Combat Cravings with Balanced Blood Sugar
Cravings can be caused by a variety of physical and emotional triggers, but we’re going to focus on one of the most common in this post: blood sugar balance.
What is blood sugar?
The “sugar” I’m referring to in blood is glucose. When you eat carbohydrates, they get broken down into glucose in the bloodstream as a source of energy for the body.
So how does blood sugar become imbalanced?
The body is designed to manage a reasonable intake of carbohydrates in order to keep things running smoothly. We call this balance “homeostasis” and the body is constantly working to achieve it in systems throughout the body (just like us in life!).
When carbohydrates are consumed, it tells the pancreas to release the hormone insulin in order to shuttle glucose to cells throughout the body as needed for energy. If the cells are satisfied for energy needs, the body will store any excess in the liver for short term storage or in fat cells for longer-term storage. When glucose levels fall too low, the body tells the pancreas to release another hormone, glucagon. Glucagon stops cells from storing glucose to help the body return to a state of homeostasis.
But, just like other body systems, when you abuse the system, the system starts to fall apart. Both high and low blood sugar can be problematic in the short- and long-term, and both can contribute to cravings.
High blood sugar
In the short term, high blood sugar happens by simply consuming so many simple carbohydrates that the body responds by quickly releasing large amounts of insulin. The insulin clears the glucose from the blood, and this rapid spike and fall in glucose results in the feeling of an energy “crash” and the desire or craving to provide the body with more energy, generally in the form of more carbs (or caffeine). This rise and fall in glucose is the root of an imbalance in blood sugar and fluctuations in energy levels, and can quickly become a vicious cycle of the body seeking to fulfill its cravings for quick energy with more carbohydrates.
In the long term, when the body is continually pummeled with glucose, the cells will eventually stop responding to requests for insulin and too much glucose will be left circulating in the bloodstream. It’s like the boy who cried wolf – the body becomes numb to the constant requests for insulin and just gives up. Over time, this results in a condition called insulin resistance that ultimately leads to serious medical issues like diabetes and other metabolic disorders.
Low blood sugar
Low blood sugar happens when there isn’t enough glucose circulating in the blood. This can happen when you skip meals or go too long without eating anything. Exercise can also cause low blood sugar levels if you don’t fuel and recover properly.
Low blood sugar is marked by feelings of fatigue, irritability, headaches, shakiness, lightheadedness, nausea, and yes – hanger! These symptoms cause the body to crave quick energy (yes, sugar and carbs!) to satisfy its immediate energy needs.
(Note that these feelings have become known as the “keto flu” – the experience of the body lacking glucose as it adapts to using ketones as fuel. The experience can be extreme and also dangerous for those with certain health conditions. I recommend making any major metabolic shifts in your diet alongside a trained professional.)
How can you balance blood sugar?
No carb alone
One of the most effective ways to balance your blood sugar is to balance your plate. Avoid eating carbs by themselves – even whole food carbs like fruit or starchy vegetables. While these are better carbohydrate options as they also contain fiber and micronutrients, they still cause a rise in blood sugar.
Instead, focus on balancing your meal or snack with protein, fat, and a fiber-filled carb. So if you have some berries, grab a hard boiled egg or some nuts or seeds alongside it. Adding protein and fat will slow the introduction of glucose into your bloodstream to balance your blood sugar and help you feel satisfied and balanced.
Get good sleep
Lack of sleep can affect all hormones, including insulin and the “hunger hormones” ghrelin and leptin. Combatting lack of sleep with more caffeine can make this even worse.
Stress can also impact blood sugar and eating in a stressed state is as bad for blood sugar as it is for digestion. Eating mindfully helps to get your body into an optimal state of digestion – the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” state. You can support this state by being present when eating. Clear any distractions, take small bites and chew thoroughly, eat slowly and intentionally, and stop when you’re full.
When blood sugar is balanced you are better able to listen to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues (it’ll tell you some good stuff), make good food choices to stay balanced, and to eat in a mindful state for optimal digestion.