What prompts our craving and desire?

self care stress sugar Apr 26, 2024


We explore how we’re hard-wired for craving – from sugar to screens – but can develop practical tools to consciously override this primal stress-induced reactivity and find other ways of self-soothing.


Desire and aversion

From the moment we are born, we seek what gives us pleasure - it is deep within our primal make-up to desire and to use this as motivation to seek and obtain what we need. As babies, reaching to suckle provides the impetus to self-coordinate and move to find nourishment – and our first reward for such behaviour, the sweetness of milk, sets up associations that we take through life.

As we grow, quick-fix foods are often wired into our neural networks as this comfort or reward, so deeply sown into the wiring and internal drives of what soothes us. These might replicate this first sweet taste, or we can shift towards other substances (or behaviours) that complete such loops – bringing us back down to relief when we feel agitated, overwhelmed or in the face of difficult feelings.

The reward for such self-regulation are brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) such as dopamine, which alongside other feel-good chemicals such as beta-endorphins (our internally produced opioids), let us know we did something helpful for the system, even if it is only helpful in the short-term.

The trouble with this relationship with the sugar, alcohol, caffeine, shopping, screen activity etc that provides this relief is that is doesn’t really satisfy our true needs. These dopamine and endorphin releases were set up in our primal biology to reward us when we did something to support the propagation of the species, like finding food, building shelter etc but for we humans whose survival is based around being social, pack mammals. This also means cohesion of the tribe, and that we are hard-wired to need healthy social bonds, support from those around us, feeling seen, heard and understood; as well as the activities that support such social structures; cooperation, singing, dancing, shared experiences, intimacy and creativity. When we don’t receive these, we struggle to feel safe, and this is lit larger for those with trauma or under chronic stress.

Not having access to what naturally soothes and reassures us in this way is detrimental to our health in many ways; in fact social isolation has been shown to negatively affect immune regulation. Our default adaptation is to always try to navigate back to some kind of regulation, whatever form that takes. When we have become used to that regulation being with the sugar, alcohol, screen etc, we can feel the effects of dropping dopamine levels and the desire to find them to ‘normalise’. Withdrawing from these external factors is much easier when we are finding sources that naturally raise dopamine in our lives; through joy, connection, laughter and community.

We crave these external things for a reason – they give us pleasure and this is not a bad thing. In small amounts or as occasional treats a sweet treat, night of TV, a shopping spree or drinks with friends can enhance our quality of life. It is when our relationship with such things takes over and we feel they control us, rather than the other way round that things can feel out-of-whack.


Habits vs Treats

So what are the differences between an ingrained self-medicating habit and having a ‘treat’? We might recognise that behaviour has become habitual when we see the following signs:

Normalisation: when we need the substance or behaviour to feel like we come down from agitation and self-regulate ie we use it to self-medicate and soothe.
Coping: when it is part of our regular stress response pattern.
Altered brain/biochemistry: stress causes heightened cortisol, as well as lowered levels of the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) dopamine, which increases craving for things that balance this chemical shift – we can feel this as cycles of cravings and changes in energy, mood, sleep and even cognition.
Craving: becoming obsessive in our wants – with so much choice around these days, this can easily come in the form of high-quality treats or bonding with others over sugar for instance – ‘cake culture’ can be rife in many workplaces for instance, often to cope with stressful circumstances.
Bingeing: not recognising ‘enough’ and feeling an overwhelming need to have so much it tips over from feeling into ‘not feeling’ or numbness.
Withdrawal: altered moods and physical symptoms when we can’t satisfy our cravings – these can even be painful or deeply upsetting, or have physical effects like headaches, dizziness, fatigue and mood swings.
Negative consequences: when what we crave harms us and/or those around us.

A treat is an occasional enjoyment of something that gives you pleasure but you do not feel controlled by; yes, you deserve it occasionally, but you would be able to function much the same without it.

A habit is something you eat, drink or do regularly – every day or few days, even feeling it ‘normalises’ you. These are not necessarily 'bad' but it is bringing awareness to our relationship with such aspects of our lives that can offer insight and the choice to change. 



“An addiction is any behaviour that a person finds temporary relief in and therefore craves but suffers negative consequences as a result, and doesn't give it up, or has trouble giving it up despite the negative consequences… could be drugs, gambling, sex, shopping, television, eating, relationships, Internet, video games, pornography, any range of human activities... extreme sports, even spiritual work can be addictive. Addiction is always an attempt to solve a problem of suffering or pain.”
Gabor Mate, Compassionate Inquiry course




Chronic stressors

Cravings most often form part of a negative loop: they evolve as a primal coping mechanism in reaction to stress and trauma but then manifest new stressful patterns such as:

● Emotional turmoil
● Multi-tasking and constant attention switching
● Inner conflict
● Constant allergic reactions and viral infections
● Chronic pain
● Poor blood sugar control





Stress is mental constriction. Stress has us programmed to veer towards negative bias for survival. Chronic stress can have us stuck in patterns of avoidance rather than approaching opportunity. When we are stressed, the dopamine released from the adrenals and nervous tissue by rewarding experiences and from sugar, caffeine and alcohol, can seem even more appealing. Things that increase dopamine release are addictive.

You can read more about this in Charlotte’s book The De-Stress Effect



“Feel-good substances and behaviours increase dopamine release in the brain's reward pathways. The brain responds to this increase by decreasing dopamine transmission – not just back down to its natural baseline rate, but below that baseline. Repeated exposure to the same or similar stimuli ultimately creates a chronic dopamine-deficit state, wherein we’re less able to experience pleasure. The hypodermic needle delivers a drug right into our vascular system, which in turn delivers it right to the brain, making the drug more potent. The same is true for the smartphone; with its bright colours, flashing lights and engaging alerts, it delivers images to our visual cortex that are tough to resist. And the quantity is endless. TikTok never runs out.”
Anna Lembke Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence



Finding our own inner dopamine resources

We can naturally create dopamine through more nourishing means, such as:

Social engagement and compassion: the joy and connection we find through comfortable social contact, and anything that our primal systems feel promotes survival of the species.
Self-compassion practices: offering kindness and friendliness to ourselves goes a long way to self-regulation of the nervous system via the heart-brain axis. This can soothe agitated breathing patterns and vigilance and help us experience the more difficult aspects of life with space and courage. This is part of the journey to less of the reactive tendencies to quash pain or discomfort with those self-medicating things we might crave.
Dropping away from over-attachment to ‘the story’ of how and why: cultivating space where we recognise and meet our truest, deeper needs rather than the superficial needs of addiction – getting to the root of feelings and behaviours rather than reacting to the symptoms. This is looking at craving from the point of view; “what is the unmet need here?”



Addictive devices and media

Most of us nowadays probably recognise an element of addiction to screens; but especially if we have young people in our lives. This particular craving shows up as constant novelty-seeking, comparison and judgement (of self and others), needing information and ‘to know’. The quick-moving lights and noise of electronic devices fire up the front brain in a way that can make the ‘real world’ become dull by comparison.

“Upon signing off, the brain is plunged into a dopamine-deficit state as it attempts to adapt to the unnaturally high levels of dopamine social media just released. Which is why social media often feels good while we're doing it but horrible as soon as we stop.”
Anna Lembke, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence



Survival styles and stress coping strategies

Whether we want to move away from full-blown addiction or simply be liberated from choices we can’t seem to shake, fostering a more compassionate and present relationship with our bodies goes a long way. Mindful practices can reconnect the reptilian brain with the more developed and rational mammalian brain to consciously override primal instinct and knee-jerk reactions.

We can practice cultivating a relaxation response, which can all lead to a generalised reduction in both cognitive and somatic (body) heightened states. This calms our mind-body, modifying the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis – which is our stress-response system, the link between perceived stress and our reactions to it; our ability to self-soothe and regulate space for mindful relationship with the difficult feelings we might otherwise numb.



Self-Soothing Practices:

Orientation: slowly looking around to consciously take in our environment as well as inwardly locating ourselves in our bodies through the breath, self-touch or body scan.
Grounding: whether we’re standing, sitting or lying, feeling the earth holding us, our connection, roots downwards - getting a sense of gravity.
Somatic practices: promoting a dropping in to the physical and becoming less absorbed in mental prevarications.
Nature: open landscapes and nature are well documented for their psychological calming effects.
Creative pursuits: from climbing to painting, anything that gets you into your flow state.
Soothing speech and communication: whether this is internal self-talk or listening to a calm, guided meditation, as social animals, we co-regulate with soothing stimulus.

(Click here for webinars on Easing Anxiety and Understanding Trauma and Post-traumatic Growth)



Calming through food awareness

Supporting awareness of how the foods we choose to nourish us, or crave to soothe us, can help navigate changes in mood and coping. Feeling satisfied (our basic needs for function met) on a biochemical level, we can better sense into when we have had ‘enough’.

When the body is under stress and the adrenal glands and the thyroid need to work harder, the demand for the amino acid tyrosine is high. This is the protein building block from which we make adrenaline, dopamine and the thyroid hormone thyroxine, so replenishing our supply by sources such as meat, game, eggs, dairy, seaweed, spinach, mustard greens, pumpkin seeds, avocado and banana is important when we are under stress.

Those who tend towards low levels of serotonin and dopamine often get more of a kick from stimulating or numbing substances such as alcohol, junk food, recreational drugs, and addictive medications such as benzodiazepines. These habits, alongside stress, give us a sudden rise of feel-good brain chemicals GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid, which ‘stills the mind’)), dopamine and serotonin, but lead to crashes later. These highs and lows rather than regulation, lead to cycles of dependence and reliance on them to ‘feel normal’. Calming measures are crucial to desensitise cortisol receptors and bring down heightened body responses that we can normalise to, and that feed stress and addictions.



Craving support:

Balance blood sugar in the morning: to deal with initial cortisol issues, through including healthy fats and quality protein with breakfast, especially if you are tending to have sugar cravings later in the day. Cinnamon balances blood sugar and also communicates to the brain that you have eaten something sweet, so helps reduce cravings. You can add this to porridge, yoghurt, coffee or have cinnamon-based herbal tea. See lots of support on blood sugar balance within Whole Health membership, recipes and webinars.
Avoid all stimulants past 4pm: including caffeine, alcohol, sugar and even screens. Cut out sugar before cutting out caffeine – if your energy is low and you use coffee and sugar, reducing caffeine will likely increase the sugar cravings at first.
Get as much of your carbohydrates as possible from vegetables: especially green leafy and cruciferous (broccoli, cabbage, pak choi, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens) veg to supply trace minerals, soluble fibre and slow-release energy.
Magnesium: brain elevations of magnesium have shown to increase neuroplasticity, whereas magnesium deficiency induces anxiety and HPA axis dysregulation (Santoriet al, 2012). It is also depleted quickly by sugar consumption and the stress response, creating a vicious cycle. We can get magnesium through green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, carrots, sweet potato, avocado, cauliflower, tahini, parsley, traditional processed soy, whole grains, lentils. Epsom salts baths efficiently deliver magnesium through the skin and also soothe through submersion in warm water.
Regulate via supplementation: adrenal adaptogens such as rhodiola, ashwagandha, gingko biloba. GABA production; magnesium, taurine, L-theanine. Dopamine production: L-tyrosine, vitamin B6. Blood sugar balance and serotonin production: B vitamins, magnesium, chromium, zinc. Neurotransmitter uptake/utilisation: omega 3 oils.



Specific Supplement Recommendations:

See these products within the Charlotte Watts Health range:

Adrenal adaptogens:
Ashwagandha Complex
Gingko Biloba & B Vits

Dopamine, serotonin & other neurotransmitter production and regulation:
Brain Complex
Magnesium Complex

Blood sugar balance:
Glucose Complex

Neurotransmitter uptake & utilisation:
Fish Oils Omega 3
Vegan Omega 3 Algal Oil


Final thought:

While it is part of our primal makeup to crave, even when what we desire is harmful to us or keeps us trapped in patterns we would like to be freed from, we have the means to enquire, address and even override with practices, choices and thoughts that support other routes to self-soothing - consciously and compassionately.