As a herbalist and nutritionist I often get asked about sugar cravings and what causes them.
This question is often pondered by so many and the truth of the matter is yes, hormones will make you have sugar cravings, but in so many ways. The body’s endocrine system is a fascinating system containing many negative feedback loops to maintain a state of homeostasis. This means that the body has its own intelligence to stop or start producing hormones given the environment. So, when it comes to sugar intake, (and by this, I also mean a high glycaemic food intake - including foods made up from simple carbs), the hormone responsible for transporting the glucose to the cells is insulin.
So what is insulin, and how does that affect my urges to eat sugar?
Insulin is the hormone that is released in response to glucose entering the blood stream in order to deliver it to the cells for use as energy, or to the liver for storage. Not only does insulin respond to dietary glucose, but it also responds to raised levels of cortisol, another hormone involved in your stress response.
A person will become insulin resistant when the cells become desensitised to the cascade of circulating insulin, and so in an energy rich state, the body is actually craving more energy in the form of glucose and hence begins to crave sugar!!
Other hormones that will make you eat more sugar.
Leptin is the hormone involved in satiety and so tells us when we are full, and has a negative feedback loop system to stop energy intake and increase activity when enough energy intake occurs in the body. But alas, this system also falls victim to desensitisation and so a vicious cycle occurs that over rides the “cease food intake” signal and more food is consumed, often leading to weight gain and all the risks that run alongside that picture.
What are the solutions to prevent sugar cravings?
First it’s really important to eat a low glycaemic load diet, with protein and fat to slow down the release of the glucose into the bloodstream. All carbs aren’t created equal, so choose brown varieties and eat less of them and remember that processed white flour products can raise blood sugar just like sugar itself.
Healthy fats like nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocados (probably less of these given the current sustainability issues) and oily fish are great satiety promoters, meaning that you’ll feel fuller for longer.
Fibre is crucial as it promotes satiety and provides essential prebiotics to feed the commensal bacteria in the gut. When our microbiome is working well, producing more Vitamins and neurotransmitters, we tend to have less cravings and feel bette.
Protein with every meal will again slow down the release of glucose and provide essential amino acids for normal neurotransmitter production. Certain neurotransmitter deficiencies are also linked to cravings and it’s wise to maintain appropriate protein intake. This is an average of 0.8kg per kg of body weight.
Avoid sugars, alcohol and starchy carbohydrates. These will help flood your system and leave you in danger of insulin resistance in time.
It's about lifestyle too.
Because the stress hormones are involved in insulin release, managing your stress and lifestyle is imperative. Slow down, smell the roses and learn healthy ways to process your stuff! Exercise in nature, deep breathing, yoga, journaling and laughing are great tools to help with this.
We have great herbal medicine to also help balance blood sugars, what we call having a hypoglycaemic action. Some will be easier prescribed from a registered Herbalist and others are found in your kitchen cupboards!
I use herbs like Goats rue and Gymnema to balance the sugar response and reduce cravings. Cinnamon and Fenugreek are commonly used in the culinary world and have fantastic benefits to aid healthy blood glucose levels.
Mineral deficiencies are good to keep in check. Magnesium, Chromium and Zinc all play key roles in the endocrine system and antioxidants like alpha lipoic acid aid the insulin response.
Starting the day with a low carb option and including a fresh veggie juice and or smoothie throughout the day will satisfy the nutrient needs of your body and keep you balanced physically and mentally. Hydration is key, drink filtered water and herbal teas.
Finally, it does take some will power too! But once you push through 21 days, it gets easier and remember to fill your plate with colour and provide lots of different flavours to satisfy your taste buds.
Colleen Kennedy, Dip Herb Med, Dip NT, ND
Colleen studied Herbal Medicine, Naturopathy and Nutritional Therapy with College of Naturopathic Medicine for 7 years. Colleen runs her practice from the Body and Mind Health Centre, Westport. She holds short courses in Herbal medicine and Naturopathic Health, and lectures with CNM in Galway and Dublin over the Academic year.
If you would like to cut sugar from your diet and break the sugar addiction cycle you can sign up for the 21 Day Sugar Detox Program here.