to be considered healthy). When blood sugar levels decrease, the brain tells the body that it is hungry. When levels decrease quickly, it creates a more urgent desire to eat and increases preference for calorie dense, easily digested foods like sugar and simple carbs.
The perils of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) are well-known and include development of metabolic syndrome, atherosclerosis, and type II diabetes. Hypoglycemia has its disadvantages as well. If you have ever felt “hangry” (hungry + angry) before, then you have tasted the deleterious mental/emotional consequences of low blood sugar. In fact, the brain is the body’s main consumer of glucose, so it is the first to notice when there isn’t enough around. Common symptoms of hypoglycemia include anxiety, fatigue, irritability, depressed mood, chilliness, nervousness, difficulty concentrating and, of course, sugar craving.
Stress loves sugar
Stress causes the adrenal glands to release stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormones cause blood glucose levels to rise in order to provide energy for a fight or flight stress response. This effect of stress on blood glucose is an adaptation that allowed us to effectively elude predators in evolutionary times. However, the chronic stress of today contributes to abnormal fluctuations in blood sugar and, once again, will damage the body’s ability to maintain a healthy blood sugar balance. At this point, adrenal fatigue is often a contributing factor to blood sugar dysregulation. Adrenal fatigue, a common consequence of chronic stress, is a condition where overtaxed adrenal glands lose their natural, diurnal cortisol rhythm as well as their ability to respond to stresses effectively. Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include low energy, insomnia, anxiety, low blood pressure, hypoglycemia and, once again, sugar craving.
Dysbiosis (overcolonization of “bad” gastrointestinal flora) demands sugar
The gastrointestinal tract is colonized by millions of micro organisms, the presence and composition of which has a profound impact on health and immunity. “Healthy” gut flora exist in a symbiotic relationship where both humans and bacteria benefit. In fact, the gut flora produce a range of vitamins, in particular from the B group and vitamin K. This mutually beneficial arrangement is disturbed, however, when the composition of gut flora is altered by a diet heavy in sugar and simple carbs. A high sugar diet favors the growth of sugar loving “bad” bacteria, which in turn drive their host, you, to consume more sugar.
The importance of healthy gut flora is mirrored in the association of intestinal dysbiosis with a multitude of health concerns including various autoimmune, rheumatic and behavioral disorders. Fortunately there are effective natural methods to restore beneficial bacteria to a dysbiotic gut.
Decreased appetite, weak digestion, malabsorption and dieting are a few causes of undernutrition. Undernutrition is especially relevant in the fifth decade of life onward as appetite decreases and digestive capacity declines, delivering a double blow to our ability to attain adequate nutrients from the diet. When the body does not have enough calories or is deficient in nutrients we tend to feel intensely hungry. Once again the urge for quick energy drives us to desire simple carbohydrates.
As powerful as they are, sugar cravings can be reduced to simple biochemical and functional imbalances. As illustrated above, the root cause of this imbalance is unique to each individual and is also key to understanding how to most effectively address and eliminate cravings. For example, if you are suffering from adrenal fatigue, then adrenal support and stress management will be central to addressing your particular cravings. Conversely, if you have a dysbiotic gastrointestinal tract, then restoring healthy gut flora is fundamental to turning down your cravings.
Naturopathic medicine has tools to identify and treat the root cause of sugar cravings. If you would like to explore this further or are ready to address your own health concerns and goals, please contact us at Thrive Natural Medicine to schedule an appointment or to take advantage of our free 15 minute consultation.