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Why Stress Could Be the Source of Your Sugar Cravings

by Stacie De Lucia, RD May 12, 2021

Do you tend to crave more carbs, sugar or candy bars when under a lot of stress?  

First off-you’re not alone. Second off-there may be more to the story here than just a lack of willpower to say no to sugar.

Cortisol is a bodily hormone that is pumped out when you are in a stressful state-think fight or flight mode. This mode is a survival mechanism that makes us ‘ready to fight’ – due to the ancestral connection for the need to fight for our food, or run from a predator!

So, is this helpful or harmful?
Both! In the short term, it is good to have this defense mechanism to be able to have adequate energy to make it through a good stressor like a tough workout class, or run to catch the train you’re running late for.

When is it harmful? 

When it is activated over the long term

Chronically elevated cortisol can be detrimental to the entire body. Some of these effects include adrenal fatigue, obesity, digestive issues, and even fertility struggles. More specifically, in the context of sugar, high cortisol levels trigger the liver to release glucose into the bloodstream, therefore increasing blood sugar levels.  Simultaneously, certain “flight or flight” muscles (think those that help you run from a predator) become more insulin sensitive because those muscles need to store sugar for energy. Over time, this constant exposure to glucose causes the cells to become resistant to the insulin that your pancreas is secreting.  

As mentioned in other blog posts, insulin resistance is not good for our bodies. It means your cells cannot uptake the sugar for fuel, and more of it sits in your blood, causing high blood sugar, leading to increased risk of diabetes and other chronic illnesses. The empty cells become starved of sugar, and therefore signal to the body that they need more sugar and carbs-causing sugar cravings. Studies have also shown that cortisol binds to hypothalamus receptors in the brain, causing appetite stimulation (2).  Increased appetite can lead to a tendency to overeat, and thus, also increase insulin resistance.

In summary: long term high stress=chronically elevated cortisol that can cause insulin resistance and increased sugar cravings!

So how can we avoid this? Stress most likely won’t be completely eliminated from your life, but working on improving how you manage your stress can prove to be extremely helpful! How can you naturally improve your stress response? Find out in our next blog post How to Sweeten Up Your Mood Without Sugar!