When you’re curled up in bed with a runny nose, ever find yourself craving a sweet treat to make yourself feel better? Turns out there’s reason for that. Here, Associate Professor Hayley O’Neill from Bond University delves into the science behind your sugar rush.
Picture this: you’re snuggled up on the couch, tissues in hand, and the telltale signs of a cold creeping in. Amid battling the sniffles, a peculiar urge emerges – a craving for snacks. Even though illness often suppresses appetite, the appeal for sugary indulgences and carb-loaded comfort foods can be undeniable.
So, why is it that during such times, cravings for sugary indulgences and carb-loaded comfort foods like chocolate become irresistible?
Food cravings involve a complex interplay of emotions, behaviours, thoughts, and physiological responses.
These cravings can stem from the body’s need for quick energy or the mind’s search for momentary comfort, and our internal systems collaborate to shape these desires.
Let’s delve into the scientific intricacies that underlie why our bodies tend to crave sugar and carbs—especially during illness.
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The immune system and sugar
When illness hits, our immune system activates, demanding extra energy to fight off intruders.
The state of sickness inherently inflicts stress upon the body. This stress response entails an elevation in „fight or flight“ hormones such as cortisol, primed to ransack energy stores and elevate blood glucose to meet increased demands. Sugar and carbs offer rapid energy, fulfilling this heightened requirement.
One key player in the cravings narrative is ghrelin, often called the hunger hormone. Originating in the stomach, ghrelin’s role is to signal to the brain when it’s time to eat.
When illness strikes, the body’s metabolic demands escalate as it combats invaders and initiates healing. This elevation prompts a rise in ghrelin levels, urging the consumption of additional calories – that’s why you might find yourself turning to chocolate or other sweet treats when you’re feeling unwell.
The brain’s reward system: sweet comfort
The brain’s reward system plays a pivotal role in our connection to craving sugary foods, especially when illness strikes. Glucose, our brain’s primary energy source, takes centre stage, rapidly entering through sugary and carb-rich choices.
The problem with sugar cravings
So, if the body is craving energy and eating sugar releases feel-good hormones, it must be fine to give into those sugar cravings, right? Not so much.
A diet rich in refined sugars lacks essential nutrients, risks malnutrition, and also elevates the risk of oxidative stress, inflammation, infection and susceptibility to various diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, dementia, and depression.
In addition to effects on appetite, ghrelin also plays a role in the immune system via promoting anti-inflammatory effects and reducing inflammation. However consuming large amounts of sugar actually does the opposite – bolstering inflammation especially in the gut, which means the gherkin can’t do its job.
Sugar rush: short-lived satisfaction and fatigue
The notion of a sustained ‘sugar rush’ providing enduring energy is a common misconception, but reality paints a different picture. A sugar rush may briefly elevate energy levels, but this is often followed by a slump.
A recent review of scientific evidence reveals that consuming carbohydrates doesn’t yield a lasting mood uplift. In fact, carbohydrates may lead to lower alertness and increased fatigue within an hour after consumption.
While sugar can provide momentary relief, particularly in cases of depression or seasonal affective disorder, relying on it for consistent mood enhancement may prove counterproductive in the long run.
4 tips to curb sugar cravings and boost immunity
Cravings can be tricky to curb, as the very nature of them means they’re overwhelming and hard to resist. Leading a balanced diet also means that it’s okay to indulge every now and then.
However, when it comes to sugar, it is particularly important to practice moderation, given the aforementioned side effects of increased consumption.
Here are some tips for curbing sugar cravings, so you can eat mindfully.
#1. Fibre Intake: Aim for 25–35 g/day of fibre to reduce inflammation, enhance gut health, and reduce appetite. Include lentils, beans, and vegetable soups in your diet.
#2. Choose wisely: Opt for minimally processed, low glycaemic index foods to mitigate cell damage, inflammation, and oxidative stress.
#3. Increase antioxidants and phytonutrients: These compounds combat inflammation and safeguard cells. Beta-carotene-rich foods like sweet potatoes and vitamin C sources such as peppers, oranges, and strawberries are excellent choices.
#4. Essential vitamins and minerals: Incorporate vitamins (A, C, D, E, B6, B12) and minerals into your diet to bolster immunity, regulate inflammation, and aid antibody formation.
If you are finding it challenging to maintain a balanced diet during illness, seek guidance from a healthcare professional to ensure you are meeting your nutritional requirements.