Updated: Nov 20
A high-sugar diet is terrible for your health. Among other things, it imbalances your gut microbiome. Studies have found that eating sugar encourages the growth of certain species of gut bacteria that are not great for your health – which leaves less space and resources for more health-promoting species to grow. When your gut microbiome is imbalanced in this way, it affects your skin along with many other aspects of your health.
Even though we know how unhealthy sugar is, many of us have a hard time resisting it. This gets even harder during times of stress. During challenging times, most of us have a tendency to reach for sweets. Stress just seems to make sugar cravings much stronger. We sometimes refer to this as “emotional eating” – when you’re not eating because you’re hungry, but instead you’re using food to manage your feelings.
I know I certainly used to reach for sweets when I felt stressed. During the hardest periods of my life, such as when I was going through my divorce, I was eating (and drinking) tons of sugar. And it definitely did affect my health – I gained weight, and I even became prediabetic. I knew that sugar was wrecking my health. And yet I still struggled to resist those cravings.
Why does stress make you crave sugar? And most importantly, is there anything you can do about it?
The neurobiology of a sugar craving
Your brain cells communicate with each other through chemicals known as neurotransmitters. In general, you feel best when your brain has balanced levels of different neurotransmitters. When there isn’t enough of one of them, you’ll tend to feel a little off – maybe a bit depressed, anxious, low energy, or unfocused.
Eating sugar is highly rewarding. Because dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s associated with rewarding activities, it’s not at all surprising that eating sugar triggers the release of high levels of dopamine. In fact, some studies have found that eating sugary foods triples the amount of dopamine in certain areas of the brain.
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter, which helps to stabilize your mood. It’s also been found that eating sugar causes the release of serotonin in the brain. (Refined carbs can also cause this effect.)
Chronic stress tends to deplete both dopamine and serotonin in the brain. This is the type of stress that most of us are dealing with – things like my divorce, which continuously cause stress over a long period of time. If you’re in a chronic stress situation, then your brain is likely to be low on these neurotransmitters. This can make you crave the rush of serotonin and dopamine that you get from eating something sweet.
Getting healthier dopamine and serotonin hits
So if you’re reaching for sugar in order to boost dopamine and serotonin, what’s the best way to kick your sugar craving? Boost those neurotransmitters in a healthier way.
There are lots of different ways to get a dopamine and/or serotonin boost. Things like eating sugar or drinking alcohol do increase these levels, but they have significant health costs. But there are also healthier ways to boost dopamine and serotonin in the brain, including:
Sunshine (or a light box)
Listening to music
When you feel a sugar craving, you can try doing one of these activities instead. For example, when you feel that urge to grab a cookie or two (or a whole bag), you could:
Go outside for a walk or a run
Turn on your favorite song (bonus: dance to it!)
Watch a funny show, movie, or video (just make sure you don’t inadvertently fall down the social media rabbithole, which can create a lot of stress)
Take a few minutes to meditate, or to just relax and breathe
After boosting your dopamine and serotonin in a healthier way, you’ll often find that the sugar craving reduces or completely disappears. Your brain has gotten what it needed, so that strong need for sugar is no longer there.
Reducing sugar consumption is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Try these substitutes to see whether you can reduce or even eliminate those stress-induced sugar cravings. Let me know how it goes in the comments.
If you’d like more support in this process, I offer a lot of useful tips and support inside MGS Academy. There’s also a wonderful supportive community that can help you find what will work for you. The brand-new version of the course will be opening up soon. If you want to learn more or get on the waitlist to be notified when sign-ups open, head over here.