Sugar addiction – how natural compounds in plants can help you beat the cravings
You may think that it’s just your lack of willpower that keeps you reaching for the biscuit tin, chocolate bar or crisps (yes they’ve got sugar in too) but often it’s because something’s not quite as it should be inside your body. This blog explores what may be causing your sugar cravings and how herbal medicine can help you beat them for good.
WHAT IS SUGAR?
Sugar is a carbohydrate formed from two glucose molecules joined by an easily breakable bond. Glucose is found in all foods that were once plants as plants produce their own glucose for energy to grow. Glucose consumed as part of a whole plant (vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes) is mostly very good for you whilst glucose (or sugar) isolated from the rest of the plant, and consumed on its own or in processed foods, is not.
CAUSES OF SUGAR CRAVING
Vitamin & mineral deficiencies
Your body needs lots of different vitamins and minerals to turn the glucose from the foods you eat into energy. Few if none of these are found in sugary foods (refined carbohydrates such as white rice or bread, chocolate, crisps and cakes). If you eat lots of these foods you crave more sugar for energy but what your body really needs is vitamins & minerals.
Lack of calories
When you go for long periods between eating your blood sugar levels drop and your brain cries out for calories in the form it knows it can most quickly turn them into energy – refined carbohydrates.
When you get enough good quality sleep your body produces a hormone called leptin. When you don’t get enough sleep or your sleep is broken and disrupted your body produces ghrelin. Ghrelin tells your body you need more energy and triggers your desire for sugary foods and refined carbohydrates.
Just before your period starts your body cells become more sensitive to insulin (the hormone produced by your pancreas after you eat to transport glucose into your cells). This means that sugar is quickly transported into your cells, leaving your blood sugar lower, quicker and consequently your body calls out for sugar.
Just before your period starts your iron levels drop a little too. This is to lower your immunity so that should you be pregnant your embryo is not rejected by your body. If your iron levels are already on the low side this may cause you to feel tired and weak and crave sugar (when what your body is really lacking is iron).
When you feel worn out and low in energy then you often reach for sweet foods. What your body may really need is some rest and really good nutrition.
When you eat your brain produces serotonin. When you eat sugar your brain produces a lot of serotonin, quickly. Serotonin makes you feel happy and positive and at peace with the world. Unfortunately the effects don’t last and you can become dependent on eating sugar for lifting your mood.
Gut microflora in balance
Your large intestine is home to trillions of bacteria, many of them help to release vital vitamins and minerals from our foods. Everyone has a unique bacterial colony, depending on many things including diet and environment. When you eat more sugary foods bacteria that like sugar will colonise in your bowel, and there are trillions of them, and they need to be fed. Hence you crave sugar. See our blog on how to improve your gut flora.
- Blood sugar swings – when you eat a lot of sugar all at once your body produces a lot of insulin all at once to push the sugar into your cells. The sugar is quickly absorbed and your blood sugar then becomes very low and you crash – craving more sugar to pick you up again.
- Reduced sensitivity to insulin – when you bombard your body with sugar your cells can become less sensitive to insulin. The sugar is less efficiently moved into your cells, so you crave more sugar.
- PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) – is a hormone disorder more than a reproductive disorder (though it can make getting pregnant more difficult) where a number of hormones are out of synch leading to sugar cravings.
- Diabetes – a serious illness where sugar is not being moved out of your blood into your cells fast enough (either due to lack of insulin production or lack of cell sensitivity to insulin) and you crave sugar.
HOW HERBAL MEDICINE CAN HELP
Herbs that take away the taste of sugar
- Compounds in Gymnema sylvestre are the perfect fit for the sugar receptors on your tongue. They sit in there for about 40 minutes before they are broken down by your body, during which time you cannot taste sugar. Gymnema sylvestre can be used to help control sugar cravings.
Herbs that balance blood sugar
- Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) – helps to stop blood sugar levels swinging from high to low.
- Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) – helps balance your stress hormones (which have an effect on blood sugar levels). It also helps balance blood sugar levels by improving sensitivity to insulin. Avoid if you have high blood pressure.
- Galega (Galega officinalis) – contains compounds that the diabetes drug metformin is based upon. Galega can help to increase uptake of glucose into your cells and in so doing balance blood sugar levels
Herbs that balance menstrual cycle hormones
- Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) – helps balance two of the hormones produced during your menstrual cycle (oestrogen and progesterone) and helps reduce premenstrual symptoms such as sugar cravings.
- Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) – especially useful during the perimenopause / menopause to help replace dwindling oestrogen supplies that can leave you feeling exhausted.
Herbs that help you sleep
- There are so many herbs that can help you to sleep – the best ones are: Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), California poppy (Eschscholtzia californica), Chamomile (Chamomila recutita), Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) – remember what happened to the Flopsy Bunnies when they ate Mr McGregor’s lettuces? And Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) and Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) for sleep disruption during the perimenopause / menopause.
OTHER WAYS A MEDICAL HERBALIST CAN HELP YOU
- Medical Herbalists are trained in diagnosis – this means they can help you identify (or diagnose) what may be underlying your sugar cravings. They can also point you towards blood tests or other medical professionals if need be.
- Medical Herbalists are trained in nutrition – they can therefore help you identify nutrients lacking in your diet, help you design meals that are delicious and satisfying and ensure you receive all the nutrients your body needs.
- Medical Herbalists can recommend supplements that are sometimes needed whilst good eating habits are forming.
- Medical Herbalists are great listeners if there’s something you just want to share or talk though.