What causes cravings?I have a friend who often craves chocolate.  You know what her solution is to her cravings? She eats more
chocolate!

But that’s not the right solution at all!

So for all of you out there who suffer from cravings (and yes, I occasionally have that craving for a sweet or two myself), I thought it would be good to talk about what is really going on. It isn’t that your body is craving chocolate, sugar, or starches! What your body is trying to tell you is that you are missing nutritional balance or that something else is wrong.

First, how do nutritional imbalances cause cravings?

Your body, or more specifically your brain, keeps track of the nutrients you consume. It wants enough protein, carbs, fat, calories, minerals, fiber, and more, to keep you as healthy as possible. When you have a craving, your brain may actually be signaling to your body that it needs more of something, maybe more protein, as one example.

If you were to eat more protein, in this case, your brain would be happy and you most likely wouldn’t continue to crave that chocolate.

Cravings don’t constantly occur because most of the time you are probably already eating the needed protein and other nutrients, because you are good about maintaining your healthy diet…right?

But sometimes, like when you are traveling, or stressed out at work, or not sleeping well due to some emotional turmoil going on in your life, you likely forgo your healthy diet. Plus, you are stressing your body in other ways that impact your blood sugar and hormones. You might do a carb load in the morning instead of your usual healthy protein (sound familiar?). Then what happens? You start to crave your chocolate – or your vice of “comfort” – later that day.

And if you “feed your brain” a chocolate bar, guess what? It still wants the protein! You will still feel the cravings; and you’ll likely feel lousy and stress even more because of the guilt over that chocolate. And with the impact to your blood sugar, you will have further physical symptoms. It is a vicious cycle.

So when your nutrients are out of balance, your body may crave food to rebuild its stores in the food type you are deficient in.  When you respond to the cravings with sugar, starches, and nutritionally depleted and harmful foods, you add stress to your body, which burdens your adrenal glands. So giving in to food cravings can contribute to adrenal exhaustion.

And you are more likely to have your nutrients out of balance when you are:Young cute woman trying to eat chocolates over white background

  • Stressed
  • Not sleeping well
  • Not moving enough
  • Restricting food types from your diet (like a no-carb or low protein diet)
  • Eating at the wrong times (like snacking throughout the day)
  • Emotionally eating (I’ll talk more about this a little later)

So what have you experienced with your own cravings? See a pattern?

I know I have a pattern. When my schedule gets hectic, I can’t get my exercise time in, and then I start staying up late (and then start to stress about that!).  Sometimes I’m traveling a lot and off my usual eating schedule.  That’s when I want to reach for something sweet. But what my body is trying to tell me is to get back into balance.

Hunger, satiation, and blood sugar are all under hormone control!

There have been a number of studies examining what happens in the body when people experience craving. People on restricted diets have been shown to go into a specific craving mode. In one such study, after just 3 days of a strict (no carb) diet, participants’ levels of the appetite-reducing hormone leptin decreased by 22%.

Your hormones control whether you feel a craving or not. In particular, leptin tells your brain when you are full.  Usually, as you eat, your insulin and leptin increase, and then gradually decrease – at least, that is what they are supposed to do. But if your body is out of balance, your leptin may develop resistance and reduce its production. So you’ll still feel hungry.

Think about all you do that impacts your body being in or out of balance. Sleep, for example. Studies have shown that even a few nights of poor sleep drop levels of leptin by as much as 18% and boost levels of ghrelin (a hormone that triggers increased appetite) by as much as 30%! In these same studies cravings for foods like bread and cookies jumped as much as 45%

Snacking a lot, especially if you already have blood sugar issues, causes this to happen, too. Insulin levels are raised unnaturally, as is leptin, and people can develop leptin resistance. At that point, leptin may not turn off the appetite.  I wrote about the underlying physiology of what is happening in a previous post, so I encourage you to read more to understand.

Emotional eating can turn cravings into habits woman eating cookies

Along with hormones, there are a lot of psychological components to some cravings. Clearly stress impacts cravings. Most people will resort to their very own “comfort” food when they crave something. What does that mean? If you were comforted as a child with grilled cheese sandwiches, you may in fact crave cheese or bread when your life gets stressful or out of balance.

Why do so many people crave bread? Carbohydrates boost the hormone serotonin, which has a calming effect on people. Yuck. Think of all the snack foods that cater to this physiological and emotional connection people have to carbs! Throughout your life you may actually develop a craving “habit” based on what foods you have been comforted with in times of stress.

I have some wonderfully delicious energy balls I have made.  They can be made with coconut butter, hemp seeds, and cordyceps or other medicinal mushroom powders, sweetened with stevia, and rolled into something that resembles a fudge ball.  These snacks that fulfill my cravings and indulgences might be considered innocent and even healthy by most.  Still, it’s the emotional state with which the cravings and indulgences express themselves that’s out of sorts.

Listen to my interview with the “Cravings Whisperer”, Alexandra Jamieson. She talks about how many people develop craving habits based on earlier memories and emotional triggers.

Other physiological issues – causing body imbalances – may cause cravings

One last point is that there are many other issues that can cause cravings as well. One that I see a lot in my own practice is candida. Yeast love sugar and thrive on it! I always recommend people take daily probiotics for this reason (or eat foods that contain beneficial bacteria, such as sauerkraut). Nowadays, people have been on antibiotics or exposed to other toxins, so it is important to ensure good gut health. You can learn more about the benefits of probiotics in this radio interview I did with microbiome expert, Steph Jackson. Probiotics are necessary in our toxic world to maintain good gut health!

Bottom line on cravings is that they are caused by imbalances within your body

  • Nutritional imbalances
  • Psychological imbalances caused by emotional triggers
  • Bacteria or other physiological issues

But the good news is that all of these can be addressed by learning to listen to your body and make good choices. Good choices about the foods you reach for, as well as how you react to your emotional triggers and stresses. Don't forget that good lifestyle choices relating to sleep, exercise, etc, are important, too.

So the next time you are stressed or having poor sleep, don’t reach for that salty bag of chips. Stop and think about what your body is telling you!

We discuss all of these different facets of your body in our year-long Energy Recharge Coaching program, which also includes our B4 Be Gone Blood Sugar Balancing program.  If you're a practitioner and are interested in including all of this in your practice, I encourage you to apply for my Nutritional Endocrinology Practitioner Training.