5 Physiological Reasons you have food cravings, and why mastering your cravings isn’t about willpowe
Updated: Mar 30
I’ve had several in-depth discussions with patients in the past week about their food cravings, and how powerless they feel about them. We’ve been led to believe that it’s all about willpower, and cravings are simply a sign of poor will-power. This unfortunately leads to a spiral that feels even more out of control, because you’re trying to manage something that is more physiologically complex by just muscling through.
The type of cravings I’m talking about here are the really intense ones that leave you feeling powerless. The type that lead to binges, regrets, overeating and feeling sick. This is different than struggling not to grab a handful of chocolate covered almonds as you walk by the snack room at work. Craving junk food if it’s put in front of you is perfectly normal!
In almost all cases with the intense type of cravings discussed above, I believe that by taking a close look at your physiology we can learn more about why you are craving certain foods, and then develop a plan to manage it better… without relying solely on willpower.
Five biochemical mechanisms that contribute to intense cravings:
These are 5 common mechanisms that create cravings that you may not be aware of.
1) Certain foods are addictive to your brain
That there are many foods we eat that are truly addictive to the body, which make overeating difficult to avoid. Several foods contain chemicals known as exorphins, which bind to opioid receptors in the nervous system. Some of us have a higher predisposition to addiction due to our genetic makeup. In these cases, food addiction may be as significant a problem as drug, alcohol or nicotine addiction, resulting in binge eating, obesity and bulimia. Foods with the highest exorphin levels include dairy, gluten, coffee, chocolate and fructose.
2) Imbalance in either dopamine or serotonin creates strong cravings
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released by the brain that plays a number of roles: movement, memory, pleasure / reward, attention, cognition, sleep, mood and learning. In this context, low dopamine levels result in strong food cravings and addictive behavior (with food, shopping, gambling, alcohol,…). Food cravings associated with low dopamine levels include nuts, cheese, chips and wine.
Most of you are familiar with the neurotransmitter serotonin, which affects mood, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire. When serotonin levels are low, the most notable symptom is low mood or depression. Food cravings associated with low serotonin levels are carbohydrates in general, sweets and especially chocolate.
The good news is that you can balance your neurotransmitters with things like exercise, meditation and other techniques which will reduce your food cravings.
3) Poor sleep quality leads to an imbalance in leptin and ghrelin
Sleep deprivation creates a strong imbalance in two chemicals that regulate your appetite. Lack of sleep causes too little leptin, which makes you feel hungry all the time to create more energy. Sleep deprivation also causes Ghrelin levels to go up, which stimulates your appetite. This imbalance can happen with even a single night of poor sleep, which is why you find yourself constantly hungry when you haven’t had enough rest.
4) Issues with the gut microbiome create cravings for sweets and carbs
It is often observed that when the gut microbiome is out of balance, especially with too much yeast, your body will crave more sugar, simple carbs and sweets. This situation is observed in children who have been on many antibiotics for tonsillitis, and end up being more overweight than their peers later on. In overly-simple terms, sugars feed the yeast and having too much yeast can create an unreasonable craving for sweets.
5) Insulin resistance increases appetite and cravings
Insulin is the hormone that is released from the pancreas in response to glucose (sugar) in the blood. Insulin levels spike after eating a meal. When insulin is released in a non-insulin resistant (healthy) person, it triggers the body’s cells to utilize glucose and fats from the bloodstream.
Insulin resistance occurs, when cells do not respond or respond weakly to the insulin signal. Insulin resistance causes intense cravings for carbohydrates and sugars because the body is on a constant rollercoaster with blood sugar levels and insulin spikes. These cravings will result in weight gain, especially around the central abdomen. It is important to note that over time, insulin resistance will lead to type two diabetes.
How do we tell which imbalance is at play?
First, asking the right questions:
What do you crave? – sweets, carbs, salty, alcohol, foods containing wheat, dairy products like ice cream
When do you crave it? – all the time, evenings, mid-afternoon when blood sugar is low
Are there signs of serotonin imbalance? – tendency for anxiety, depression, cravings for carbohydrates and chocolate
Are there signs of dopamine imbalance? – addictive behaviour, cravings for nuts, salty and alcohol
How is your digestion? Do you experience bloating, IBS, or have you been on many antibiotics through your life?
How is your sleep quality? – do you sleep deeply, snore or wake up gasping?
Do you wake up feeling rested? Are you sleeping at least 7 hours each night?
Do you have periods of hypoglyemia or low blood-sugar between meals? Is anyone in your family diabetic?
Next, adding labs and assessment:
Bloodwork for fasting glucose, insulin, HbA1C and morning cortisol – checking for signs of blood sugar imbalance and insulin resistance.
Organic acid test can be useful for current dopamine and serotonin expression, and also whether this is affected by the gut microbiome.
Comprehensive digestive stool analysis or Live Blood Analysis to check for imbalance in the gut microbiome or too much yeast.
Sleep study if there is any question of sleep quality to check for apnea or sleep disorder.
Additional tests may also look for food sensitivities, stress hormone imbalance and nutrient deficiencies.
If you’re struggling with food cravings you feel powerless over, disordered eating or binge behaviour, consider that what is driving it may be an imbalance in your physiology rather than a weakness of your willpower. As you can see from the discussion above, there are many things that can drive cravings. For example, all cases of bulimia are not due to issues with serotonin production, and all cases of binge drinking are not due to low dopamine levels. In practice, it is usually at least two mechanisms at play.
If you’re ready to dive deeper into your food cravings, and really understand the drivers, please book in for an appointment anytime.
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