Sugar Cravings & Stress

Sugar, that charming devil.

So sweet and irresistible, luring us down that mysterious path of pleasure. Even when chasing pleasure leads to deleterious consequences, sometimes we have a hard time stopping ourselves. Why?

First off, scientifically, sugar – as a molecule – refers to the sweet carbohydrate form that is found in all growing things. It is the basis of growth, development and most nourishment. Life cannot survive without carbohydrates, and we have plenty of choices on how those sugars arrive in our mouths and bodies.

There are plant sugars and complex carbohydrates, but when we reach for stress-soothing foods, we often reach for the quickest form of absorbable carbohydrate/sugars – what we call colloquially “sugar” – made up individually or of some combination of glucose, fructose and galactose (combined as sucrose, lactose or maltose). These small molecules have a strong impact on our brains.


Why do we reach for sugar?


We all crave dopamine. It is a reward neurotransmitter that helps us with our drive and  motivation – our “get up and go”. Dopamine levels rise with novelty, socializing, sex, love, exercise and many other exciting things, including consuming sugar.

The key thing to remember is that dopamine’s reward is not simply about hedonistic pleasure-seeking, it’s about feeling secure and safe. Feeling better is often about removing fear and insecurity in a given context.

Sugar and  sugar’s sweet flavour signals to our brain and nervous system that we are in a safe place and satisfied, similar to the soothing quality that milk sugars have for infants.

We crave sugar when we are feeling stressed because it is a natural stress response. The brain requires it, the body asks for it. Our brains have been accustomed to that sugary relief since birth. This is not unhealthy.


What problems can there be with sugar?


Stress increases cortisol levels. A previous post outlines why cortisol surges in stress and the damage it can cause in the body. One of cortisol’s jobs is to increase our desire for sugar – to fill the system with easy-to-access energy, and to deliver fuel appropriate for the brain. Biochemically, sugar soothes our stressors.

One way we deal with excess cortisol is by chewing. Chewing releases the cortisol precursor, to help get the stress hormones out of our bodies. That’s part of why we grind our teeth, chew gum, sip on water, and “stress-eat.”

When we are in situations of chronic anxiety, uncertainty, or long term stress – that seeping cortisol slowly encourages a consistent search for sugar. Sugar in itself is not a harmful substance, as much as when refined sugar and stress come together. The problem arises when the Sugar/Stress brigade becomes an unstoppable force that can create havoc in the body.


Do we stop eating all sugars then?

No. Absolutely not. While high-sugar diets can impact insulin levels and are associated with long-term health issues, diets that do not include healthy plant sugars give a signal to the brain that resources are low. When carbohydrate resources are low, cortisol surges to encourage you to find them, which creates cycle of deprivation, craving, and fat deposition when food is found.

There are naturally occurring sugars that, when eaten in whole food form and  in moderation, are perfectly healthy:

Fructose – Found in honey, figs, grapes, pears, apples

Glucose – Found in honey, figs, grapes, plums, bananas, corn

Sucrose – Found in sugar cane/molasses, sugar beets, maple syrup, red beets, pineapples, apricots, oranges, and sweet potatoes.

There is nothing inherently unnatural or disease causing with these plant sugars.

In fact, they are great sources of energy, when eaten as part of a balanced and functional diet.

Added sugars (refined sugars) come from these natural sources but are extracted from the plant, multiplied, and stripped of any nutrients that might have assisted in metabolism.  Often refined sugar is seen on food labels as dehydrated cane juice, fruit sugar, high fructose corn syrup, barley malt syrup, or as the accurate names of sucrose, fructose & glucose.

Refined sugar is a quick reward for the brain and body, with very little substance. If we start leaning on them for extended periods, we can quickly find ourselves of overfed, undernourished and accompanied by health concerns.


How to assess your sugar cravings:

We crave sugar for three reasons:

  1. When we need more motivation/dopamine/self-worth
  2. When we have depleted our energy sources
  3. When we feel stressed or unsafe.

There’s a neurological, biological, and emotional basis under our cravings.

So next time you reach for a lollipop – check in and ask yourself:

How have I managed my food/energy levels today? Do I have patience to eat a plant based carbohydrate (which absorbs more slowly)?  

Am I craving sugar because I’m hungry?

How stressed have I been this week? Have I done anything to help myself mange my stress?  

Am I using sugar to help me cope?

Have my self-esteem been affected by something today? What can I do that would leave me feeling rewarded/accomplished/motivated?  

Is sugar replacing the reward of achieving something?

Craving is a complicated net of neurology, biology and emotions. A healthy tool box for these can vary based on your day-to-day situations, and your daily practices. Start by becoming curious as to where your cravings come from and you might uncover your own tools for stress and sugar management.