How to Overcome Cravings

 blood sugar, mineral deficiency, zinc, magnesium, gut health, probiotics, sleep, sleep disturbance, protein, healthy fat, dehydration, hormones, estrogen, progesterone, stress, water, real food, alcohol, satiety, cortisol, exercise, supplements

Do you ever just really want a piece of chocolate? Or maybe you’re a salty snack lover and can’t resist diving head-first into a bag of chips.

We all experience cravings at times, but did you know there are biological mechanisms behind these feelings of hunger? Learning to control cravings can be a relatively simple task, given the right tools.

9 Causes of Cravings

1) Dehydration

We often confuse thirst for hunger. We head to snacks and treats to increase energy. Water helps facilitate the process of glycogen release when we need energy. A lack of fluids can cause difficulty in the production of this energy output, leading to cravings for sugar and glucose. Dehydration also interferes with brain levels of serotonin. That can result in a lack of satiety as well.

2) Blood Sugar Swings

There are reasons why someone may experience low blood sugar which leads to cravings. Not eating enough is one sure-fire way to experience cravings later in the day. Another cause is eating a diet high in sugars and processed carbohydrates. All carbs break down into sugar (glucose) in your body and enter the bloodstream. Because blood cannot tolerate excess sugar, the body naturally produces the hormone insulin that takes sugar from the blood and deposits it into the cells. But constantly clearing the blood of sugars causes cravings for more food in an effort to re-stabilize blood sugar. It becomes a vicious cycle. Alcohol consumption is another practice that can interfere with blood sugar as well as the hormones needed to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

3) Sleep Deprivation

When we don’t get enough sleep, our cortisol levels rise. This leaves us feeling more stressed and also craving sugar. During sleep deprivation, ghrelin gets released in larger amounts. Ghrelin creates feelings of hunger. The combination of increased hunger with decreased satiety leads to overeating and unwanted weight gain.

4) Mineral Deficiencies

Two major mineral deficiencies — zinc and magnesium — can lead to cravings. Zinc deficiency causes you to have sugar cravings after a meal. If you just want a little something sweet after dinner, it might be that you need more zinc in your diet. And if chocolate is your jam, and you just NEED it, it could be that you’re deficient in magnesium. Along with chocolate cravings, muscle cramping can be a sign of low magnesium.

5) Chronic Stress

As we mentioned above, cortisol elevation from a lack of sleep creates cravings. Cortisol is a stress hormone, so anything that stresses the body can lead to elevated cortisol. Normally, cortisol rises and falls each day. But when someone is under frequent and chronic stress, cortisol may stay elevated. This hormone also increases insulin in our bodies, thus spiking appetite as well.

6) Lack of Healthy Fats

In order to properly feel satiated, it is necessary to include healthy fats into our diets. High-fat foods do not cause an insulin release, so they keep your blood sugar much more stable. Fats, especially Omega-3s, have the ability to increase levels of the hormone leptin which increases fullness after meals.

7) Poor Intestinal Bacteria

Gut microbes have been shown to influence diet and behavior and contribute to conditions like anxiety and depression. The gut microbiome influences our decisions on which foods we put into our mouths. A lack of beneficial bacteria results in strong cravings for food to make up for the missing nutrients that good bacteria provides the body.

8) Lack of Protein

Protein boosts the body’s serotonin levels. Serotonin is known as the “feel good” hormone. It promotes better moods, less stress, and appetite suppression. This powerful brain chemical curbs cravings and makes you feel satisfied even if your stomach is not full. A higher protein intake also increases levels of other satiety hormones (GLP-1, peptide YY, and cholecystokinin) and reduces your levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin.

9) Hormone Imbalances

We already looked at the hormones ghrelin, cortisol, and serotonin for their role in cravings. But what about reproductive hormones? For women, during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause, cravings may increase. This is due to certain fluctuations in the hormones estrogen and progesterone.

How to Curb Cravings

Now that we know some of the causes, we can tackle each one with simple strategies to manage and overcome cravings for good.

1) Drink More Water

This seems so simple, but the vast majority of us do not drink enough pure, filtered water. Aim to drink half your body weight in ounces every single day. So for example, if you weigh 150 lbs., you’ll want to drink 75 oz. of water each day. This amounts to about 4&1/2 average-sized water bottles per day. Staying hydrated means that your body won’t confuse thirst for hunger.

2) Eat Real Food

If you stay away from processed and packaged foods, especially those that contain added sugars, your body will be better equipped to stabilize blood sugars. Aim to get the majority of your carbohydrates from vegetable sources and some fruit. If you do eat grains, aim to eat whole, non-gluten containing grains like wild rice, quinoa, or amaranth. Combine healthy carbohydrates with quality protein and healthy fats at every meal. This will result in satiety and stable blood glucose levels. And don’t starve yourself either. Getting adequate nutrients means that our bodies won’t go looking for more calories, and those cravings will be shut down.

3) Prioritize Sleep

We really need between 7-9 hours of quality sleep to function optimally. Adequate sleep helps regulate cortisol levels (and blood sugars) and turns off hunger hormones. When we sleep poorly or go for long periods of time without sleep, our bodies make more ghrelin which, in turn, causes those unwanted cravings.

4) Supplement Wisely

In the above section, we noted that deficiencies in zinc and magnesium can lead to cravings. In addition to your multivitamin, you may wish to take some extra magnesium and zinc. Other supplements known to help cut cravings are B-vitamins, L-glutamine, CoEnzymeQ10, fish oil, GABA, L-tryptophan, chromium, and digestive enzymes.

5) Decrease Stress

It’s impossible to avoid all stress, but having some stress-relieving tactics in your back pocket can certainly diminish the negative effects of chronic stress. Some ideas — go for a walk, take a warm bath filled with Epsom salts, sniff lavender essential oils or rub some on your feet, practice deep breathing, meditate or pray, write in a gratitude journal, reduce caffeine, and just say “no” to tasks that overwhelm you. (For more ideas read my blog post on Cortisol, the stress hormone.)

6) Increase Healthy Fats in Your Diet

Healthy fats make you feel fuller longer. They are also an essential part of hormone repair and our cellular matrix. Aim to eat a little healthy fat at every meal. These fats include olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, avocados, nuts and nut butters, olives, ghee, and fatty fish like salmon.

7) Support Digestive Health

Serotonin is largely made in the gut, so when we have “leaky gut” or decreased intestinal health, we can feel depressed and also begin craving sweets. Getting beneficial bacteria in the form of probiotics and prebiotics is important. Bifido bacteria is one great probiotic supplement to take. You can also increase your consumption of fermented foods like kombucha, kimchi, coconut yogurts, sauerkraut, and kefir. These things will help kick out the bad bacteria in favor of healthier bacteria.

8) Get Adequate Protein in Your Diet

Like fat, protein can help you feel satiated and less hungry, and it reduces the incidence of sugar cravings. Protein also helps produce serotonin, that feel-good hormone which is is nature's own appetite suppressant. Be sure to include protein at each meal. Good sources include grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, pasture-raised chicken and eggs, and organic and grass-fed yogurt and cheese. Some vegetarian sources can also be beneficial like lentils, chickpeas, seeds and nuts, quinoa, and amaranth.

9) Balance Hormone Levels

It’s not completely possible to avoid hormonal shifts and imbalances, but supporting a healthy body with stress-reduction and nourishing foods can go a long way. Eliminating sugar and processed foods can stabilize blood sugars and reduce the negative effects of imbalanced hormones. Eating enough healthy fats is important as our hormones are made from fats. Eating fiber-rich foods helps our bodies get rid of toxic estrogen levels since they help with bowel regularity. Also, be sure to get in adequate exercise and sleep. If you’re approaching peri-menopause or menopause, you might have a conversation with your doctor about the possibility of bio-identical hormone replacement.

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