Why We Get Food Cravings

There have been  many attempts to explain why we get cravings for certain foods.  Nutritional deficiencies, time of year, and stress levels all play a role in determining your cravings.

Nutritional DeficienciesI heard a medical anecdote about a child who would only eat potato chips.  His mother brought him to their family doctor trying to figure out what the child’s problem was.  The doctor insisted that the child start eating other foods and to stop with the potato chip intake.  So the mother took the chips away from the child and he died within a few days.  It turned out the child was extremely sodium-deficient, and without the potato chips his body was unable to utilize water properly.

In a case like this the body, in its’ infinite wisdom, will create a craving for a food that contains a key ingredient to our health.  The potato chip story is just one example, and you are probably familiar with others like chocolate, etc.  If you’re craving a certain food there may be a key ingredient in that food that your body needs.

I see examples of this every so often in my wellness center and I saw one just the other day that was pretty interesting.  I was doing nutritional deficiency testing on a new patient, and her body was asking for a Standard Process Product called Okra Pepsin E3 (http://www.standardprocess.com/display/StandardProcessCatalog.spi?ID=113), which is made from concentrated okra of all things.  If you’re not familiar with okra it’s a flowering plant that grows in tropical or temperate climates.  It is especially known in Georgia and other southern states of the US.

Okra can do something that no other plant we know of can do—it can peel mucous off the lining of the intestinal walls in the digestive tract.  This is a good thing because that mucous lining which develops from consuming wheat, dairy, corn and rice will prevent the nutrients in your food from being absorbed properly.

2 days before coming in for her nutritional deficiency testing this woman had gone to the grocery store and bought okra in large quantities.  Her body knew she needed it even before we did!

Not all foods are like okra—sometimes your body just wants the sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, fat, protein, sugar, or zinc contained in the food you’re craving.  So listen to your body, but realize that you can’t live on chocolate or milk or bread alone, and that there may be better sources of whichever nutrient your body needs in another food.

Time of Year

Did you ever notice your food cravings—especially your sugar and chocolate cravings—get worse in the winter time?  This is because of an ancient process that has been present in the human body since the beginning of time, a process known as the Circadian Rhythm.  Circadian comes from the latin Circa (around) dia (day) and refers to the synchronization of certain body processes to light-and-dark cycles.

There are primarily two neurotransmitters/hormones released by your brain that tell you what to have an appetite for—melatonin and prolactin.  Melatonin and prolactin are produced by parts of the brain that are light-sensitive.  Just like baking cookies or bread evokes a reaction from your salivary glands, light hitting your eyes and skin activates melatonin production.

Melatonin senses how many hours of daylight there are and makes the appropriate adjustments to your appetite.  This is all part of that ancient Circadian Rhythm.  Part of that rhythm involves producing stress hormones during the day and healing hormones during the night when we sleep.  Another part of that rhythm goes beyond the day and into the seasons.  This is all part of the hibernation process.

Back in the days of the saber tooth tiger and the wooly mammoth and before electricity and central air human beings used to “hibernate” during the winter.  Food was scarce and the days were short so we slept a lot.  We couldn’t see at night while other animals could so wandering around after dark wasn’t a great suggestion for survival.

Just before winter the trees would fruit and it would be the only time of year humans had access to unlimited sugar from apples, bananas, etc.  During this time our ancestors went sugar-crazy just like you would if you were deprived of your bread, pasta, cereal, fruit, juice, beer, wine, cupcakes, and potato chips for 8 months out of the year.

Eating all this sugar allowed our ancestors to get fat—very fat.  In their time, the ability to get fat before winter was a necessity.  The more fat stores you had the better your chances of making it through the winter.

In today’s age of artificial lighting, TV screens, iPods and laptops, we are locked in a perpetual summer—at least as far as our brains are concerned.  When we stay up past sunset and expose our brains to this artificial lighting we are programmed to crave sugar.  This is why your sugar cravings are more extreme in the winter and harder to kick, too.

Stress Levels

When we are under stress our body will burn through certain vitamins and minerals at a faster rate to try to handle the stress.  When scientists study calcium and vitamin B levels in urine they see that the levels go up during times of stress.  This is because calcium lowers cortisol levels and vitamin B helps the brain make relaxing neurotransmitters like GABA, so the body is using more calcium and vitamin B during stressful events.  They are then lost in the urine and must be replenished in the body through diet or nutritional supplements if the body is going to successfully manage stress in the future.

Because very few people develop cravings for foods like spinach, kale, and broccoli which contain high amounts of calcium the body will usually set up a craving for vitamin B-containing foods instead.  Vitamin B is found in higher amounts in breads, cereals, pasta, etc.  In other words any food with a high sugar content.

When we eat sugar our body produces insulin and this insulin has an interesting effect on our cortisol levels—it drops them.  Once cortisol levels drop we can actually fall asleep and stay asleep all night.  This in turn tones down our stress response and gives the body a chance to recover from stress (remember lack of sleep is itself a stress).

The problem with craving the above-mentioned foods is that, while they do contain high amounts of sugar and vitamin B to help make us sleepy (this is why we go into a “food coma” after we eat them) they also very often contain wheat which is inflammatory to our digestive system.  This inflammation triggers the release of cortisol (anti-inflammatory stress hormone) for as long as the food stays in the digestive system—which could be up to 72 hours.

Whenever there is cortisol production during sleep the body cannot reach Phase III or Phase IV sleep, the deeper phases of sleep where healing occurs and the body gets a chance to reset itself.  This creates a new stress on the body and the cycle repeats itself with the body never having a chance to recover from stress.

I know when you’re stressed that all you really want is a cookie.  I know.  I’ve been there.  I still find myself there on a weekly basis.  The difference between me right now and me 2-3 years ago is that most of the time when I’m stressed and I’m getting sugar cravings I eat protein and take my calcium and vitamin B supplements instead and make sure that I’m in bed by 9:30 pm.  This allows me to get the rest I need to allow my body to reset itself and recover from the stress so I can wake up the next day and do it all over again.

Why Protein?

I turn to protein because the stress hormone cortisol is catabolic (destructive) to muscle tissue and I want to ensure there is enough protein present in my diet to replace what’s being lost from stress.  I try to eat protein 4-5x/day.

How Do You Do It?

I start off each morning with either a Wellness Smoothie that contains 40-50g of protein or 4 whole eggs.  That is my first protein serving of the day.

I go to the deli at Jewel-Osco and get the Sara Lee Low-Sodium turkey breast and keep some in the refrigerator at my work.  This along with pecans and apples are what I snack on in between seeing patients in my wellness center.  I usually snack twice and have lunch, so that is three more protein servings.

For dinner I make sure I eat some lamb, fish, shrimp, bison, venison or more turkey to get my 5th serving of protein in for the day.

Question: Why do we get chocolate cravings?

Answer: Chocolate cravings are stress-related cravings due to the magnesium and serotonin that is contained in chocolate.  Magnesium is one of those minerals that, like calcium and vitamin B, are used by the body in times of stress.  Some people need more calcium, others magnesium, others vitamin B.  That depends on your genetic make-up, nutritional deficiencies, etc.

The serotonin in chocolate is interesting.  It too is related to stress.  During the day our serotonin levels rise.  When we sleep at night our serotonin converts to melatonin, one of the most powerful healing hormones our body is capable of producing.  When we are not sleeping deeply our serotonin doesn’t convert to melatonin and serotonin levels remain elevated.

If you’ve ever heard of insulin resistance in diabetes then you are familiar with the concept that our body will become numb to a hormone if it remains elevated for too long.  The same thing can happen with serotonin.  Your body becomes resistant to it because it has remained elevated for so long.  When this happens you will crave an external source of serotonin from a substance like chocolate.

In this regard, you could almost look at chocolate cravings as a sign of sleep deprivation.





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