Most of us experience cravings.
(An estimated 98% of women and 68% of men, actually.)
And shortly after… feelings of guilt or shame for giving into them.
Now I want to be clear that I’m not talking about regular ol’ hunger here — of course, when we’re truly hungry, we’re going to crave food and we certainly SHOULD eat! I’m talking about those cravings we get even when we’re full. Those cravings that make us feel like bottomless pits — that we could eat everything in the refrigerator and then clean out the pantry, too!
So what causes cravings?
Well cravings are NOT caused by a lack of willpower. Rather, there are a number of deficiencies, biochemical imbalances, and emotions that cause our cravings.
This is important to know since we have a tendency to beat ourselves up after giving into cravings, and I certainly don’t want you to do that! Instead, I want you to have the knowledge to identify the root causes of your cravings so you can set things right again.
6 Underlying Root Causes of Cravings:
This is definitely the simplest root cause of cravings to remedy!
When we’re slightly dehydrated, we can easily confuse our thirst for hunger. So how do we know if we’re really hungry or just thirsty? Well how much water do you drink in a day? Do you drink a lot of diuretic beverages? And when was the last time you ate? Did you eat enough?
You can rule out thirst as the root cause of your cravings by making sure you’re hydrating properly. Remember the hydration question for the optimal amount of water each of us should be drinking is:
Body weight ÷ 2 in fluid ounces + # fluid ounces of diuretic beverages consumed (but more more than 100 oz!)
Low Blood Sugar
Low blood sugar is commonly to blame for sugar cravings, specifically. Because when blood sugar levels drop, and especially when they get very low, the body becomes alarmed and wants to get them back up again as quickly as possible. And how can it best do this? With a sugary or carb-rich food, of course! In fact, when blood sugar levels are low, the hypothalamus in the brain releases a chemical messenger called neuropeptide Y, which increases your body’s appetite and specifically the desire for sugars and starchy carbs.
But the key to kicking sugar cravings is NOT constantly snacking or eating sweets to keep blood sugar from dropping and the hypothalamus from releasing neuropeptide Y — the key is keeping blood sugar levels as steady as can be throughout the day, and the best way to do this is actually limit our intake of sugars and simple carbs, and balance complex carbs with protein and fat. Balanced blood sugar levels is also key to fighting off that mid-morning and mid-afternoon energy slump. These energy slumps are likewise caused by low blood sugar, which falls after spiking in response to a sugary or carb-rich breakfast.
Hormones tell the body what to do, how to do it, and when. Yes, they’re a very big deal. And so when hormones are imbalanced, it can cause a number of wide-ranging side effects, including cravings.
Scientists believe that low progesterone and high estrogen levels can cause blood sugar levels to fall, which commonly causes sugar cravings, as we just discussed (see above). This is why so many women experience cravings before their periods. If you also experience irregular periods, extreme PMS, or acne on the lower-half of your face, check out these tips for balancing your hormones naturally.
A decrease in serotonin, the body’s happy hormone, can also lead to carb cravings since carbs are required to create serotonin. Exercise and vitamin B6 are both known to help boost serotonin production. Decreased serotonin of course also plays a role in emotional eating and cravings (see below).
And naturally, the hunger-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin also significantly impact cravings. Leptin tells your brain that the body has had enough to eat and suppresses appetite while ghrelin tells your brain that the body needs food and increases appetite. But chronic inflammation and obesity can cause cells to become leptin-resistant, preventing the brain from properly hearing the “you’re full!” message and so appetite is always increased. On the other hand, inadequate sleep and weight extremes (being very underweight or very overweight) seem increase ghrelin, while greater muscle mass and a balanced weight keep ghrelin levels balanced. It’s also interesting to note that ghrelin increases when calories are restricted, and this is one of the big reasons why it’s believed most people regain any lost weight once a diet is over. (This Healthline article explains leptin and this Healthline article explains ghrelin quite well if you want to learn more.)
An Imbalance in the Gut Microbiome
In the microbiome, there are both “good” and “bad” bacteria. In a healthy body and healthy gut microbiome, the good bacteria keep the bad in check. But sometimes, there is an overgrowth of the bad bacteria — one of the most common is candida overgrowth (a yeast that is always present in the gut microbiome). And what do these bad bacteria love? Sugar! In fact, one of the telltale symptoms of candida overgrowth is intense sugar cravings. Ironically, eating sugar only feeds these unhealthy bacteria and allows them to continue to flourish. It’s a vicious cycle and one that is not so easy to beat! (I’ve been there before.)
Other symtoms of candida overgrowth include:
- Gas and bloating, especially after eating a food or meal rich in sugars or carbs
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Skin and nail fungal infections (like athlete’s foot or toenail fungus)
- Brain fog, lack of focus, difficulty concentrating, or poor memory
- Skin issues such as eczema, hives, and rashes
- Irritability, mood swings, anxiety, or depression
- Vaginal or urinary tract infections
- Severe seasonal allergies
“Adrenal Fatigue” or Adrenal Insufficiency
The adrenal glands are teeny tiny little glands that sit atop the kidneys and have a pretty big job: producing the stress hormone cortisol. If the body is chronically stressed and the adrenal glands are constantly called upon, it can result in “adrenal fatigue” or adrenal insufficiency.
The adrenal glands love carbs and minerals, which is why many of those who struggle with adrenal fatigue may crave sugar and salt. This is OK and actually, I’d recommend giving your body what it’s asking for while recovering — just make sure you’re giving it real, whole food, quality sources of complex carbs and mineral-rich seal salt, not Pringles or salty crackers!
Some telltale signs of adrenal fatigue include:
- Constant fatigue
- Dizziness upon standing
- Sensitivity to light
- Inability to handle stress
- Insomnia (particularly waking at 3 am)
Ah, of course. We all know what “stress eating” is — when we’re stressed or sad and self-soothe with food. (Then there are those people who have NO appetite when they’re stressed or sad… I’ve never understood those people… 🙂 ) But emotional eating doesn’t stop at stress or sadness. Many people also emotional eat when they’re bored, too.
With any type of emotional eating, it’s key to take a good hard look at WHY you’re truly experiencing cravings. Are you self-soothing? If yes, why? What is it that you’re craving on an emotional level? Or are you just bored? If yes, what can you do to relieve the boredom? The key isn’t just resisting the cravings — it’s remedying the underlying emotional cause (so much easier said than done, I know).
I recommend journaling to all of my clients dealing with stress or emotional distress. It’s a great way to get your emotions out and very cathartic for most. And of course, there is never any shame in seeking the assistance of a professional counselor.
Do you struggle with cravings?
Did this post help you identify why? I’d love to hear!