Everyone craves sweet or salty foods once in a while, but what do your particular cravings say about your health? The Emotional Eaters Repair Manual sheds light on what hormone and brain-chemistry imbalances, exposures to toxins, and food allergies have to do with our cravings.
There are certain foods that hook me every time: corn chips, dark chocolate, and French bread. What are your top three? Of course, I’m more susceptible to cravings the week before my period, when deadlines pile up, or when I go too long between meals.
“Emotional eating”—or eating to soothe psychological emotional discomfort—has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. Indulging cravings outside of normal hunger patterns is often seen as a sign of emotional weakness or a lack of willpower, but as many experts point out our bodies are designed to work this way: Stress, for example, makes you hungry, and eating while stressed causes you to gain more weight. It’s a bummer.
But viewed outside the lenses of guilt and biological imperatives, these cravings might contain other useful information. Julie Simon, author of a new book due out in November, The Emotional Eaters Repair Manual (New World Library), sheds light on why hormone and brain-chemistry imbalances, exposures to toxins, as well as food allergies, can cause or exacerbate cravings.
My naturopath for years has suggested that I might suffer from adrenal fatigue, for which I take adaptogenic Chinese herbs. As Simon points out, adrenal exhaustion (a common condition resulting from chronic stress) might underlie some of my cravings, since the adrenals influence blood sugar and mood regulation.
Thyroid and estrogen-testosterone-progesterone imbalances also influence cravings. I learned recently that my mom and grandmother both had issues with hypothyroidism, and although I have tested “normal” in recent check-ups, I have also since learned that testing for thyroid hormone levels must happen as early in the morning as possible. So my results may not have been accurate. (Check out hypothyroid diet tips and the top herbs for hormonal balance.)
Cravings for certain foods also are indicators for deficiencies in particular brain chemicals. For example, my strong chocolate craving may indicate dopamine/norepinephrine, serotonin, and endorphin deficiency. Craving sweets is associated with deficiencies in all five that Simon lists: dopamine/norepinephrine, glutamine, seratonin, endorphins, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
And cravings can also (gulp!) indicate which foods I may be allergic to. Why would your body crave the foods it can’t tolerate? When you eat a food you’re allergic to, Simon points out that the body “produces allergy mediators, like histamine, as well as powerful, soothing, opiate-like brain chemicals. We notice an immediate good feeling, even while our body may be experiencing some mild discomfort, such as headache or stomachache. Within minutes or hours, we notice a strong craving for the [food] again.”
So you can see that sorting out cravings can be a bit of a rabbit hole. If you’re struggling with food issues and/or find that you have other symptoms of imbalance or allergy, it’s a good idea to work with a qualified health care practitioner to determine the best course of action. Bottom line, according to Simon: Eating a wholesome, plant-based diet, and finding time for exercise and nourishing ourselves in other ways, such as through friendships or spiritual practice, are essential to resolving frequent food cravings and to feeling balanced and healthy.
How do you banish food cravings? Share in the comments.