Do you understand cravings – what they are, why you get them, why they get worse when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, upset, depressed or overwhelmed?
So what are cravings?
They’re an intense desire for foods, drinks or flavours. Common ones are chips, chocolates, lollies, sweets or sugar. Even alcohol, social media, and computer gaming or Netflix binging could be seen as a craving of sorts.
Hands up if you’ve noticed these cravings have increased since we’ve been stuck at home for the last few weeks?
Uh-huh, I see you there with time to bake the sweet treats, make the bliss balls, or dive into the ice cream bucket! But I know that it’s not because you don’t have willpower, are weak, or any of the other horrible things we tell ourselves when we submit to a craving. I just see your body and brain sending messages that something is out of balance. You’re probably feeling not quite right emotionally.
What message is your body sending?
Like all symptoms, cravings are messages from your body that something is out of balance. So it’s important to tune in and have a think about what your body is trying to tell you.
Do you get cravings every night? Or only at certain times of your cycle? Did you eat enough today? What did you eat – was it processed, packaged, or low in protein or fat?
Are you feeling more stressed or anxious than usual. (Um, yes, we’re stuck home all the time either on our own or with kids at every turn! Both have their pros and cons. 😊)
Before your clothes stop fitting, let’s have a look at why cravings happen, so you can understand cravings and what you need to do to stop them.
Why do you get cravings?
Your brain tells us that we must have a food, drink or flavour. Why? Because it wants you to feel happy. A happy person has motivation and desire to do the things it needs to stay alive. This is a prehistoric protection that our body and brain still uses today.
Human isn’t happy? Let’s drive them to see, smell, taste or do something that we know does make them happy!
Neurotransmitters – the how of cravings
Little chemical messengers, neurotransmitters, are used by your brain to communicate between neurons in the brain and nervous system. They get us up and moving, getting sh*t down. They are either exciting, inhibiting (this is a good thing, it’s calming for the brain), or modulating.
There are many neurotransmitters, but the main ones involved in mood, joy, pleasure, cravings and addictions are dopamine and serotonin.
Dopamine drives most behaviour because its released dopamine during pleasurable activities. It’s instantaneous reward and joy. So if you’re not getting your regular supply of pleasurable activities like seeing friends, going out, eating lovely food, dancing or exercising (IE lockdown!) then your dopamine levels may be lower and you may feel depressed, lack motivation or drive, find it hard to concentrate, and crave sugar and carbs.
Serotonin is an inhibiting neurotransmitter. It’s involved in long term happiness and joy. When you’re low in serotonin you may feel aggressive, anxious, worried, depressed, and find it hard to sleep. You’ll be more sensitive to pain, and crave carbs and sugar.
Feeling stressed, anxious, worried or depressed alters your body’s production of neurotransmitters, so it becomes out of balance. Does this help you understand why your cravings might be increased at this time?
Brain Reward Cascade or the Reward Deficiency Cascade
This is important to know about, because it drives craving and addictive behaviours. In a nutshell, there is a cascade of neurotransmitters that leads to the release of dopamine and you feeling happy.
If there’s low dopamine levels in your brain, your brain works hard to reverse this. It does this by encouraging you to do things that stimulate the brain reward cascade and the release of dopamine and stimulation of dopamine receptors in the brain and nervous system.
So your brain drives you to seek out activities, foods and drink that have brought you pleasure in the past. It knows when you eat those lollies, chips, chocolate or drink that wine, you feel happy. Over time, the conditioning gets so strong that just the thought, smell or sight of the foods, drinks or activities will trigger the release of dopamine.
More dopamine = more motivation to get up, move around, do your work, move your body, find food, get out of PJs during lock down!
Who’s in control then?
How do you feel about this information? Do you feel more or less in control? I admit that I feel somewhat less in control, but also fully in control. Because I understand cravings and how they work, I know that if I’m experiencing cravings, my brain and body are out of balance and I need to support it with herbs, nutrients, food and activities. So I am in control because I know what to do to change things.
Stress – the great changer
Stress alters the release of dopamine and the number of receptors in our brain for dopamine. Less receptors = less stimulation of neurons by dopamine = more cravings and less motivated human. (So not a good thing)
Serotonin is also impacted because of the negative impact that stress has on your gastrointestinal system. When you feel stressed you’re in fight or flight mode, rather than rest and digest mode. Your body prepares for battle, not for breaking down food into nutrients and absorbing them! So your gut function, digestive secretions and capacity is reduced. And because 95% of our body’s serotonin is produced in the gut, it is negatively impacted too.
Find out more about gut health and stress in my blogs.
Stress also reduces the amount of other inhibiting neurotransmitters like GABA and endogenous opioids. Serotonin, GABA and the endogenous opioids are calming but boost our happiness. These three are also are involved in how much we like a food. They’re like the pre-cursors to dopamine. They signal to the brain that a food is delicious to eat and very satisfying, while dopamine drives us to eat it when we’re feeling down.
The Short Summary
Human sad, anxious, not feeling good = go find that yummy food, watch TV, play games, or do another pleasurable activity and get those dopamine levels back up high!
This also means though, that when we stop doing the pleasurable activities (gaming and scrolling social media are classic examples), daily life can seem dull and boring. It’s not nearly as interesting as the screen that makes dopamine keep being released over and over again.
Sometimes the solution becomes dysfunctional and works against us. I’ll talk more about cravings vs addiction in another blog.
understanding cravings helps you avoid them
You know it’s not a lack of willpower. But a lack of dopamine or serotonin that drives you to go find activities, foods and drinks to bring you pleasure.
So what other ways can you boost dopamine and reduce craving:
- hug your family – humans need to have contact with other humans;
- move your body – exercise or dancing, however you want to move your body;
- singing or humming – stimulates the vagal nerve which is the key nerve involved in our rest and digest mode;
- talk to a friend – not text, but actually talk to a human;
- finding things to increase pleasure or ‘sweetness’ in your life, especially now when we can’t do all the things we used to take for granted;
- make sure you’re eating regularly (check out this blog to understand what fluctuating blood glucose does to your body, brain and cravings);
- foods that increase dopamine – bananas, avocado, blueberries, broccoli, cabbage, kale, bok choy, seeds, nuts, fermented foods, turmeric, green tea, onions, garlic, and CHOCOLATE!
**When I say chocolate, I mean a couple of squares of dark chocolate (like 70%). Not the glass and a half style that has loads of sugar and additives. #sorrynotsorry And yes, you can learn to love the bitter sweetness of dark chocolate and it will satisfy your chocolate urges.
Have a think about what can you do to add some ‘sweetness’ AKA pleasure in your life at the moment to help increase your pleasure and joy neurotransmitters. What do you come up with?
Asking yourself some questions is helpful for understanding cravings and why they come up for you. Some of the ones I ask clients are:
- When do you get the cravings?
- How are you feeling? Is something on your mind?
- What’s changed recently?
- What time of day/night?
- Are they only in some parts of your cycle?
- What are you doing when you get the cravings?
- What are you craving?
- Have you eaten enough today?
- What have you eaten?
- Are you eating enough veges and whole foods to make sure you have enough nutrients? (Sometimes cravings can stem from nutrient deficiencies)
I hope you’re feeling empowered with this knowledge, and understanding cravings better. If you feel that you need more support to understand your cravings, or get on top of them, then please reach out and let me know.
I’m available for private 1:1 consultations and running workshops via video conferencing. I’m running a kick sugar workshop at the end of April, so be sure to look out for the details on my website or Facebook page.