Picture it: you’re absorbed in work, when out of nowhere you are hit with a burning, insatiable desire … for chocolate. Immediately, all 5 senses are alight with expectation: you close your eyes and can vividly see your favorite truffle – its shape and velvety mahogany color. You inhale its sweet, rich perfume, and your anticipation heightens as the truffle draws closer to your mouth. You hear a soft crack as you take a bite, followed by a liquid gold sensation as the truffle melts and delightfully floods your taste buds flavors – nutty, earthy, floral and sweet. You have ascended into a body bliss state, and when you wake up from this powerful daydream … you need to find chocolate, STAT.
We all experience hunger, which is controlled by the release of the hormone ghrelin by the stomach and pancreas, and is satisfied by consuming a wide variety of foods. On the other hand, a food craving is an intense desire or urge to eat something specific that is usually high in fat, sugar, and/or salt. While we all cave into food cravings once in awhile, they can contribute to the development of disordered eating and obesity (1–2), and are often a challenge associated with elimination diets. Food cravings arise from physical, emotional, and spiritual signals that form an “It’s Complicated” relationship. Learning how to translate these cues to decipher what it is you truly desire (which may not be food after all!) is challenging to say the least. If you are willing to listen, your food cravings are trying to tell you something:
Ring ring, your microbiome is calling – Check your gut health!
Your micro-what? Your microbiome refers to the over 100 trillion bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in or on your body. While this notion may create the urge to take a bath in Purell (please don’t!), these worker bee microbes perform critical functions within the body including digestion, immunity, vitamin and hormone synthesis, metabolism, and mood regulation (3). Your “microbial footprint” develops and changes throughout your lifetime, and its composition is highly influenced by diet, personal hygiene, previous illness/infections, and exposure to chemicals, toxins, and medications. While food cravings are often attributed to lack of willpower, emerging evidence suggests that gut microbes may manipulate your eating behavior by several different mechanisms to promote their survival (4), such as generating cravings for specific foods that they thrive on. For example, some species thrive best on carbohydrates, while others on dietary fiber or fats (5). People crave sugary and fatty foods because of the resulting release of brain chemicals called opioids, which create feelings of pleasure and even mild euphoria. Importantly, microbes can also influence hosts through the production of hormones, including mood-boosting dopamine and serotonin, which drive pleasure-seeking behavior and your brain’s reward system (6–7). Interestingly, microbes also can rewire your taste buds. One study found that germ-free mice (i.e. mice completely lacking microbes) had altered taste receptors for fat on their tongues and intestines compared to mice with a normal microbiome (8). In a different study, germ-free mice preferred more sweets (and had a higher number of sweet taste receptors) compared to normal mice (9), suggesting that the composition of one’s microbiome could potentially drive the desire for one specific flavor or food.
Approximately 30 million Americans experience what is known as dysbiosis, or a microbial imbalance in or on the body. It is caused by the overuse of antibiotics, consumption of an over-processed, nutrient-poor diet, exposure to environmental toxins, and various lifestyle factors, including stress. Food cravings are one of the many associated conditions of dysbiosis, which may be the result of a dominating microbial or fungal species powerfully manipulating one’s eating behavior, mood, and neurochemical balance (for example, Candida albicans (yeast) overgrowth). While you may think that conquering your food cravings is impossible because you are at the mercy of your microbiome, do not give up hope! You can find support by working with a Functional Medicine practitioner for appropriate clinical testing and subsequent treatment, and a nutritionist or nutrition coach to implement a nutrient-rich, gut-healing diet and supplement protocol to heal your gut and keep your cravings in check.
Your life is a (stress) mess
Are your food cravings (particularly for salty or sweet foods) accompanied by chronic exhaustion, brain fogginess, and constantly getting sick? Take a moment to consider your stress levels: how would you rate your stress as related to your career, money, family, and health? Stress is a silent killer, and the American Psychological Association’s 2015 “Stress in America” survey reported that Americans’ overall stress has increased, with a greater percentage of adults reporting extreme stress levels compared to 2014. Overall, adults report that stress has a negative impact on their mental and physical health, with a sizeable portion feeling that they are not doing enough to manage their stress. So what happens to your body when you are chronically stressed?
Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress, and governs your digestion, blood pressure, sleep/wake cycles, physical activity…and your cravings. Under acute stress, your adrenal glands produce a burst of cortisol to allow for increased energy and focus, which is healthy and beneficial as long as it’s infrequent. However, for chronically stressed individuals, the cortisol surge doesn’t turn off, or it swings wildly between too high and too low. As a result, we become hooked on caffeine to wake up and then pour the vino to assist in falling asleep. Studies have shown that elevated cortisol is associated with increased appetite, cravings for sugar and fat, and weight gain (10). After prolonged stress, the adrenal glands begin to decrease their hormonal output, including aldosterone, a mineralocorticoid that works with the kidneys to regulate fluid and mineral excretion. When aldosterone production decreases, we excrete large amounts of minerals in our urine, including sodium, potassium and magnesium (11), which can cause salt cravings. So the next time you have the urge to devour a pizza washed down with an entire bottle of wine, take a moment to consider that you may actually be craving rest, relaxation, and a break from your breakneck pace lifestyle. Stress-relief comes in many flavors, including writing/journaling (start a gratitude journal!), listening your favorite tunes, dancing (like nobody is watching), creating art, meditation, taking a nap, moving your body (deep stretching, yoga, tai chi, qigong), deep breathing, massage, aromatherapy, spending time in nature, and so much more. You just have to find what works for you!
You have a hankering for emotional expression
Each of us experiences emotional eating throughout life, also known as “eating your feelings”. Emotional eating is turning to food for comfort, a reward, or stress-relief rather than satisfying physical hunger. Eating serves two purposes – survival and pleasure. Taste is a pleasurable sensory experience, and we marry this experience with events that elicit “feel good” emotions, such as promotions, birthday celebrations, or the holidays. However, when eating is your primary coping mechanism – and your first impulse is to crack open a pint of ice cream (or even “healthy” treats!) every time you feel upset, angry, lonely, stressed, or bored – you quickly become trapped in an unhealthy eating cycle that leads to guilt, overeating, and weight gain … without the real feelings or issues ever being addressed. Scientific research has shown that when people have difficulty identifying their emotions and lack non-eating coping mechanisms, they are more prone to binge eat (12).
Consumption of sweet, carbohydrate-rich foods sets off a chemical chain reaction resulting in the release of your “happy hormone” serotonin. The same goes for fatty foods; a 2011 Journal of Clinical Investigation study reported that subjects fed a fatty acid solution through a stomach tube showed decreased sadness (by emotional ratings and brain scans) when exposed to sad music or visual cues, as compared to subjects who received a control (saline) solution (13). Food addiction research suggests that foods high in sugar and fat also initiate addictive mechanisms in the human body similar to heroin or cocaine (14). While we are biochemically wired to overindulge when our emotions feel unbearable, we are ultimately looking for comfort. When you feel the sudden urge to down a bag of potato chips, consider trying these alternative strategies:
- Take 10: Cravings tend to last only 10 minutes, so rather than telling yourself that “you can’t”, instead say “just wait”. When you’re hit with the craving, do something else to distract yourself – go outside, take a short walk, turn on your favorite tunes, meditate, or better yet, find a quiet place, take some deep breaths, and notice what you are feeling – are you feeling sad, angry, or frustrated? Then notice if the desire to eat is still there 10 minutes later.
- Unearth your feelings: Tune into the physical sensations of your emotions. Are you feeling a weight in your chest, or tension in your shoulders/neck, or a clenched jaw? Begin paying attention to these feelings, and consider tracking them in a mood journal. Do you notice that your desire to have a munch attack coincides with difficult emotions or physical sensations that you want to avoid?
- Sit with difficult emotions: once you are able to identify your difficult emotions, can you sit with them and let yourself feel them? This can be extremely difficult and scary, but the truth is that when we don’t suppress our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings subside quickly and lose their power to control our attention. To do this requires mindfulness and learning how to stay connected to your emotional experience moment-to-moment.
You are yearning for something more in life
While cravings have a physical and emotional basis, they also can be interpreted from a spiritual perspective. Cravings are desires that come from an imbalance or lack of feeling whole. When you decipher the true meaning behind your cravings, you can gain insight into what you are really hungry for. Cravings for specific flavors or tastes can be interpreted symbolically as areas of your life that need more attention. For example:
- Sweet: we crave the sugar high when we aren’t experiencing enough joy in life, which is all too common in today’s society where we are shackled to our daily grind, endless to-do lists and responsibilities, and have little to no time to do activities that bring us joy. Consider the relationships in your life – family, friends, work, romantic – do they leave you feeling unsatisfied or sapped of energy, leaving you craving sweetness and a boost of energy? Does your career leave you feeling fulfillment and passion, or stress and anxiety? Begin to reflect on what areas of life are sapping you of energy, and re-incorporate hobbies or experiences that bring you joy – at least 10 minutes a day to start!
- Fatty: fat digestion occurs in the presence of bile, which is produced by the liver. In many traditions, the liver is considered the seat of our personal power. Symbolically, we crave fatty foods because we have yet to accept our own importance, which stems from a wounded ego and reduced sense of self-worth. When we accept our own worth, we cultivate an inner power and knowledge that we have something to offer the world.
- Spicy: perhaps you crave spicy flavors of the eye-watering variety – the hotter the better! This can be interpreted as a need for intensity and action in life. If you are feeling bored with your routine and need to spice it up, perhaps it is time to pick up a new hobby, plan a trip, or try an adventurous sport.
- Salty: a craving for salt is physically associated with the adrenals, kidneys and water balance, but also symbolically relates to life stress and being in resistance to “going with the flow”. We crave salt during times of stress and exhaustion, when we are trying to “solidify” or create protective barriers when we are afraid and overwhelmed. This craving is a call to find strength in trusting the process of our life, acceptance in the present moment, and embodying fluid flexibility rather than rigidness.
Food cravings are a common occurrence for many of us. When we approach them with curiosity, self-inquiry, and self-compassion, we have a chance to decode the craving as a call to reconnect with and balance the needs of the physical body, emotions, and spirit.
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