Have you ever felt compelled to eat a chocolate bar or 'heard' the cake whispering your name? Ever wondered what cravings really reveal about your health? Perhaps your body is trying to tell you something... It's something I hear a great deal from women in my menopause nutrition clinic; that feeling of being compelled by an invisible force.
Some might dismiss a ‘wisdom of the body’ theory as quackery. However, if you think about the biological processes happening within your body and the factors affecting these, the argument to substantiate a link becomes more compelling. Here’s why...
Food is so much more than just calories. It’s information. The body is a wonderful machine, constantly sending you signs and signals about the information (or nutrients) it needs to function at its best. The trouble is, when you fall into unhealthy patterns, you unwittingly train your brain and body to think and crave certain foods. Really. Often these foods give you a quick fix. You feel great for 30 minutes, yet an hour later your energy levels are on the floor and you need another hit to keep you going. Sound familiar?
This concept applies to everyone, not just women in pregnancy who are typically associated with an appetite for unusual or inedible substances such as clay, coal or dirt (this type of craving is referred to as ‘pica’ since you ask).
ARE YOU CRAVING SUGAR?
One of the most common and documented cravings is, of course, sugar. That's the thing that drives the late-night dash to the petrol station for whatever kind of chocolate you can get your hands on.
In recent years, articles in the press have suggested sugar is as addictive as class A drugs. Did you ever excuse yourself with that? Or, have you been simply making excuses for your lack of willpower? You’ll be glad to know there is more to it than meets the eye.
The brain needs glucose to function – sugar, which comes from carbohydrates. When you’ve got a steady release of glucose into the bloodstream throughout the day, this process works as it should. You’re productive, sharp and full of energy. It also likes fat. Just saying. We rarely give it the opportunity as the modern Western diet is carb and sugar heavy.
But too much sugar (or stuff that eventually turns to sugar) can throw things off-kilter. Eating something high sugar and high in fat (like doughnuts, chocolate, cake, biscuits, and sweets) triggers the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of reward and satisfaction. By falling into this trap, you train your brain to think, ‘you need to eat this to help you feel better’.
You might use these foods to regulate your mood and lower your stress. But in the long run, this sends you on a rollercoaster – with your energy, your mood, stress levels, and sleep. Over time, this rollercoaster can result in the development of chronic health conditions like diabetes, obesity, inflammation, immune suppression or chronic fatigue.
So, what causes you to crave sugar in the first place?
You’re more inclined to eat these kinds of foods when you’re stressed or tired because your brain is looking for more fuel than it would be when you are relaxed and well-nourished.
Sugar also stimulates the release of tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin, which in turn produces melatonin helping you get a good night’s sleep. Similarly, women can be more susceptible to sugar cravings around the time of their menstrual cycle. That might not come as a huge surprise to you…
Studies have shown that higher oestrogen levels are associated with greater levels of the hunger hormone, leptin, which triggers stronger cravings for sugary foods.
PMS also causes the stress hormone cortisol to increase and the feel-good hormone serotonin to dip, making you reach for chocolate, chips and sugary snacks to give you a feel-good boost at that time of the month.
Generally, the foods you choose to eat every day can help to regulate or trigger these cravings. Try switching your white bread, pasta, sugary cereals, low-fat products, and processed foods for lower GL (glycaemic load) alternatives such as wholegrains, pulses, root vegetables and increasing your protein intake at each meal. This can help to regulate the release of glucose into the bloodstream. Quality proteins such as eggs, turkey, salmon and nuts and seeds are also rich in tryptophan and tyrosine, which support the production of serotonin and dopamine - a much better source than a packet of chocolate digestives or a bag of sweeties. Making the switch to a more wholesome and nourishing alternative may be a much more sustainable approach to healthy weight loss than crazy diets you might be tempted to try.
DO YOU CRAVE SALTY SNACKS?
Sugar doesn’t do it for you? Perhaps you are more inclined to reach for savoury, salty foods; crisps, salted nuts, cheese, and biscuits. Generally speaking, this may be a sign that your adrenal glands are under strain, and similar to sugar, that hankering for salt could be attributed to stress, fatigue or PMS. You rely on your adrenals to produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline whenever you need it. That might mean meeting that deadline at work, training for a marathon or gearing yourself up for a big presentation.
Like insulin, this is fine and necessary in the short term but chronic demand on the adrenals can result in fatigue and insufficient secretion of other hormones including aldosterone, renin, and angiotensin, mineralocorticoids which regulates blood pressure by controlling fluid levels and electrolyte balance in the body.
When your adrenals are tired and don’t produce enough aldosterone, your blood pressure can become low and result in salt cravings and these might be accompanied with other symptoms such as fatigue, excessive thirst, headaches and nausea. If you are experiencing a multitude of these symptoms, a trip to the doctor would be recommended for further investigation.
Don’t read this that I’m suggesting you need to be consuming salt by the bucket load. Too much sodium (the key element in salt) should be avoided as it can tip the hormone balance in the other direction and contribute to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues.
Ultimately, it’s about tuning into your own body and how it’s feeling. What signs is it giving you each day?
Working with a Nutritional Therapist like me - Ailsa Hichens at Food Fabulous - can be a powerful way of tuning into your own body, equipping you with the knowledge to recognise these signs when they present themselves, and make positive changes to benefit your long-term health and wellbeing.
If you think that's what you need right now, hop on a call with me to discover what's holding YOU back from having what you really want in life (I'm not talking biscuits, just so you know). You can do that by clicking here.