How to... Resist Cravings

food nutrition sugar Jan 05, 2023

It is part of our human condition to seek and want; desire is part of our motivation dynamic. As babies we first feel this when the desire to reach a toy or procure some food provides the impetus to learn to roll over or cultivate eye-to-hand coordination.

In this article, I will mainly discuss cravings for sugars and sweet foods, but many of the mechanisms and cycles described can equally apply to anything we crave. Not just food stuffs, but also general ‘stuff’ – having more, seeking and acquiring (think window shopping or Ebay trawling!) – in an attempt to fill a void or distract ourselves from being with uncomfortable feelings and emotions. They are also the roots of any addictive behaviour, from smoking to over-working, from alcohol to over-exercising, any behaviour of excess or that we feel ‘normalises’ us, can be examined from a few angles that can help free us from acting on our impulses and feel we have the liberation of choice.

The blood sugar connection

Cravings of any kind are often set up and then fuelled by highs and lows of blood sugar. We can often live within these cycles; between periods of heightened activity like work and exercise, followed by slumps of sofa dwelling, particularly if we’re having a stressful time. Some of this can be habit and some that we are not fuelling ourselves in ways that support regulated energy production and feelings of having had ‘enough’.

Ideally, our food provides a consistent supply of energy as sugar or glucose to the bloodstream to be delivered to cells as we need. All plant foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and pulses) break down to simple sugars eventually, but these whole foods take time to be digested and so deliver their sugars as a drip-feed supply. Simple sugars like those in table sugar, refined grains, syrups and processed fruits hit the blood stream very quickly causing a blood sugar surge. As it is damaging to body tissues and cells to have sugar excess to energy (we can only use so much at a time) running round, we can overcompensate and high levels of the hormone insulin are released to quickly bring it down; often with a crash to too low a few hours later. As both excess sugar and high insulin promote fat storage, a high sugar diet promotes weight gain.

When blood sugar levels are following this rollercoaster pattern, we can most obviously notice the craving for sweet foods. When blood sugar levels (and therefore energy and resources) are low, we can feel a strong pull to anything which offers an instant up, a surge. For many this means craving sugar (even in the form of alcohol), but also caffeine and stress.

The stress connection

The stress response creates an immediate expectation in the mind-body to galvanise energy for a fast and protective response – to stand our ground or run away, fight-or-flight. Even when its source is mental or emotional, as worry or not feeling fully safe where we are, we are still getting these signals, which can add to craving for instantaneous fuel in the form of sugar, refined carbohydrates and starches as in ‘white’ grains eg rice, bread, pasta.

Cravings when blood sugar levels are low can also be for caffeine and other stimulants as these mimic the stress response and therefore raise blood sugar levels ready for action. This is from stores in the liver and muscle, supposed to be for emergencies, but if we are using up these reserves, can of course lead to (yup, you guessed it!) more cravings…

Within those blood sugar dips or hypoglycaemia, some can turn to this very stress response instead of sugar, caffeine or alcohol as a lift. Getting tetchy, irritable or angry has the same effect – raising low levels to bring energy levels back on line. Of course, just like sugar highs, these short, sharp shocks are not sustainable. Finding a middle path through energy and life can help level out exhausting reactions that we may not want and even be tired of repeating and going round in circles.

Some key nutritional foundations can help regulate blood sugar and stress-related highs and lows to free us from reactive cravings:

  • Have a good protein source with breakfast to help balance blood sugar levels and provide the building blocks for neurotransmitters that support mood and energy regulation; nuts, eggs, goat’s cheese and yoghurt can provide a sense of satisfaction that also feels soothing and can reduce ‘seeking’ behaviours for the next ‘fix’. You can even add a protein powder to smoothies (link here).
  • Nuts (and particularly almonds) have shown to help curb cravings, as they are compact sources of complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats. People who include them in their diet tend to less weight gain.
  • Cinnamon tells the brain that the you have received something sweet, whilst balancing blood sugar levels by mimicking insulin – moving sugar into cells for energy. Add to yoghurt, porridge, baking in place of sugar.

The serotonin connection                    

In the winter months, cravings for sugar, refined carbs and starches can worsen as we have less natural exposure to light. When days are lighter, the sleep hormone melatonin is lowered when sunlight triggers the rise of the hormone and neurotransmitter (brain chemical) serotonin. So we can be left in a more sleepy mode and feel we need to quick-fix energy boost of sugars to keep us going, brain and body as focus and concentration can also take a dive in this state. As serotonin is a motivating, mood enhancing and socialising chemical, when levels are low we can tend to isolate ourselves and feel listless and demotivated; another situation where we may give in to cravings for comfort or numbing of difficult feelings.

Healthy serotonin levels are a vital part of human behaviour – how we socialise, cooperate and engage in activities that represent survival of the species for pack animals like ourselves. It also regulates sleep cycles with the see-saw effect of melatonin and this quality of recovery is linked with appetite regulation. Poor sleep has long been associated with weight gain and consuming ‘empty calories’.

This importance for survival means that we have reactive mechanisms in play for when serotonin levels are low. A key response this drop is to crave sugar or starches; foods that raise levels of the hormone insulin, needed to carry serotonin into the brain. As a strong biochemical reaction, this state is difficult to interrupt and these kind of cravings make impulse control much less available. To beat ourselves up or be self-critical in any way at these times, is rather unfair as we are at the whim of strong survival urges. Rather, noticing and regulating serotonin and blood sugar levels

Serotonin is also responsible for satiety or satisfaction after eating and low levels signal cravings for foods, particular starches and sweet foods as a survival mechanism to raise serotonin.

Serotonin also increases emotional satisfaction and depletion can show in isolating behaviours, leaving people more likely to derive comfort and gratification from food.

Whether overeating tendencies or episodes are part of a larger eating disorder or not, they are commonly associated with anxiety and other mental health issues like depression (Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 2012: 118–31). Low levels of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin are associated with these conditions.

To help naturally raise serotonin levels:

  • Get as much natural sunlight as possible – this means 15 mins minimum on bare skin, but winter sun in the northern hemisphere may not get through the clouds. A vitamin D3 spray such as Better You D Lux 3000 (link here) can help keep up levels which also depend on sunlight; vitamin D is needed for serotonin production and release.
  • Exercise, socialising, laughter, hugs, nature and joy all raise serotonin and our happy mood-chemical beta-endorphins. We may not feel like it if resources are low, but even a small walk in nature and a conversation with someone you feel safe with can help remove the need to turn to sugar or other substances or behaviours we crave.
  • Foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan and so raise serotonin are:
    • almonds
    • avocados
    • bananas
    • beetroot
    • chicken
    • cottage cheese
    • duck
    • figs
    • mackerel
    • pheasant
    • salmon
    • sunflower seeds
    • tofu
    • turkey

How yoga can help us resist cravings

There is a growing interest in how yoga practices can help regulate appetite and reduce cravings. Much of this is due to its proven benefits in lowering stress hormones and raising soothing neurotransmitters such as GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid).

There is also more direct research into cravings as food preoccupation (Journal of Adolescent Health, 2010: 346–351).  Initial investigations are showing that part of the front brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPCF) has a role to play in how we process and integrate emotion-related information, particularly how this is then translated this into habitual, quick-fix type behaviours. Low VMPFC activity affects decision-making and leads to the kind of choices that just satisfy instant want or reward, (like a quick-fix sugar hit) with no long-term concern. We might want to give up sugar, but in the moment, we just don’t care…. The good news is as one paper cited, “because yoga encourages mindfulness, positive self-talk, and self-acceptance, which may help increase self-confidence and sense of self, these aspects may engage the VMPFC by encouraging focus on body movements, the breath, and other foci” (Explore, 2012: 118–126).

A regular physical yoga practice and other mindful and embodied activities have shown to increase body satisfaction and improve disordered eating (Eating Disorders, 2009: 273-92). Also cultivating habits of being able to be with the strong physical sensations that arise in asanas (postures) and emotional intensity that we may sit with in meditation, allow us to meet the sensations of cravings without having to go through with them.

Simple yoga sequence to help alleviate cravings

Threading the needle – this deep hip opener invites strong sensations, as also moves into the big piriformis muscle around the buttock where we can hold much tension. Learning to ride the intensity, by breathing in towards it – rather than constricting or holding against – and exhaling space around it helps us accept that all feelings are in constant flux and if we release around them, they naturally move on; including the strong feelings of cravings.                                                                     

Prasarita padottanasana – this forward bend provides the attention of strength through the legs, to allow full rest and decompression through the spine and neck. Opening the hamstrings allows self-soothing mechanisms to engage and releasing the jaw can help us feel space physically and around mind-body desire.

Viparita karani variation – restorative yoga has been shown to alleviate the ruminations and tension linked to cravings. Here, a complete inversion is restful for the heart and the chest supported open allows full, oxygenating breaths that can naturally energise, whilst soothing the agitation of cravings.

Your cravings are not you….

Mindfulness is becoming accepted as an effective intervention for cravings and addictions of any nature, including smoking, alcohol, drugs and sex. When compared to distracting strategies, the disidentification skill that can be practiced alongside awareness and acceptance, was seen to show success with chocolate cravings.

Disidentification involves seeing the craving as something separate to yourself and viewing it apart to create distance, noticing how you feel away from it eg in sensations you feel within a yoga practice. This can be helpful in also noticing the emotional triggers that set off your cravings. Fear is often present and if you disidentify and step aside from it, you can that “awareness of fear is never fearful” as Rick Hanson observes in his book Buddha’s Brain. If we’re not actually running for our lives, chances are we can find a calmer place from which to view our present state.

First featured in Yoga Matters.

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