Sugar Cravings Increase with Refined Sugar ~photo by~Beatrice Murch at Wikimedia Commons

It seems like Halloween kicks off a major time of sugar cravings that lasts until New Year's Day. Oh, there are the Valentine's Day and Easter basket issues with sweets as well, but nothing like the season of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most women and some men have sugar cravings throughout the year, but it can certainly peak during the holiday season and most people can't wait until the New Year begins. The trouble is, once sugar is part of the daily routine, it can be difficult to eliminate.

We appreciate the instant energy sugar gives us, and yet, food in general, sugar in particular, is a highly emotional topic. Sweets are often associated with love, comfort and acceptance. However, sugar cravings can be associated with many physical conditions, such as stress, intestinal yeast, and hormonal fluctuations. There is evidence that sugar affects the neurotransmitter serotonin which is one of our "feel good" neurotransmitters in the brain's chemistry.

Sugar Cravings and the "Good Feelings" Neurotransmitters

Our brains are wired to remember events and associate specific feelings around those events. Many people are reminded of positive childhood feelings by the smell of freshly baked cookies, pies or cakes. Children often get rewarded with candy or other sugary foods when they did something "good" and those memories are stored as well. The candy is then associated with reward and "being good."

When the body ingests sugar or other refined carbohydrates easily converted to glucose, the brain releases serotonin and beta-endorphins. Serotonin has many functions in the body, but it is most known for making us feel good. Serotonin is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan, but its roots are in protein. Insulin is needed to carry tryptophan into the brain so it can produce serotonin. Carbohydrates cause the body to release insulin. Refined carbohydrates such as sweets, white bread and pasta will cause a more intense insulin surge than the complex carbohydrates of whole grains and vegetables.

Another neurotransmitter released when we eat refined carbohydrates or sweets is the Beta-endorphin. This one acts as a natural pain killer and is often associated with the "runner's high." Any time we are in physical pain, the brain releases beta-endorphins; this also happens when we eat sugar.

While sugar tells our brains to release these two powerful neurotransmitters, the positive feelings do not last long. If we do not combine these carbohydrates with protein, our bodies are set up for a cyclical craving.

Is Sugar Addiction Real or is it a Myth?

Whether or not sugar is addictive depends on the individual. It certainly can be addictive to some. Because we all have different levels of neurotransmitters and receptors in our brains, sugar can affect us differently. The levels of these transmitters and receptors can change over time and vary according to what we eat, our lifestyle and our genetics. Some people may therefore, have lower levels of serotonin and beta-endorphins so are more susceptible to the effects of sugar.

When a body becomes low on a transmitter, the brain opens up more receptors for that transmitter. When many receptors are open, if a sugar-sensitive person eats sugar and causes a release of serotonin or beta-endorphin, it results in intensifying the sugar "high" which can lead to more cravings.

If we regularly eat large amounts of sugar the brain becomes accustomed to the frequent bursts of beta-endorphin. Some people do experience symptoms of withdrawal when they stop eating sugar. The resulting symptoms include headaches, nausea, shakiness, fatigue and depression.

Why the Body Needs Carbohydrates

Some diets eliminate carbohydrates and women who have sugar cravings may want to simply give up carbohydrates all together, but this is not a good idea. The body functions best when all four food groups are incorporated into the diet. It takes the four food groups to regulate insulin and keep the blood sugar level balanced.

When complex carbohydrates are consumed, the body breaks them down to glucose, the simplest sugar and main source of fuel for the cells. The brain cannot use any other source of energy so the body must have carbohydrates. When we eat protein, the body breaks it down into amino acids, of which tryptophan is one. Remember, tryptophan is important in making serotonin.

The tryptophan molecule can be blocked from crossing into the brain by the larger amino acid molecules. When insulin is released by the carbohydrates, it pairs with large amino acid molecules to help build muscle which results in a clear path for the tryptophan to enter the brain. Vitamin C, B vitamins and zinc help convert tryptophan into serotonin.

The body does not distinguish between man-made and natural sugars. This is done by the other components of natural sugar, such as the skin of the fruit or fiber in the natural grains. Thus, any kind of refined sugar will trigger the increase of serotonin, but it will not trigger the signals to tell the brain we've had enough. The more refined, the more the food has been stripped of the natural information giving proteins, fibers, fats, antioxidants and vitamins. Carbohydrates in white flours, white sugars, white rice, and most breakfast cereals, and pasta are highly refined and quickly converted to glucose. While this may seem like a good thing, the quick insulin spikes damage your metabolism and lead to insulin resistance and further cravings.

The Glycemic Index of Foods

The glycemic index (GI) of foods is a tool helpful in maintaining a balanced blood sugar level. The GI ranks food according to their potential to increase insulin and blood sugar levels. It is a quantitative measure for how quickly 50 grams of a food is converted to glucose in the body as compared to 50 grams of white bread which has a GI of 100.

Generally, low-glycemic foods ran with 55 or less, and high with 70 or above. Theoretically, using the GI can keep blood sugars level and over time can help prevent or reverse insulin resistance. Hover, the value of using GI is somewhat controversial partly because the GI of a specific food can vary depending on things such as how it was prepared or processed. There are also some inconsistencies in how the GI is calculated; the 50 grams quantity is less than the normal person would eat and thus understates the impact of high-carb and overstates the impact of low-carb foods on the blood sugar. Instead, some nutritionist use what is called the glycemic load (GL) of foods. This is calculated by dividing the GI by 100 and multiplying it by the grams of carbohydrates in the serving size.

Regardless of how you want to monitor your diet, it really comes down to eating healthy. Feed the body what it needs to stay fueled for the amount of activity it is engaged. If you listen to your body, it will tell you want it needs; that may include a piece of pie now and then. This will keep the blood sugar level balanced and the body healthy.


Pick, Marcelle, OB/GYN NP, "Do sugar cravings have you by the neck?"

The copyright of the article "Understanding the Curse of Sugar Cravings" is owned by Cheryl Weldon. Permission to republish "Understanding the Curse of Sugar Cravings" in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.