Do Sugar Cravings Have You By The Neck?
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
It’s that time of year again when it seems like sugar is everywhere. For some of us the
push-and-pull of holiday sweets starts at Halloween and lasts all the way through until
New Year’s Day — and it can feel like a wild rollercoaster ride. My patients often tell me
they can’t wait to get off, but many aren’t quite sure how. Most women I talk with at the
clinic and in my personal life have experienced sugar cravings, no matter what time of
year — or time of the month. Whether it’s having a taste for something sweet after
dinner each night or speeding to your local supermarket for the biggest bag of Swedish
Fish you can buy, I know craving sugar can be a powerful urge. And the disappointing
truth is that once we start to include sugar into our daily routine, it becomes more and
more difficult to stop.
As humans we’ve evolved to appreciate the instant energy sugar provides us, but food is
a highly emotional topic, especially when it comes to sweets. We often associate sweet
foods with love and acceptance, and scientists have looked at our brain chemistry to
understand how food can directly affect our “feel-good” neurotransmitters like serotonin.
There are many other physical causes for sugar cravings, too, like hormonal
fluctuations, intestinal yeast, and stress, to name a few.
Sadly, we’ve been told for far too long that indulging in sweets is connected with a lack of
self-will or some other character flaw. This is just not true! Craving sugar is not simply
about willpower, nor is it simply about emotions. There may be several underlying
physiologic causes feeding your desire for sugar, and it may take some perspective and
investigation to get to the bottom of it. Let’s take a closer look at what might be behind
your sugar cravings and how you can develop a healthy, loving relationship with sweets.
Why does sugar feel so good?
There is so much contributing to the positive feelings we associate with sugar. For many
of us, the smell of homemade cookies or a cake fresh out of the oven reminds us of our
childhoods, evoking fond memories of past holidays, birthdays, or special occasions.
Others remember being rewarded with candy or other sugary delights when they did
These positive associations are deeply ingrained in our brains. I once had a patient
named Jillian who broke down into tears when I suggested she cut sugar from her diet
for a week — it was as if I was taking away her most intimate friend! But the more
research I did, the more it made sense. Our brains “reward” us by releasing serotonin
and beta-endorphins when we eat sugar or other refined carbohydrates that are easily
converted to glucose (the simplest sugar). The release of these mood-enhancing
neurotransmitters explains in part why Jillian and many other patients of mine feel such
an intense emotional connection to sugar.
Let’s look at serotonin. Serotonin has many responsibilities in our bodies, but overall, it
is best known as the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. Neurotransmitters act by
sending messages from the nervous system to the rest of the body, and serotonin levels
are what several antidepressants manipulate to improve mood and anxiety. Made from
the essential amino acid tryptophan, serotonin’s roots are in protein. So what does sugar
have to do with it? The reason sugar can lead to increased serotonin in the brain has to
do with insulin. I’ll explain this in more detail below, but the bottom line is that we need
insulin to help tryptophan get into the brain so it can produce serotonin. And sugar — or
any carbohydrate for that matter — causes us to release insulin. Refined carbohydrates,
such as sugar, white bread, pasta and white rice, lead to a more intense insulin surge
than do complex carbohydrates like vegetables and whole grains.
Beta-endorphin is another neurotransmitter we release when eating sweets or refined
carbohydrates. This is the neurotransmitter typically associated with a “runner’s high”
because it acts as a natural painkiller, produces a sense of well-being, increases self-
esteem, and settles anxiety. Our brains naturally release beta-endorphin when we are in
any kind of physical pain — and when we eat sugar.
It’s no wonder sugar feels so good! Physiologically, sugar “feeds” our brains with two
neurotransmitters that send positive messages to the rest of the body. The problem is
that the lift we experience after a can of soda, a bowl of noodles, or a chocolate chip
cookie doesn’t last very long, and eating these foods, especially without combining them
with some protein, can set us up for cyclical cravings. We will find ourselves wanting
more and more.
Is sugar addictive?
So many of my patients ask whether sugar is truly addicting, but the answer differs
depending on the individual. Sugar certainly can be addictive, but this is more of a
problem for some women than others, because we all have different levels of
neurotransmitters and receptors in our brains. These levels vary and change over time
depending upon our genetics and lifestyle — what we eat, drink and feel; where we are
hormonally; whether we exercise; how well we sleep; and so on. Some practitioners
believe that a portion of the population is “sugar-sensitive.” These individuals may be
operating with naturally lower levels of serotonin and beta-endorphin, leaving them more
vulnerable to sugar cravings.
Any time the body is running low on a neurotransmitter, the brain tries to catch up by
opening up more receptors for this neurotransmitter, essentially to increase the odds of
a connection. You can think of it in terms of supply and demand: when there’s less of
something available, the demand for it goes up. With so many open receptors, if a sugar-
sensitive person does have sugar, alcohol, or anything that causes a release of
serotonin or beta-endorphin, it intensifies the resulting sugar “high.” This in turn can
lead to more cravings.
Some of my patients have experienced withdrawal symptoms when they stop eating
sugar. This makes sense because when we’re eating large amounts of sugar at regular
intervals, the brain becomes accustomed to frequent beta-endorphin bursts, and when
we take them away, it naturally wants more. This, like withdrawal from a caffeine habit or
drug addiction, can lead to headaches, shakiness, nausea, fatigue, and even
Your body needs carbohydrates
It may be tempting for women who feel they have a problem with sugar to simply cut out
all carbohydrates. But an all-or-nothing approach just isn’t healthy — it takes all four
food groups to regulate insulin and quell sugar cravings. Here is an explanation for why.
Whenever we eat foods that contain complex carbohydrates, our bodies convert them
into a simple sugar known as glucose. Glucose is the main source of fuel for our cells.
The brain in particular cannot use any other source of energy (like fat or protein) aside
from glucose, so it is absolutely essential to eat carbohydrates.
As I mentioned earlier, carbohydrates are also important in helping tryptophan get into
the brain to be converted to serotonin. When we eat food containing protein, the body
breaks it down into subcomponent amino acids — one of which is tryptophan.
Key nutrients to enhance your serotonin production
Vitamin C. Among other important duties, vitamin C helps to convert tryptophan (from the
food you eat) into serotonin.
B-complex vitamins. This group of vitamins is helpful in metabolizing carbohydrates for
the body to use. Niacin in particular is essential in converting tryptophan to serotonin.
Zinc. Zinc aids insulin in doing its job and generally helps with digestion.
— Adapted from Potatoes not Prozac, p. 141.
The tryptophan molecule is relatively small compared to other amino acids. Those larger
amino acids can block tryptophan’s path across the tightly-regulated barrier between the
blood and the brain. When carbohydrates are consumed and insulin is released, insulin
pairs up with larger amino acids to help build muscle, leaving tryptophan a clearer path
to cross into the brain. And there are important micronutrients, such as vitamin C, the B
vitamins, and zinc (see box at right), that can help with the conversion from tryptophan to
What’s interesting is that Mother Nature did not provide our bodies with the information
to distinguish between man-made sugars and natural sugars. Instead, this information is
available to us in everything else that surrounds natural sugars — in the antioxidant-rich
skins of grapes and apples, for example, or the fiber and protein-rich germ of whole
Therefore, eating any kind of sweet or refined carbohydrate will satisfy the brain and
increase serotonin — but it won’t trigger the signals that tell our brain we’ve had enough,
that we are now fully sated. The more refined a food is, the more it’s been stripped of
this natural, information-rich fibers, fats, proteins, vitamins, and antioxidants.
The carbohydrates in white flours, white rice, white sugar, and the majority of pastas and
breakfast cereals are all highly refined, so it takes less time for the body to break them
down, therefore leading to a quicker response all around. This may sound good, but in
the long run, quick spikes in insulin and glucose can damage your metabolism and lead
to insulin resistance and more cravings. There are so many delicious complex
carbohydrates to choose from that will gently increase blood sugar and insulin. For more
information, see our carbohydrate spectrum page.
Possible causes for sugar cravings
As I mentioned earlier, sugar cravings often have many facets. Because eating is so
intimately connected with our biochemistry and our emotions, we “digest” sugar on many
levels. You may notice there’s a pattern to when you crave sugar — for so many of my
patients it is cyclical, occurring nightly after a stressful day at work, monthly just before
their periods, or seasonally when the days grow short. For others, sugar binges may be
connected to the kinds of foods they have already eaten that day, or with a daily ritual.
Here are some of the common causes for sugar cravings I see at the clinic:
Hormonal fluctuations. Just before menstruation, when estrogen is low and progesterone
is on its way down, beta-endorphin levels are at their lowest. These cyclical hormonal
and neurotransmitter fluctuations may explain why many women who experience PMS
also have cravings — and the accompanying serotonin–endorphin bursts that high-
sugar foods can provide.
Stress. Any stressful situation can lead to less than optimal eating habits. Stress itself
increases cortisol levels, which initially dampen hunger. Once the stress has abated, our
hormones of hunger ramp up — “Refuel!” the body cries. This can lead many women
with stressful jobs and lifestyles to a pattern of nighttime cravings, over-eating, and
unwanted weight gain. Over time, chronic stress can lead to adrenal fatigue, eventually
resulting in extreme exhaustion. So many women I see have reached a state of adrenal
fatigue, and find the only way to get through the day is by drinking lots of caffeine and
consuming sugar for quick energy bursts. But this only sets them up for further cravings
and more energy depletion. There are lots of simple ways to support your adrenal health
by what and how you eat. For more information, see our article on eating for your
Insulin resistance. When you are resistant to insulin (which can happen as a result of a
long-term diet high in refined carbohydrates and low in micronutrients), glucose is not
able to enter your cells and ends up staying in your blood as a result. This means your
cells are starved for the fuel they need to operate, and signals are therefore sent to your
brain to increase insulin. This results in cravings for sugar because even though you
may be eating enough, your cells aren’t able to access the food. For more information,
see our article on preventing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Food sensitivities. Food sensitivities are often the result of a situation known as “leaky
gut,” where partially digested food particles can make their way into the bloodstream
through a damaged, inflamed mucosal lining in the digestive tract. The body regards
these food particles as foreign antigens and mounts an immune response by sending
antibodies. Combined antibodies and antigens in your bloodstream, known as immune
complexes, can lead to intense cravings. Gluten may be at the root of this type of sugar
craving because it is often combined with sugar in the foods we eat, and so women think
they’re craving sugar when really they might be craving gluten.
Intestinal yeast or systemic candidiasis. Yeast thrives on sugar (a connection easy to
make when you look at the Latin name for this group of organisms — Saccharomycotina
— or “sugar fungi”). If your intestinal (and vaginal) bacteria are out of balance, they are
less likely to keep yeasts like Candida in check. An overgrowth of yeast in the intestine
or system-wide can lead to increased cravings for sugar. You can help keep these
organisms — and cravings — in check by taking a high-quality probiotic that includes a
competitive yeast, like the one we offer in our Personal Program.
Excess acid-forming foods. Some women I talk with notice that after eating a lot of red
meat, their cravings for sugar increase. Red meat is high in a pro-inflammatory molecule
called arachidonic acid. Eating a lot of meat tends to upregulate the oxidative–
inflammatory cascade in our bodies. If left unchecked, this inflammatory condition can
become chronic and cause abnormal glucose metabolism, ultimately leading to insulin
resistance. Choosing anti-inflammatory foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as
those that are alkalizing and antioxidant-rich, such as fruits and vegetables, can offset
the metabolic damage and the cravings associated with this dynamic.
A lack of sweetness in your life. As I mentioned before, many things in life can affect our
serotonin and beta-endorphin levels — exercise, balanced nutrition, rewarding work, a
positive relationship, even a sunny day. The joy we find in our lives speaks to our
biochemistry. So when we are lacking positive energy and happiness, it’s not surprising
that we seek to fill that void with sugar.
Strive for a sweet balance — the Women to Women approach
There are several ways to diminish sugar cravings, but just as there are different causes
for them, different steps work for different women. For my patient Jillian and others who
are addicted to sugar, multiple steps may need to be taken for lasting results. Other
women may find that simply avoiding sugar for a few days does the trick. Still others find
that once they reach menopause and their hormonal swings become a thing of the past,
so do their cravings. But the best approach is to find a good balance. I’ve seen too many
women put sugar in the “forbidden fruit” category and end up binging because they feel
so deprived. You deserve treats in your life, and sugar can be enjoyed without the “carb
hangovers” and guilt that are too often associated with it.
Here are some suggestions to help you find a healthy middle ground between no sugar
and sugar binges.
Balance your diet. Nourish your body with a balanced diet, full of the healthy fats, quality
protein, complex carbohydrates, and fruits and vegetables that all together help keep
cell-signaling on an even keel. The food you prepare for yourself should be yummy and
rewarding, not something you have to force down. So many fad diets are set up to
deprive women of basic food groups, like fat and carbohydrates, but our bodies need all
of these food groups to carry out basic functions. Treat yourself to satisfying foods, and I
promise you’ll see a difference in your cravings. For more on preventing insulin
resistance with nutrition, see our article on the insulin control and the four food groups.
Try eliminating sugar for three to five days and see how you feel. I know how hard it can
be, but avoiding sugar for just three days can make a huge difference for some women.
For others, it may take longer for the cravings to diminish, but eliminating the cyclical
crash-and-burn bursts of serotonin and beta-endorphin your brain gets from sugar and
refined carbohydrates can help your body normalize its receptors and neurotransmitters,
so that your brain isn’t constantly sending the message that it needs more sugar.
Incorporate a high-quality multivitamin–mineral complex, plus omega-3’s. A good
supplement like the one we offer in our Personal Program is essential to cover your
nutritional bases, especially in our modern society of fast food and industrial farming.
Micronutrients like zinc, vitamin C and the B vitamins are particularly helpful in calming
sugar cravings by influencing serotonin production. Equally important are omega-3’s,
which are crucial for regulating mood and inflammation — factors that are both
associated with cravings. For additional guidance, see our page on micronutrient
therapy for insulin resistance.
Eat a baked potato three hours after dinner. This concept was born when Dr. Kathleen
DesMaisons published her famous book, Potatoes not Prozac. We recommend you read
the book for specifics, but the theory is that potatoes not only stimulate the release of
insulin needed for tryptophan to cross into the brain, but also contain potassium, a
nutrient needed for insulin to do its work. Potatoes, with their fiber and micronutrient
content, also offer a more sustained insulin response than most refined carbohydrates.
The only stipulations are that you eat the potato as an evening snack, that you do not
eat it with any kind of protein (otherwise, you can top it as you wish), and that you
include its skin. (You may notice that this runs counter to our advice to combine protein
and carbs in meals and snacks — keep in mind that eating a baked potato in this
specific way, three hours after a meal containing protein, is one particular method of
reducing cravings and preventing mood swings. The following is our more general
recommendation about controlling insulin surges.)
Mix protein with pleasure. We can all indulge ourselves in sugary treats once in a while if
we want to. Combining these treats with a stick of cheese, some nuts, or even a glass of
milk will help balance the sugar and insulin surge and allow a gentler increase in blood
sugar and insulin. With a less spiky sugar surge to the brain, you’ll likely experience a
less precipitous crash as well. See our page on using the glycemic index and glycemic
load for an alternative explanation of these concepts.
Avoid sugar patterns. Just like those who smoke or drink may associate smoking or
having a glass of wine with certain activities, we may come to associate sugary treats
with times of the day or ritualized rewards. Take a moment to notice whether this might
be true of your cravings. Your brain is quick to pick up on associations — particularly
anything having to do with its “reward cascade” — and may have you craving sugar
every day at three o’clock, or each time you go for a run, for example. If you’re ready to
break the pattern (or prevent it from forming), this might be a good time to enjoy that
baked potato or some alternative “reward.”
Enhance the sweetness in your life. One of my favorite prescriptions for my patients
reads: Go have some fun! I have written this prescription several times for patients who
seem buried in their work or the day-to-day responsibilities of raising a family, taking
care of elderly parents, managing a household — whatever it may be. As women, we
rarely take the time to nurture ourselves, and it is so important to your health to do so on
a regular basis. Take a step back to figure out what makes you happy, and examine the
things that are doing the opposite. It may be time make a change.
Cultivate lasting bliss
I know it doesn’t feel good to be a slave to sugar. The ups and downs can be intense
and exhausting overall. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Look at the whole picture —
biochemically, physically, and emotionally — to pinpoint where you might benefit from
change and release yourself from your cravings. The more balance you can offer
yourself through quality nutrition and emotional wellness, the more you’ll find your
cravings start to shift away from quick fixes like sugar to the things that provide a lasting
and natural bliss.
I absolutely know that craving sugar or binging on sugar is not a reflection of your
willpower or your individual strength. It most likely has physical roots, and those roots
can be restored to set the foundation for a healthy, lifelong relationship with sugar!
Our Personal Program is a great place to start
The Personal Program promotes natural hormonal balance with nutritional supplements,
our exclusive endocrine support formula, dietary and lifestyle guidance, and optional
phone consultations with our Nurse–Educators. It is a convenient, at-home version of
what we recommend to all our patients at the clinic.
To learn more about the Program, go to How the Personal Program works.
To select the Program that's right for your symptoms, go to Choose the plan that works
To assess your symptoms, take our on-line Hormonal Health Profile.
If you're ready to get started, learn about our risk-free trial.
If you have questions, don't hesitate to call us toll-free at 1-800-798-7902. We're here to
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Related to this article:
References & further reading on sugar craving
Original Publication Date: 12/01/2008
Last Modified: 12/01/2008
Principal Authors: Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP