The first step to changing your relationship to food is to understand that relationship. Uncontrollable food cravings can make changing to a healthier lifestyle daunting and depressing. Social stigmatization can make it overwhelming and feel futile. Some friends, family, lovers, coaches and practitioners may even make you feel like there is something wrong with you because you can’t control your urges for certain foods; however, succumbing to sugar cravings is rarely a matter of willpower.
Once you understand the biological mechanics around food cravings, you can take steps to make lasting changes to your diet that will leave you happier, healthier and not feeling deprived. Realize that sugar cravings are not just cravings for that white powdery stuff, but also the foods sugar goes in (e.g. cakes, cookies, processed foods, fast foods, soda, etc.) and those foods that convert into sugar in the body (e.g. anything containing grains, such as breads and pastas; as well as higher glycemic vegetables such as potatoes and cravings of potato chips and French fries; and even fruits and fruit juice).
This article is part of a series of articles on supporting you to control your sugar cravings. Each article uncovers a different cause of your sugar cravings.
A Cause: Imbalanced Neurotransmitters – Maybe it’s all in your head…
Let’s get heady shall we? Or brainy, I suppose.
Sugar releases feel-good chemicals in the brain, essentially in the same way as heroin and morphine! Yikes! And here you just thought your sugar dependency was a question of self-control!
Sugar triggers the release of opiates, dopamine and serotonin. This is especially addictive when dopamine and serotonin levels are low. The more sugars we consume, the less receptive we become to the serotonin, dopamine and opiates that are released requiring higher and higher sugar consumption to get the same amount of “feel good” chemicals—to get “that high”. This is amplified when sugar cravings are satisfied with products containing dairy, gluten and/or soy which contain the proteins most likely to attach to opiate receptor sites and also are the ingredients that are most likely to be food sensitivities and food sensitivities result in the release of feel-good endorphins when we consume them.
Is this you? Does the idea of removing sugar scare you? Anger you? Then it may be more of a biochemical addiction. Serotonin deficiency is especially evident if sugar cravings occur in the evening and are more intense in the winter. Since neurotransmitters are created from amino acid building blocks and amino acids are produced from protein, this is especially common in people on a low-protein diet. Vegetarians and vegans that are not consuming complete proteins or are not digesting the high phytate, legume proteins they do consume are also at risk for being low in neurotransmitters and having more sugar cravings. Low protein diets also tend to be blood-sugar imbalancing diets which can also cause sugar cravings.
So what does this mean for trying to sugar detox? If you have imbalanced neurotransmitters and are using sugar as a crutch to boost serotonin, dopamine and the endorphins in your life, then when you go off of sugar you are going to experience not only the intense cravings of an addict, but also low mood, potential sadness, potential anger and potential weepiness. These low moods make it challenging to quit the crack—I mean sugar, not to mention your intense cravings for the white powdery stuff disguised as candy, cookies, ice cream and cake.
You may find that working with a psychotherapist or coach during a sugar detox is beneficial to help you channel the emotions that will come up. Or at least, you should do this as part of a group, with friends and/or family who can support you and you can support them. Just make an agreement ahead of time to go easy on each other because emotions will run high.
Additionally, you need to work to rebalance those neurotransmitters that are low so that you are not relying on sugar to get those “feel good” brain chemical releases. This means looking to improve your protein digestion, consuming enough proteins and considering supplementing with targeted amino acids until your body is producing and recirculating them enough on your own.
Do we share a mutual geekiness? Read on my fellow nerd:
Avena, Nicole M., Pedro Rada, and Bartley G. Hoebel. “Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 32.1 (2008): 20-39.
Drewnowski, A., and F. Bellisle. “Is sweetness addictive?.” Nutrition Bulletin32.s1 (2007): 52-60.
Gearhardt, Ashley N., William R. Corbin, and Kelly D. Brownell. “Food addiction: an examination of the diagnostic criteria for dependence.” Journal of Addiction Medicine 3.1 (2009): 1-7.
Gosnell, B. A., and A. S. Levine. “Reward systems and food intake: role of opioids.” International Journal of Obesity 33 (2009): S54-S58.