Cravings are tough. Whether for sugar, crunchy snacks, alcohol or wheat-based foods, cravings can certainly send your nutrition goals topsy-turvy. They’re uncomfortable, difficult to resist and can make you feel like a failure should you give in to them. To me it’s important to understand the possible mechanisms behind cravings, so that you can adopt tools and strategies that can help address the underlying cause. While not an exhaustive list, here are three causes of cravings and how you can overcome them.
Three Causes of Cravings and How You Can Overcome Them
Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that regulate many different functions, from emotional states, to focus and alertness. We talked a bit about neurotransmitters in relation to depression and anxiety here.
Dopamine is one of many neurotransmitters. It is not the only one that can underpin cravings – it is theorized that low serotonin premenstrually is one of the reasons women crave chocolate leading up to their period. But dopamine is well researched in its association with alcohol and drug dependence, and compulsive/ emotional eating too. This is because dopamine is related to the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Low dopamine can trigger the need for a “fix” to make oneself feel good/ calm/ soothed/ rewarded again, whatever that “fix” might be.
One way to address this naturally is with amino acids that support neurotransmitters. These can be taken individually or in combination. Recently I have been using a combination called Synaptamine – it contains a wide variety of neurotransmitter precursors and synergistic nutrients. It’s all natural, and helps with addiction/ withdrawal, depression, anxiety, food cravings and sleep. You can read more about it here. It contains Pyridoxal-5-Phos USP, L-Tyrosine, L-Glutamine, Rhodiola Rosea Root SE, Rosavins, Griffonia Seed Extract 5-HTP, L Phenylalanine, Chromium GTF Plus, Passion Flower SE Isovitexin, N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine USP, Glucosamine N-Acetyl, Arabinogalactan FiberAid AG99, Aloe Vera FD Powder 200X, White Birch Bark 4:1 Extract, Boswellia Serrata Gum Extract and Spirulina Algae – quite the impressive formulation; and it’s very well researched and even patented.
2. Blood sugar dysregulation
Imbalances in blood sugar are one of the key causes of cravings. If we go too long without food, our blood sugar levels get low, and that triggers massive cravings as our body wants to get back to homeostasis quickly. Rarely are those cravings for kale salads and protein shakes – by the time our blood sugar is low, our bodies are asking for sugar. In part this is necessary because we do want to correct the imbalance; protein and fat will do it too, it will just feel like it takes longer and if our body is so hungry that it is in panic mode, it doesn’t care to wait. The problem is, eating sugars or carbs can cause swings in the other direction, and then our blood sugar gets too high, which is just more work and more stress for the body to regulate the other way. These kinds of swings usually happen over the course of a few hours. Skipping breakfast is one of the biggest things that will set up for poor blood sugar regulation – by the time you realize you’re hungry it’s mid-morning, you’re busy, and by the time lunch time comes around you could eat the tablecloth. Caffeine actually makes the situation worse, so if you have a coffee in the morning and skip breakfast too, the impact could be even greater.
The best solution for this is to eat small meals more regularly throughout the day; not skipping breakfast; and making sure that you get some high-quality protein (fish, turkey, eggs, etc) with every meal. Protein stimulates glucagon which helps to stabilize blood sugar and guard against insulin and blood sugar swings. Carbohydrates alone stimulate mostly insulin, which leads to more of the ups and downs (and weight gain too).
From a nutrient perspective, chromium picolinate is one of my favorites for blood sugar balance. Cinnamon is too – it can either be taken in dried powder form (encapsulated), or in the essential oil form. I love an oil blend called “Metabolic Blend” that is amazing for helping to keep blood sugar levels healthy and happy. There is also a supplement I like that combines cinnamon and chromium together.
3. Candida overgrowth
Candida overgrowth is another cause of cravings for certain foods, particularly sugars and carbohydrates. Candida is a naturally occurring yeast in the intestines. If it is in balance it does not cause harm and is an integral part of our microbiome, but if it overgrows it can become problematic. Candida overgrowth can cause a range of symptoms, ranging from foggy brain, to fatigue, to serious neurological issues.
Because yeast feeds on sugar, having a high level of yeast in the gut is going to fuel those cravings, as the Candida is looking for a food source. So then you’re prone to feeling foggy due to excess sugar/ carb intake. Then, by the way that Candida is metabolized, it produces aldehydes, which are alcohol-like chemicals. So then that all makes you double-foggy.
Managing Candida overgrowth can be tough. Certainly probiotics are a bit part, avoiding sugars and carbs (sometimes the cinnamon and chromium can help with that part even if Candida is the underlying cause), and using anti-fungals such as grapefruit seed extract, olive leaf extract, garlic, etc. One of my favorite anti-fungal formulas is Biocidin – it works well, tastes pretty good and is a well-researched formula.
Cravings for foods, especially sugars and carbs, can be so tough. It’s a vicious cycle however – once the cycle is broken, cravings usually go away and stay away. But that can involve a pretty rough few days up to a couple of weeks of white-knuckling it. I have found that for most, working on balancing blood sugar, balancing the microbiome of the gut, and possibly even doing antifungals at the same time as reducing dietary intake of sugars and carbs is the key. I say this not to brag – but I used to be the biggest ice-cream lover in the world. It was my favorite food. But now that I don’t eat any sugar, I simply don’t want it; it’s not appealing to me. That is similar to what I hear from most people too, who really commit to avoiding their trigger foods. It can be hard in the beginning, but the results are worth it in the end!