Craving sugar is an irresistible urge. Some women know they’re hooked while others don’t think they eat a lot of sweets — until they start keeping track. If you love sugar you already know it’s a highly addictive substance — research shows it affects your brain the same ways that drugs do. But regular sugar consumption can also lead to serious long-term health problems, including excess weight gain, hormonal imbalance, skin and dental issues, osteoporosis, diabetes, and even some forms of cancer.
There are many physical causes for sugar cravings. Hormonal fluctuations can disrupt major hormones like insulin, estrogen and progesterone. Intestinal yeast thrives on sugar. Chronic stress stimulates cortisol production that contributes to cravings for sugar.
Understanding sugar’s effects can help you stop the cravings, lose weight and transform your health.
Sugar, your hormones, and your weight
Can’t lose weight — no matter what you do?
There’s more to weight gain than eating too much sugar. If you can’t slim down despite your best efforts, you may have weight loss resistance, when a metabolic imbalance blocks the weight loss process.
These imbalances can be caused by:
- low thyroid
- digestive problems
Are you struggling with weight loss resistance? Find out by taking our quick quiz.
Having a treat on special occasions is okay but if you’re stuck in the habit of grabbing a daily cookie for that 3 o’clock slump or pouring a heap of sugar in your coffee, the physiologic changes happening in your body are profound. As the image above shows, a sugar rush activates feel-good chemicals and reward centers in your brain, including neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and beta endorphins. It also causes blood sugar spikes and eventually insulin surges that can drive insulin resistance.
The results of this roller coaster are:
- weight gain, especially around the belly
- mental fogginess
- hormonal imbalance
- depression and anxiety
The problems we hear about most are weight gain and hormonal imbalance. Here’s what happens: Carbohydrates (including sugar) are generally stored in the liver as glycogen. If the liver is full, your body will make fat from any excess sugar and carbohydrates and store it in existing fat deposits around your body. That’s the direct link between sugar and weight gain.
Sugar can also turn off a gene that controls your sex hormones. Without this sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) gene, levels of testosterone and estrogen can become unregulated, leading to symptoms like fatigue, anxiety, irritability and more. But you can stop your sugar cravings and the corresponding health effects.
Eight steps to stop craving sugar and prevent its negative effects
You can see how much trouble sugar can cause once it gets into your system. Our proven steps can help you break the hold that the sweet stuff has over you. Choose one or more of these to help you put sugar in its place as just an every-now-and-then treat.
Step 1: Balance your hormones. Just before menstruation, when estrogen is low and progesterone is on its way down, beta-endorphin levels in your brain are at their lowest. These cyclical hormonal and neurotransmitter fluctuations explain why women in perimenopause or with PMS have sugar cravings and the serotonin-endorphin bursts that high-sugar foods provide. Herbal formulations like our Herbal Equilibrium or PMS Solution can help naturally balance fluctuating hormones to kill cravings and other disturbing symptoms.
5 Days without sugar?
“Luckily, I had just finished a double scoop of chocolate gelato moments before being roped into this research.” Read more about Anne’s five days without sugar.
Step 2: Nourish with nutrients. Specific micronutrients like zinc, vitamin C and B vitamins are particularly helpful for calming sugar cravings by influencing serotonin production. Equally important are omega-3s, which are crucial for regulating mood and inflammation — both are associated with cravings.
Step 3: Mix pleasure with protein. Combining your treat with a few nuts, or even a high-quality protein powder, balances blood sugar and helps prevent eating to many sugary treats. This lessens the “spiky” sugar surge to the brain and makes it less likely you’ll crash after.
Step 4: Balance your bugs. Your gut always seeks a balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria. If intestinal and vaginal bacteria are out of balance, they’re more likely to invite yeasts like Candida. An overgrowth of yeast in the intestine (or system-wide) can lead to intense cravings for sugar, fatigue, fuzzy thinking and digestive issues. Taking a probiotic and temporarily going on a yeast-free diet can help restore healthy bacterial balance while eliminating sugar-hungry bugs that can’t live without sugar/refined carbohydrates.
Step 5: Skip the sugar for 3-5 days in a row. It can be hard to do but avoiding sugar for just three days can make a huge difference. Though it may take longer for cravings to completely go away, eliminating sugar’s cyclical crash-and-burn bursts of serotonin and beta-endorphin can normalize your sugar receptors and neurotransmitters. Then your brain isn’t constantly sending the message that it needs more sugar.
Step 6: Develop stress-busting daily habits. Meditation, yoga and journaling have all been shown to reduce pro-inflammatory markers in the blood. Many women with demanding jobs and lifestyles fall into a pattern of nighttime cravings, over-eating and unwanted weight gain. Over time that leads to adrenal imbalance and extreme exhaustion, along with a reliance on caffeine and sugar.
One carb lover’s break from carbs
“Why is it that the minute I decide to give something up, I want it more than ever?” Read about Joanie’s low-carb experiment.
Step 7: Avoid acid-forming foods. Conventionally-raised meat is high in antibiotics and hormones that create pro-inflammatory molecules such as arachidonic acid. Highly processed carbohydrates also tend to increase inflammation and acidity, causing cravings for sweet foods. Choosing anti-inflammatory foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, along with alkalizing and antioxidant-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, can offset associated damage and cravings.
Step 8: Explore food sensitivities. Common food sensitivities can leave you so foggy-headed and fatigued that you turn to sugar for a pick-me-up. The most common food sensitivities are to gluten and dairy, followed by corn, eggs, soy, peanuts and citrus. When you remove a food you are sensitive to, your sugar cravings may go away. (NOTE: Eliminating certain foods can lead to temporary symptoms while your body adjusts to not having that food.)
Bonus step: let your life be sweeter!
Many things in life positively affect serotonin and beta-endorphin levels — exercise, balanced nutrition, rewarding work, a loving relationship, even a sunny day. Any joy and fun you find (or make!) in your day “speaks happiness” to your body. If you lack positive energy and happiness, you may fill that void with sugar. That’s why this is our favorite piece of advice: go have some fun!
Remember, we are not striving for perfection, but progress. Little changes every day lead to amazing transformations. Letting go of sugar can be stressful — we’ve been there — but the benefits you feel in your body and mind will keep you going.
1 Rouch, C., et al. 2003. Extracellular hypothalamic serotonin and plasma amino acids in response to sequential carbohydrate and protein meals. Nutr. Neurosci., 6 (2), 117-124. URL (abstract): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12722987 (accessed 10.03.2008).
Wurtman, R., & Wurtman, J. 1995. Brain serotonin, carbohydrate-craving, obesity and depression. Obes. Res., 3 (Suppl. 4), 477S-480S. URL (abstract): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8697046 (accessed 10.03.2008).
2 DesMaisons, K. 2008.Potatoes Not Prozac: Solutions for Sugar Sensitivity [Revised edition.] NY: Simon & Schuster.
3 DesMaisons, K. 2008. p. 145.
4 DesMaisons, K. 2008. p. 75.
5 DesMaisons, K. 2008. p. 145.
6 DesMaisons, K. 2008. p. 185.
Amazines. 2007. Sugar withdrawal symptoms: don’t let them stop you from kicking your sugar habits. URL: http://www.amazines.com/article_detail.cfm?articleid=207328 (accessed 10.14.2008).
7 DesMaisons, K. 2008. p 84.
8 Lipski, Elizabeth. 2004. Digestive Wellness, 3rd ed., p 92. NY: McGraw Hill.
9 Lamb, R., & Goldstein, B. 2008. Modulating an oxidative-inflammatory cascade: Potential new treatment strategy for improving glucose metabolism, insulin resistance, and vascular function. Int. J. Clin. Pract., 62 (7), 1087–1095. URL (abstract): http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2440526 (accessed 10.17.2008).
10 DesMaisons, K. 2008. pp. 145-147.