Stress and Sugar Cravings

Everyone has experienced, at least once in their life, that impulse to eat a bunch of chocolate during a stressful situation or when they’re feeling sad or anxious. There are good reasons for this!

With stress, the body’s energy demands increase dramatically. To replenish our reserves quickly, eating rapid sugars and carbohydrates can be an efficient solution. The high cortisol levels released during stress, combined with high insulin levels, may be responsible for making us choosing this specific type of food when we’re in this state of alert.

Ingesting a sugar-rich food improves our mood and alleviates the anxiety associated with stress. That’s because it increases our serotonin levels, which can be lowered by stress. Interestingly, animal studies demonstrate that there are gender-related differences for the long-term consumption of a sugar-rich diet: in female rats, sugar mostly affects mood, while in male rats will mostly have an anxiolytic effect.

An early indication of anxiety and/or other stress-related symptoms is a craving for sugar, sweets, chocolate, and high carb foods.

Additionally, an anticipatory stress response (‘rumination’), when repeated or prolonged, can be as harmful as a truly stressful situation, leading to the same negative effects and behaviours.

Eating patterns that lead us to overeat palatable food (high fat, high sugar) release rewarding brain molecules, including endorphins and dopamine, generating features similar to addictive behaviours. Moreover, sugar is highly addictive and stress is an important factor in the development of addiction.

The more we are stressed, the more we crave sugary foods; in turn, this can make us more anxious and depressed, and less resistant to stress. A vicious circle arises, our gut bacteria will be disrupted and lead to a ‘leaky gut’ with increased intestinal permeability, increased inflammation and eventually the loss of good nutrients like vitamins and minerals.

The gut-brain axis, already altered by chronic stress, will be aggravated even more by the inflammatory state promoted by sugar.

So the next time you feel tempted to eat multiple bowls of ice cream or an entire bar of chocolate in the middle of the night, remember that it could be a signal that you need to manage your stress better. And if you’re thinking, ‘Me, stressed? I’m just super busy’, think again. Why not try a 10-minute meditation session (or any other way of relieving stress that you prefer) and accept the challenge to do it consistently for several days (for example, 5 consecutive days of daily meditation sessions can be enough to see modifications in some brain areas).

And when you have a tough day, you might want to keep your sugar intake under control and avoid foods high in carbohydrates. Choose dark chocolate or fruit instead of a Mars bar or other industrial junk food, very high in sugar and fats. And if you feel like you’re in a spiral where you crave sugar every single day, remember that sugar’s boomerang effect can turn against you and make your life harder during prolonged periods of stress.

There are numerous positive stress management techniques that you can practice. Then you’ll keep the pleasure of a little bit of dark chocolate with none of the guilt and definitely less risk for uncontrolled sugar cravings!



Medical Doctor, CEO & co-founder of Akesio