Why do I crave sugar when stressed?
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Why Do I Crave Sugar When Stressed?

How does sugar impact your stress levels? Research studies have shown a diet full of fruit and vegetables can result in higher well-being. Why is it we crave sugar when stressed?

But what really happens when we’re stressed – In stressful situations our body enters a “flight or fight mode” which triggers the release of cortisol into the system leading to an increase in blood sugar levels. The cortisol levels only return to normal once the task/threat has been extinguished. In times of being hunter-gatherers, this was necessary, but in modern-day, the threat is more likely mental rather than physical, It seems our biology hasn’t quite caught up with the modern age.

So in times of stress, do we reach for the fruit bowl in the office, or do we crave foods full of sugar? If you’re reaching for the fruit bowl then you’re more disciplined than most and your health and wellbeing are better off for it.

Sugar and Stress

Sugars effect on the mind and body

Stress can affect everyone differently and, in some people, this may lead to overeating, particularly sugary foods with the body demanding to be quickly refueled along with previously learned responses of how you usually react when in such a situation. Sugary snacks help release serotonin which is known to have mood-boosting effects as well as play a role in appetite and sleep regulation.

Because of the reaction, the brain develops a behavioral pattern that says, eat this, you’ll feel better. This can then lead to addiction with the body looking for its next high in times of stress. In the UK, an average person consumes approx. 20 teaspoons of sugar per day.2

Sugar is also attributed to weight gain and patterns of yo-yo dieting which often follow to lose weight can further compound stress.

It has long been argued sugar is more addictive than cocaine and it can give you more of a high than cocaine1. This, at least partly, is why we crave sugar when stressed.

Whatever the studies say, one thing is certain, too much refined sugar is harmful to the body, and can result in diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and may increase the risk of heart disease.

So how can you break the cycle of sugar cravings?

To really overcome any addiction the first step is to admit it, otherwise, you'll never really own it. Start by making small changes, cut back on the sugar in your tea or coffee.

Monitor your eating habits, are you reaching for the 3 pm snack because you're bored, or are you really hungry? To cut back on the sweet cravings, include protein in every meal especially breakfast. Protein helps to balance blood sugar and insulin levels.

If you can, I would suggest starting the day with eggs. If you like sweet then try porridge with nuts, seeds, or almond butter. For extra sweetness you can add dried fruit, I would recommend soaking the dried fruit overnight.

For the emergency sugar snack - try dates stuffed with almond butter. Great protein and healthy eating sugar hit.

Alleviating Stress

To help alleviate stress and bring some calming influence into your day, simple breathing exercises can help. Studies have shown deep breathing has a positive effect on mental health.

You’ll be amazed to know most people don’t breathe properly. In fact, in times of stress, monitor your breathing and you’ll notice you take shallow breaths. So, to help combat stress, learn to take deep breaths from your belly. Take slow deliberate breaths through your nose and out through the mouth.

Deep breathing helps to move the body out of stress mode to calm. This is due to the work of the vagus nerve which sends messages across your body including reducing your heart rate.

When we breathe deeply the diaphragm pulls on the vagus nerve which only happens when we're not stressed, thus the message 'I am relaxed' gets passed to the brain.  The message helps to release Oxytocin the hormone which combats the stress hormones.

So go ahead, try it and watch what happens. It's got to be better than giving in to those sugar cravings.

Sleep Matters

The other thing to be mindful of is enough sleep.  Not enough sleep leads to a rise in hunger hormones and increases stress. The body wants energy and so contributes to why we crave sugar when stressed, we head towards sugar and the cycle begins.

At least 7-8 hours is recommended.  To get a good night’s sleep leave your mobile/iPad etc out of your bedroom. Try to be consistent with times for sleeping and waking up.

Avoid eating at least two hours before bedtime.

Remember, in the short term sugar or comfort foods, in general, might help relieve stress but a healthy response to stress would try out one of the above.

Importantly please remember not all sugar is bad for you. It’s about doing things in moderation, take small steps to reduce processed foods out of your diet and your body will reward you.

1Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. P.Radaab, N.M.Avena, B.G.Hoebela. Behavioural Neurosciene. Volume 134, Issue 3 2005, Pages 737-744. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.04.043
2National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Public Health England. March 2018.
By Renée Mann
Working blending expertise across finance and HR, Renee has a unique perspective on what a business needs to thrive, both from strategic development and people perspective.   
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