WHY WE CRAVE SUGAR
- Our brain depends on glucose (sugar) as its main source of energy. So, when our blood levels of glucose drop, our body will crave what it’s missing. And the easiest, quickest way to get sugar into our bloodstream is to eat refined carbohydrates (cookies, crackers, cereal, granola bars, muffins, bread & pasta) or drink sugary beverages (pop, juice, sports drinks, energy drinks, alcohol, & sugar added to coffee).
- Once we fall into a pattern of overconsuming sugar, we become addicted to it. This fun 5 minute TED video illustrates beautifully how sugar affects the brain.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE CONSUME SUGAR – HEALTH IMPACTS
Our brain depends on steady blood sugar levels for fuel:
- ups and downs (via the insulin response) rob our energy and our ability to think clearly.
Sugar suppresses immune function:
- reduces the efficiency of white blood cells for up to 5 hours
- feeds bacteria, cancer cells, Candida (sinusitis, yeast infections, abdominal gas & bloating)
- contributes to inflammation (arthritis, heart disease, Crohn’s, colitis); levels of CRP, an inflammatory marker in the blood, correlate to sugar intake.
Sugar increases fat cell reproduction around organs:
- fatty liver disease
Sugar increases insulin resistance:
- Metabolic Syndrome (high blood pressure/cholesterol/blood sugar/belly fat)
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Alzheimer’s disease; people with AD have elevated blood sugar levels.
Sugar is hormone disrupting. High insulin levels decrease SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin) levels. SHBG binds to and regulates sex hormones; when it is less available, levels of testosterone & estrogen increase and can give rise to symptoms of excess:
- PCOS (irregular periods/infertility/acne/cysts)
- endometriosis (pelvic pain & cramping/excessive bleeding)
- fibroids (menstrual cramps/heavy bleeding/irregular periods)
When blood glucose levels crash after eating refined sugar, our stress response is turned on. This is because the stress hormone cortisol releases glucose from storage, and can restore blood sugar levels. Cortisol also has a number of negative health effects:
- weight gain
- difficulty sleeping
ADDRESS THE CAUSE OF CRAVINGS TO PREVENT THEM
- Think back to the TED video; quit eating refined carbs & the dopamine response (reward system) will even out. Once you break your addiction, you become more aware of how foods and drinks really make your body & mind feel.
- Because sugar cravings are often because of hypoglycemia, once you’re maintaining steady blood sugar levels without the ups & downs produced by simple carbs, you will no longer crave. To do this, increase complex carbohydrates; whole foods in their natural state (fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts & seeds). They take longer to digest, so glucose enters the bloodstream more slowly. They provide a steady source of energy, and you feel satisfied for longer.
- Breakfast with oatmeal, berries, nuts & seeds.
- Pack lunches of salads and soups that include whole grains and beans. Try brown rice & black bean salad, or lentil & barley soup.
- Snack on sweet veggies like artichokes & carrots. On the weekend, roast beets, squash, sweet potatoes, parsnips, or fennel to prep for the week ahead.
WHAT HAPPENS – IN OUR BODIES – WHEN WE CONSUME SUGAR
- This adorable cartoon illustrates how glucose gets into our cells to be used as energy. When glucose enters our bloodstream following digestion, insulin is secreted by our pancreas in response. Insulin fits into receptors on the surface of our cells like a key into a lock, opening channels that let glucose inside.
- When we eat refined carbohydrates, too much sugar gets released into our bloodstream too quickly. In response, an excessive amount of insulin is released by our pancreas to shuttle the glucose into cells. This process is known as reactive hypoglycemia; once again, our blood sugar level is low, and we’re craving simple sugars to compensate. If this keeps happening over time, we develop insulin resistance and our receptors stop responding to insulin. This leads to abdominal weight gain and high blood sugar levels, as glucose is unable to enter cells, and eventually diabetes.
BEAT ‘EM WHEN THEY HAPPEN
SITUATION: You want to sweeten your coffee.
- Add a sprinkle of cinnamon, which will sweeten your coffee, and also help you balance your blood sugar levels.
SITUATION: You’re bored/watching TV and want to nibble.
- Spread my sweet cravings buster on rice cakes/seed crackers/apple slices/celery sticks.
SITUATION: You need a 3 pm pick-me-up.
- Go for a walk around the office/building; get some fresh air and blood flow to your brain!
- Drink a large glass of sparkling mineral water.
- Dredge raw carrots in bean dip like humus for a snack that includes protein, fat & fiber.
SITUATION: you’re feeling excited/anxious/overwhelmed
- Take 3 deep breaths in and out, filing up your belly with pure air and exhaling any stress or tension.
- Do a 5-10 minute meditation with the free downloadable, do anywhere apps: Headspace, Smiling Mind, Calm.
- Journal or thought diary (another free app to do anywhere).
SITUATION: Work colleague with a candy dish.
- Keep home-made trail mix at your desk: in a jar, mix dried fruit, dark chocolate, nuts & seeds.
- Brew & drink an aromatic tea; jasmine green/orange ginger/licorice
SITUATION: you’re celebrating (a birthday/house-warming/break-up)
- Bring your own dessert sweetened with dates, berries, banana, or raw honey instead of sugar. Check out my pinboard Sweets Without Sugar for inspiration.
SITUATION: You’re stressed & exhausted.
- Come in for a consult to see if labs need to be run and your hormones need to be balanced.
This comes up so often in my office, I had to blog about it. When I was discussing this blog concept with my amazing copywriter, Tarzan, we realized that I’ve been interested in health for so long that I just look at a food and gauge how it will make me feel. Is it going to nourish me? Or is it going to rob me? I know that if it’s a donut I’ll feel sleepier or my head will feel foggier. And I know that if it’s a smoothie or a buddha bowl I’m going to feel bulletproof; productive, alert, calm, happy. I encourage my patients to get connected to their bodies, and pay attention to what makes them feel peaceful and joyful, and to what makes them tense and tender. What are your symptoms telling you? Make time for joy in your day so that you don’t reach for sweet foods to stimulate your reward centres!
Email me if you’d like a copy of my handout Quick, Nutritious, Blood Sugar Balancing Snack Ideas.