We all like something sweet on occasion, that’s perfectly normal and, in moderation, sugar is an important and unavoidable part of our diet. Whilst anxiety affects everyone differently, including in the way that it physically manifests itself, an increase in craving sugary or quick-release energy foods have been reported as a physical symptom of anxiety.
As with a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety, the triggers lie within our caveman brain. This is the survival-driven part of our brain that our newer, rational cortex grew on top of. It’s primary concern is keeping us alive, so when our brain perceives a threat, it releases these stress chemicals and activates a response called the fight, flight or freeze response. The stress hormone cortisol or the chemical adrenaline are released and this puts our body on high alert, and as a result, our body prepares to either fight, flight or freeze.
Why Does Anxiety Cause You To Crave Sugar?
There are a few reasons that anxiety can cause a rise in sugar cravings, the first being that when our body is in fight, flight or freeze mode, it’s using a ton of energy. If you think about it, we’re operating on full alert when this response is activated, it’s going to take it out of you. So, when the perceived threat has passed, we feel spent so our body craves immediate energy, which normally comes in the form of processed sugar products. It’s similar to when you finish a big race and your body needs a banana or sweets to replace the energy lost in movement and sweat.
Another reason might be that your gut sends signals craving the food that you always eat. This is because you have specific microbiota or bacteria for each type of food or drink. So, if you’ve got a sweet tooth, it might be your gut microbiota pulling the strings.
Finally, it might be a comfort thing, that when you get anxious or stressed that you find sugary foods like cake or cookies comforting and relaxing. Over time, your brain will build an association between cake and feeling calm and safe, so that when you start to feel stressed, your brain will suggest that you have a slice of cake, as that’s something that’s worked for you before.
How Can I Stop This Symptom?
As with a lot of things to do with our diet, it’s the habit that we have to change. An interesting fact is that the microbiota in our gut only survives for 24 hours without sustenance, so if we can avoid that craving for a full day, we have a better chance of not craving it on a longer term basis.
The same goes for comfort food. If your brain associates a certain type of food with calmness then it’s going to take a while to unpick that habit and replace it with something a bit healthier. If you’re craving sugar, that’s okay, just maybe avoid having loads of processed sugar.
Of course, in order to prevent the symptoms of anxiety occurring in the first place, you need to manage or build strategies to tackle your anxiety. There are several options available including CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), mindfulness, medication and group therapy. If you’re unsure, please contact your GP for more information.