Sugar cravings often have many facets. Because eating is so intimately connected with our biochemistry and our emotions, we “digest” sugar on many levels. You may notice there’s a pattern to when you crave sugar — for so many of my patients it is cyclical, occurring nightly after a stressful day at work, monthly just before their periods, or seasonally when the days grow short. For others, sugar binges may be connected to the kinds of foods they have already eaten that day, or with a daily ritual.
* Hormonal fluctuations. Just before menstruation, when estrogen is low and progesterone is on its way down, beta-endorphin levels are at their lowest. These cyclical hormonal and neurotransmitter fluctuations may explain why many women who experience PMS also have cravings — and the accompanying serotonin–endorphin bursts that high-sugar foods can provide.
* Stress. Any stressful situation can lead to less than optimal eating habits. Stress itself increases cortisol levels, which initially dampen hunger. Once the stress has abated, our hormones of hunger ramp up — “Refuel!” the body cries. This can lead many women with stressful jobs and lifestyles to a pattern of nighttime cravings, over-eating, and unwanted weight gain. Over time, chronic stress can lead to adrenal fatigue, eventually resulting in extreme exhaustion. So many women I see have reached a state of adrenal fatigue, and find the only way to get through the day is by drinking lots of caffeine and consuming sugar for quick energy bursts. But this only sets them up for further cravings and more energy depletion. There are lots of simple ways to support your adrenal health by what and how you eat. For more information, see our article on eating for your adrenal glands.
* Insulin resistance. When you are resistant to insulin (which can happen as a result of a long-term diet high in refined carbohydrates and low in micronutrients), glucose is not able to enter your cells and ends up staying in your blood as a result. This means your cells are starved for the fuel they need to operate, and signals are therefore sent to your brain to increase insulin. This results in cravings for sugar because even though you may be eating enough, your cells aren’t able to access the food. For more information, see our article on preventing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
* Food sensitivities. Food sensitivities are often the result of a situation known as “leaky gut,” where partially digested food particles can make their way into the bloodstream through a damaged, inflamed mucosal lining in the digestive tract. The body regards these food particles as foreign antigens and mounts an immune response by sending antibodies. Combined antibodies and antigens in your bloodstream, known as immune complexes, can lead to intense cravings. Gluten may be at the root of this type of sugar craving because it is often combined with sugar in the foods we eat, and so women think they’re craving sugar when really they might be craving gluten.
* Intestinal yeast or systemic candidiasis. Yeast thrives on sugar (a connection easy to make when you look at the Latin name for this group of organisms — Saccharomycotina — or “sugar fungi”). If your intestinal (and vaginal) bacteria are out of balance, they are less likely to keep yeasts like Candida in check. An overgrowth of yeast in the intestine or system-wide can lead to increased cravings for sugar. You can help keep these organisms — and cravings — in check by taking a high-quality probiotic that includes a competitive yeast, like the one we offer in our Personal Program.
* Excess acid-forming foods. Some women I talk with notice that after eating a lot of red meat, their cravings for sugar increase. Red meat is high in a pro-inflammatory molecule called arachidonic acid. Eating a lot of meat tends to upregulate the oxidative–inflammatory cascade in our bodies. If left unchecked, this inflammatory condition can become chronic and cause abnormal glucose metabolism, ultimately leading to insulin resistance. Choosing anti-inflammatory foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as those that are alkalizing and antioxidant-rich, such as fruits and vegetables, can offset the metabolic damage and the cravings associated with this dynamic.
* A lack of sweetness in your life. Many things in life can affect our serotonin and beta-endorphin levels — exercise, balanced nutrition, rewarding work, a positive relationship, even a sunny day. The joy we find in our lives speaks to our biochemistry. So when we are lacking positive energy and happiness, it’s not surprising that we seek to fill that void with sugar.