Based on the number of candy bar commercials that exploit apparently insurmountable sugar cravings that can only be alleviated with the help of a candy bar… sugar cravings seem to be a big problem. After all, you aren’t yourself if you don’t eat a packaged candy bar. (sarcasm)
Sugar cravings can certainly be a problem, and many people struggle with them. With a modern lifestyle that often includes processed foods, irregular sleep schedules, artificial light and lack of movement, hormone imbalance is a growing problem and cravings are a growing symptom.
What Causes Sugar Cravings?
There are many reasons we crave sugar. Humans are somewhat wired to crave sugar and carbohydrates from birth for a good reason. Breastmilk is naturally sweet and has important carbohydrates that not only feed the baby, but feed the baby’s gut bacteria as well.
The carbohydrates in breast milk stimulate the release of serotonin, endorphins, and promote relaxation. These are all important reactions in babies and contribute to the bonding process between mother and child. Of course, breastmilk also contains necessary proteins and fats that baby needs for growth, but the sweet taste is prominent.
Later in life, this natural desire for sweet foods continues and the body still gets this physiological sense of reward from eating sweets. In times when food was scarce or immediate energy was needed, these cravings were life saving. Today, where there are 90 types of candy bars and 40 kinds of soda at every checkout counter, they can do more harm than good.
Habitual consumption of sugar and excess carbohydrates can perpetuate this craving cycle, and statistically, habitual sugar consumption is exactly what many of us do. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugars a day in the form of foods, drinks and sweets (according to the American Heart Association).
Of course, occasional indulgence in a high quality and nutrient dense treat, like homemade chocolate or coconut milk panna cotta, is perfectly fine unless there is another health issue, but everyday sugar consumption and cravings are a big struggle for many people.
How to Stop Sugar Cravings
If you struggle with cravings, these are a few things that I’ve found helpful for beating sugar cravings naturally, and this often starts with a sugar detox.
1. A Little L-Glutamine…
This was a tip I first encountered when reading Dr. Julia Ross’ book The Mood Cure. This book is a gold mine of information about neurotransmitters and amino acids, but I found her tips for avoiding sugar cravings especially interesting.
Her theory about intense sugar cravings is that due to stress, poor diet or environmental factors, some people are deficient in certain amino acids to the point that diet alone may not be enough to reverse the problems. As Food Renegade explains in depth, any of us with severe amino acid deficiencies and neurotransmitter imbalances can’t overcome sugar addiction with willpower alone.
Fortunately, her solution involves short term supplementation with the amino acid L-Glutamine. In fact, she claims that a few 500mg doses of L-Glutamine per day when sugar cravings occur is enough to rid a person of sugar cravings in only a month or two.
In hindsight, I noticed that when I was taking L-Glutamine as part of my protocol to improve my gut health and manage my autoimmune thyroid disease, I also lost all cravings for sugar. I hadn’t connected the two and just figured the absence of sugar cravings was due to the dietary changes, but I haven’t craved (or even wanted) sweet foods since then.
I personally took this L-Glutamine twice a day when I was working to reverse my leaky gut symptoms, but some people prefer the powdered version that can be added to drinks. As a side note, L-Glutamine is often used for building lean muscle mass in athletes and I noticed that I also had a faster recovery time from difficult workouts while taking L-Glutamine.
2. Protein and Good Fats
Sometimes, sugar cravings may be from something as simple as consuming too many processed carbohydrates on a regular basis and not getting enough protein and fats.
Carbohydrates provide a quick and easy source of energy for the body, and they certainly have their place, but when a person gets in a habit of carbohydrate consumption, the result can be blood sugar fluctuations that lead to cravings.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which I already mentioned are vital for proper neurotransmitter production, an important component in balancing hormones and avoiding sugar cravings. Beneficial fats are a source of energy for the body and help increase satiety and ward off immature feelings of hunger.
Over the long-term, consuming enough beneficial fats and proteins (along with lots of vegetables) is an important step to providing the body the essential fatty acids, amino acids and micronutrients it needs to remain in balance and not crave foods unnecessarily.
3. Eat When Hungry
And plan before you are…
Times of intense hunger are not times to make level-headed decisions about the best foods to eat. Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. In this case, that means planning (and even pre-making if needed) healthy meals so you’ll have them on hand when you get hungry.
Like I mentioned above, eating enough nutrient rich foods like proteins, healthy fats and vegetables will help stop extreme hunger and blood sugar swings. This makes it easier to choose healthy options as sugar cravings are more likely to occur when a person gets extremely hungry (especially when this hunger is combined with stress or lack of sleep).
4. Get Moving
Exercise releases some of the same endorphins that sugary foods release and can be a great substitute when done consistently.
You don’t have to go running or do anything incredibly intense to get the benefits. Even just a brisk walk or a few minutes of intervals with a jump rope or just your body weight can be enough to get the endorphins moving and dodge the sugar cravings.
My favorite exercise these days is a walk or jog with my dog, or a quick kickball game outside with the kids, but there are endless options. Planning exercise is also a great way to beat the sugar habit long term, especially if you can train your body to love the endorphins from exercise as much as those from sugar.
5. Get Some Sleep
It is no secret that sleep is important. Sleep deficiency has been linked to just about every chronic health problem and the list keeps growing. In fact, not getting enough sleep can:
- Increase the risk of heart attack, stroke and cancer
- And the risk of high blood pressure, kidney disease and diabetes
- Increase the risk of obesity and hormone problems
From a sugar perspective, sleep is vital for balancing blood sugar and maintaining the correct levels of the hormones that manage insulin. In fact, just one night of impaired sleep can leave a person with the blood sugar levels of a pre-diabetic. Not the best idea for someone trying to master sugar cravings.
For this, and a million other reasons, make sleep a priority. It is one of the few silver bullets in health and it is totally free!
A solution often recommended by doctors, and one I’d check with a doctor before using. Chromium is used in insulin regulation of blood glucose and is important for balancing blood sugar levels.
Some evidence shows that taking small doses of Chromium can help ward off blood sugar dips and spikes that lead to cravings. A doctor once recommended that I take 200 mcg of Chromium once a day in the morning to help balance blood sugar levels.
B-vitamins are said to help with carbohydrate metabolism and are also important for many other reactions in the body. B-vitamins are depleted by excess stress, carbohydrate consumption and environmental stressors. I found that I had much more energy when I took a fermented live-source b-vitamin complex.
Note on Sugar Substitutes
There are many sugar substitutes available now, but just switching out sugar for a sugar-substitute won’t address the underlying problem and may lead to more serious problems, depending on the sweetener. Two that I use on occasion are xylitol and stevia, and I avoid all others.
Ever had sugar cravings? What helped you?