What are your cravings trying to tell you?
Your body is pretty magical in the way it sends you regular signals in a bid to communicate its needs. Food cravings are no different. They are a way of you body trying to tell you that it needs some TLN (tender loving nourishment).
Food cravings can be broken down into two categories – selective cravings which is the deep desire for a very specific food or drink. But then there are also non-selective cravings which are cravings for an unspecific food although often these cravings focus on sugary, salty or fatty foods.
Non-selective cravings could just be your body telling you that you’re running low on a certain nutrient, such as craving dairy for calcium or oranges for vitamin C, possibly even salty foods for sodium. But non-selective cravings can have other reasons, too:
Our microbiome (that’s the collection of all those little gut bugs living in our intestines) is a delicate balancing act that needs lots of care and maintenance. Dysbiosis is the term to describe when this balance is off kilter and it is this imbalance that can drive your cravings and in particular your sugar cravings.
Typical symptoms of dysbiosis include upset stomach, nausea, reflux, bloating, changes in bowel movements, changes in emotions, skin breakouts and fatigue.
To reduce your sugar cravings, make sure to feed your good gut bugs by reducing sugary foods and instead including plenty of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables and a variety of fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir and kimchi. A good quality probiotic may also be helpful.
Blood sugar imbalance & stress
I’m mentioning these two culprits in the same breath because they hugely influence each other – our blood sugar levels have the potential to cause significant stress on our bodies whilst our stress levels can have a huge effect on our blood sugar balance.
Whilst we can often feel when our environment is causing us stress, blood sugar imbalance is a silent stressor that happens within ourselves but may go unnoticed because it doesn’t manifest itself in the usual stress response.
Some of the typical symptoms of blood sugar imbalance include irritability, anxiety, dizziness, brain fog, fatigue, mood swings, fat storage around the middle, thirst and frequent urination.
To help control and balance your blood sugar levels, avoid grazing and instead aim for three meals per day, each including quality protein (animal or plant based, good quality plant based protein powders might be a great breakfast addition), healthy fats (think nuts and seeds, nut butters, oily fish and olive oil) and complex carbohydrates (fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, beans, legumes).
Chronic inflammation which often occurs in the presence of stress (can you spot a pattern yet?) can literally hijack our decision making! Our body is in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’ leading to survival physiology which ultimately drives survival thoughts and behaviours…enter cravings. To deal with a situation that our body perceives as life threatening (in this case stress), it needs energy and plenty of it, preferable quickly absorbed rather than slow releasing. Doughnut anyone?
Typical symptoms of inflammation include fatigue, exhaustion, brain fog, recurrent infections and slow recovery, anxiety, depression and mood swings.
Focus on anti-inflammatory foods such as brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, good quality protein, omega 3 from oily fish, nuts or seeds, and anti-inflammatory superfoods such as turmeric, ginger and dark leafy greens.
Imbalance of hormones and neurotransmitters
Imbalances in our hormones and neurotransmitters are usually a result of prolonged stress, gut dysbiosis and chronic inflammation. Different cravings can be trying to tell you different things here:
Cravings for carbohydrates
Craving carbohydrates could be your body’s way of increasing levels of serotonin, our happy hormone.
Fancy the geeky bit? The brain needs a substance, an amino acid to be exact, called tryptophan to be able to manufacture serotonin. When we consume carbohydrates, our body releases insulin (this links back into blood sugar balance, read more about it here) and decreases the level of amino acids, apart from tryptophan, in our blood. Tryptophan would normally be competing with the other amino acids to make its way to the brain but this way he has a clear road so to speak. Pretty cool huh? Other foods that contain tryptophan for serotonin manufacture include bananas, chicken, eggs, cheese, oats, peanuts and pumpkin seeds.
Chocolate cravings could be an attempt in increasing levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in how we think, plan and experience pleasure. Giving in to chocolate cravings gives our brain a boost of dopamine.
To help your body make dopamine, include foods that are rich in the amino acid tyrosine, which is needed for our bodies to manufacture dopamine. Tyrosine-rich foods include almonds, avocado, banana, eggs, beans, fish and chicken. Other natural tyrosine-boosters include exercise, meditation, sleep and music.
If you crave alcohol it may be your body’s way of increasing levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (or GABA for short), which is responsible in blocking certain brain signals in order to control anxiety, fear and depression. When we’re running low on GABA, we may start to suffer from these anxiety, fear and depression symptoms as well as stress, sleep problems, headaches, muscle pains and impaired memory. Alcohol has been shown to mimic GABA’s effects in the brain, making us feel calmer.
To help your body make adequate amounts of GABA, it’s crucial to firstly support gut health. Certain strains of good gut bacteria, in particular lactobacillus rhamnosus, can alter GABA receptors in the brain and with it reduce symptoms of anxiety and other mood disorders. In addition, our body needs plenty of vitamin B6 which is an important cofactor in the synthesis of GABA. Foods that are rich in the vitamin include pork, poultry, fish, peanuts, oats, spinach, avocado, plums and bananas.