Food cravings come in many forms – from the historically odd pregnancy cravings (pickles and ice cream!) to late night snacks, and to chocolate (any time!).
They are different than true hunger because cravings are an intense desire to eat a certain food. Cravings are often associated with a person’s lack of willpower and can be overwhelming because you feel a lack of control. But, there are actual biological reasons behind cravings.
They can be caused by your stress level, nutrient deficiencies, hormones, and more. Once you get to the root cause of your cravings you can start to control them.
Stress gets the blame for many ailments, and food cravings are one of them. When you are feeling stressed your body naturally releases the hormone cortisol into your body. Cortisol is known as the “stress” hormone and activates your “fight or flight” response. When you feel stressed cortisol prepares the body to “fight or flight” by flooding it with glucose (blood sugar) that supplies immediate energy to the large muscle groups. This elevated level of cortisol increases your appetite especially for sugary or fatty foods.
Stress eating, also known as emotional eating, is a type of craving. After a bad day at work or a big fight with someone, a bowl ice cream or a bag of chips might be used to sooth the feelings of stress. The foods we crave are often comfort foods designed to do just that – comfort us. Not only are we trained from a young age that these types of foods are associated with a reward or celebration, but we are socialized to eat them even when we are not hungry.
Exercise and meditation can reduce your food cravings from stress. Meditation helps you become more mindful of your circumstances, including your eating habits. Research has shown that exercise decreases your appetite for up to 24 hours after a workout and reduces your food cravings.
Food cravings can be for the foods that possess the nutritional needs we are lacking. Cravings can also mean you aren’t eating enough of the right foods.
- Dieting: The food restriction that comes with dieting inherently contributes to food cravings. It is the “wanting what you can’t have” type of phenomenon. In one study the “dieters” reported more food cravings than the “non-dieters.” Also, the full restriction of a specific food (such as bread, chocolate, rice) contributed to cravings of those foods but a diet that only reduced the consumption of specific foods or food groups didn’t create cravings.
- Magnesium: Chocolate cravings can mean you are low in magnesium. Magnesium can be found in green leafy vegetables and foods such as avocados, almonds, bananas, beans, brown rice, and even dark chocolate. It plays a major role in how your body processes carbohydrates and helps control your blood sugar.
- Protein: Foods with protein can help curb your sugar cravings. When you eat protein you increase dopamine in your body, the brain’s reward hormone. This will leave you feeling satisfied for longer after you eat and cut down on the chances for cravings.
- B Vitamins: All B vitamins help convert food into energy. A vitamin B-12 deficiency can cause you to crave meat. It can also cause you to be anemic and have low energy. A vitamin B-9 deficiency (also known as folate or folic acid) can cause you to crave bread, rice, crackers, and pastries.
There is a hormonal imbalance element in the cravings causes that we have already mentioned. Additionally, women are also more likely than men to report food cravings. Cravings can be correlated with a woman’s menstrual cycle in response to the hormonal changes that occur during monthly intervals.
A hormonal imbalance occurs when there is too much or not enough hormones in your body. It doesn’t take a large imbalance for you to experience symptoms. Small imbalances of a variety of hormones can cause food cravings as well as other weight related conditions.
In addition to the “stress” hormone, cortisol, increasing your cravings, the following hormones contribute to cravings:
- Ghrelin: Produced in your stomach, ghrelin is referred to as the “hunger hormone.” Its primary function is to regulate your appetite and tell you when you are hungry. Ghrelin levels increase in your blood just before eating or during fasting. Eating then reduces the level of ghrelin in your system. Sleep deprivation can also cause ghrelin spike.
- Leptin: While ghrelin tells you that you are hungry, leptin is the hormone that tells your brain that you are full. Often called the “obesity hormone” and the “starvation hormone,” leptin is produced by your fat cells and communicates to your brain that you are no longer hungry. The primary function of leptin is to help your body maintain its weight. Low leptin levels can cause you to never feel satisfied after eating and to feel hungry all the time. Obviously, this can lead to cravings. Leptin also increases cortisol that leads to additional hormone imbalance.
- Insulin: Produced in the pancreas, insulin is the hormone that regulates your blood sugar levels. Insulin allows your body to use sugar (glucose) from the carbohydrates you’ve eaten for energy or to store the glucose for future use. If the amount of insulin in your body is not converting food into energy properly then you can experience cravings. Type 1 diabetes is the result of the body not being able to produce insulin.
Food cravings stem from a variety of emotional, behavioral, and physical factors. Bioidentical hormone therapy can bring your hormones back into balance and reduce your unwanted cravings that can be contributing to stress and unwanted weight gain. Identical to the hormones produced naturally in your body, bioidentical hormones are indistinguishable from your body’s actual hormones.
With the use of hormone replacement therapy, you can balance out your hormone levels and start to notice a reduction in food cravings. At The Riegel Center, we provide a customized plan of care for hormone replacement therapy in all 50 states and provide virtual appointments. First, we will have an initial consultation with you to determine all of your concerns. Then we will schedule blood work at your local lab so that we can determine which hormones are imbalanced. From there, Dr. Riegel will create a personalized plan of care for you based on hormone levels. We will regularly monitor your hormones and make changes as needed. For more information on bioidentical hormone therapy, please visit our website or take our Hormone Balance Quiz to find out if you may be experiencing a hormonal imbalance.