How does stress cause sugar cravings and what you can do about it

We all know the feeling: you're stressed at work, at home or even stuck on an airplane, and you just can't stop yourself from reaching out for a chocolate bar or that delicious-looking desert at the restaurant.

We all get cravings, that's part of human nature, but why do these cravings get out of control? In fact, why is it that we tend to lose all control over our diet when traveling for example?

It all has to do with hormones and how external and internal stressors affect them. 

There are certain triggers which activate our "sympathetic nervous system": that's the part of our nervous system which prepares our body for "fight or flight". Ancestrally, this was very useful to run away from a lion or to defend your family/tribe against attackers. It's an extremely strong mechanism which gives you superhuman power for short bursts of time: a typical example is that of a mother displaying superhuman strength to lift a very heavy object to protect her child from harm...

However it's worth understanding what happens at the biochemical level when the "sympathetic nervous system" is triggered: 2 main events take place:

  • Your adrenal glands release a large amount of adrenaline: this dilates your blood vessels and increases your heart rate, thereby delivering more oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. It's basically a turbo-charger for your body.
  • Your adrenal glands also release Cortisol: this accelerates the release of glucose (sugar) from glycogen stores in your liver and muscles, shuts down the breakdown of fat (lipolysis) in order to preserve it... among other useful functions.
  • All nutrient-rich blood is diverted to the most critical areas: muscles, and away from less critical areas: digestive system, reproductive organs, etc.

The short version of it (if you don't want to read further): stress ==> Cortisol ==> release of glucose ==> insulin spike ==> sugar cravings... simple

In essence, when your "sympathetic nervous system" is triggered, your body shuts down fat breakdown (for self-preservation), releases more glucose into your blood, causing Insulin to spike, and stresses your heart.

As I mentioned earlier, this is all critical for "fight or flight" situations, which, by design, are supposed to be intense but brief.

So what happens if your "sympathetic nervous system" is frequently activated (many times per day) or even worse: activated for long periods of time?

  • Your adrenal glands get exhausted from constantly producing adrenaline and Cortisol: this eventually leads to "adrenal fatigue", the symptoms of which include a feeling of continuous exhaustion not remedied by sleep
  • Continuously high adrenaline puts immense stress on your heart and raises blood pressure, increasing the risk of stroke dramatically
  • Continuously high Cortisol shuts down lipolysis (fat burning) causing weight gain
  • Continuously high Cortisol causes you to rely entirely on sugar for fuel, causing massive sugar cravings, which eventually lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, and ultimately diabetes
  • A final "crash" of the adrenal glands causes a "crash" in the immune system, rendering you much more vulnerable to various diseases
  • Your digestive system is continuously "starved" of nutrient-rich blood, causing digestive problems, which in turn lead to lower nutrient absorption from food, which ultimately leads to nutrient deficiency

As I indicated earlier, the "sympathetic nervous system" is designed to be activated once or twice a day, or even less frequently... now imagine how many times it is being triggered in your daily life, considering that any of the below can trigger its activation:

  • Mental stress: work, exams, etc.
  • Emotional stress: family, relationships, etc
  • Money-related stress
  • Intense physical activity: lifting heavy weights, intense exercise (I'm a big fan of those, but in moderation and NEVER when you're facing the other triggers)
  • Sleep shortages
  • Inflammatory foods: processed foods, sugar, sweeteners, commercial dairy, commercial meats, pesticides, etc.
  • Excessive alcohol
  • Dehydration (even mild dehydration)
  • Environmental toxins: pollution, mold
  • Excessive noise
  • Traffic
  • You get the idea...

But do not despair! There are many things you CAN do to deactivate the "sympathetic nervous system" and reverse all of these negative implications, including:

  1. Sleep!
  2. A clean nutrient-dense and healthy diet
  3. Drinking pure water and keeping the body hydrated
  4. Yoga and meditation (even 15min daily can do wonders)
  5. Deep breathing exercises (even 5min daily can do wonders)
  6. Planning your week in advance (read this for tips)
  7. Cycle high intensity workouts with low intensity activities (swimming, yoga, easy cycling, hiking)
  8. Quiet-time: reading, listening to music
  9. Herbal teas containing soothing herbs (e.g. chamomile, mint, jasmine)
  10. Magnesium
  11. Laughing
  12. You also get the idea...

As usual, any questions / comments please leave them below or drop me an email.