Why You Self-Medicate With Carbs and Sugar During Depression

Woman sitting on couch eating chocolates

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It’s not unusual to crave carbs, sugar, and chocolate when you are stressed out or dealing with depression. Cravings can be your body’s way of letting you know it’s not getting something it needs, such as a specific vitamin. Having certain cravings, such as for chocolate or other sweets, is often linked to how you feel emotionally

You don’t have to completely deprive yourself of the treats you enjoy. The key is understanding why you are craving them and making sure that your overall diet is balanced and nutritious. 

Learning a little more about the connection between food and mood can empower you to control your cravings rather than letting them control you. 

Why We Get Cravings

A food craving is defined as an intense desire for a specific food. Most people experience cravings at one time or another, and there are many factors that determine their frequency and intensity. 

Common Causes of Food Cravings

Research has also shown that cravings can also be driven by memories rather than bodily cues. Consistently having a certain food at a certain time creates a mental link—you might say it almost “feeds” the craving.

For example, if you grab a snack from the vending machine at work at the same time each afternoon, your desire for the snack may be less about satisfying hunger and more out of habit

Sweets and decadent meals are often associated with vivid memories of food at social gatherings, such as holidays, parties, and family get-togethers. If you find yourself thinking about your Grandma’s molasses cookies or your mom’s famous apple pie, you may be missing them, not the food. 

It might sound like cravings are “all in your head,” but that doesn’t mean you're imagining them. In fact, they're most often based in biology.

In 2004, researchers used fMRI machines to look at people's brains as they experienced food cravings. They noticed similarities in the neuroanatomy of food-craving brains and those of people who were addicted to drugs and alcohol (who may also experience cravings for these substances).

Findings from similar studies have helped researchers understand the phenomenon of food addiction, which can be another factor if someone is experiencing persistent cravings. 

The way the mind and body (especially the gut) are connected, the mechanisms that drive hunger, as well as our unique memories, tastes, and dietary needs make food cravings very complex. 

The Serotonin Theory

One theory about food cravings involves serotonin; a neurotransmitter needed for mood regulation. Having an imbalance of serotonin in the brain contributes to the development of depression.  

When you’re craving carbs, you’ll feel like eating foods that encourage serotonin production. In a sense, eating sugary and carbohydrate-rich foods can be a way of self-medicating depression.

Research seems to support this theory: having a meal high in carbohydrates tends to raise levels of serotonin, while a high-fat, high-protein meal may reduce them.

The effect of carb cravings on low mood may be stronger when people eat food with a high glycemic index, such as candy, as these cause a higher peak in blood sugar levels. 

The Role of Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a precursor of serotonin. That means your body needs tryptophan to make serotonin. Tryptophan may also produce a calming effect through interactions that take place within the realm of the gut-brain axis.

Several studies have proposed low levels of tryptophan can increase hunger and drive food cravings, as well as contribute to symptoms of depression.

A diet with plenty of high-tryptophan foods may be helpful in boosting mood and managing cravings. Tryptophan is naturally found in protein-rich foods such as seafood, eggs, and poultry, and can also be taken in the form of a supplement.

Chocolate Cravings

Researchers have isolated certain alkaloids in chocolate that may raise the levels of serotonin in the brain. These studies have speculated that cravings for chocolate (so-called "chocoholism") may have a biological basis with serotonin deficiency being one factor.

In some cases, feeling like you need chocolate might indicate you’re not getting enough magnesium in your diet. Although chocolate (particularly dark chocolate) does contain some magnesium, nuts and legumes don’t have as much sugar and are generally more satisfying. 

Chocolate also contains “drug-like” constituents such as anandamides, caffeine, and phenylethylamine, which can wield a powerful influence on mood. People who feel addicted to chocolate may be feeling the one-two punch of chocolate and sugar, thus satisfying their need for more serotonin.

How to Cope with Food Cravings

While you might feel better at the moment, overindulging in sweets to cope with stress has long term physical consequences such as weight gain. There are also emotional consequences. Over time, a high-sugar diet may worsen symptoms of depression (especially if you tend to feel guilty about having cravings). 

There are some ways you can learn to cope not only with cravings but what is causing them. It’s important to address what’s really driving you to reach for a cookie when you’re upset so you can better care for your mind and body.  

Acknowledge Behaviors & Feelings

Practice becoming more aware of your emotional triggers for eating. The next time you pick up a "comfort food," stop and ask yourself why you're reaching for it.

Feeling sad, anxious, or lonely? Identify your feelings, then pause and reflect on the action you usually take (such as reaching for a sweet treat). Try replacing comfort food with another comforting, enjoyable activity, such as going for a walk, taking a warm bath, or curling up with a good book. 

Sometimes, you might realize that you’re not particular upset—but just bored. Eating is a physical, emotional, and often a social activity, so it makes sense to pursue it if you need some stimulation.

To break the habit, practice the same type of awareness as you do when you’re feeling down and “swap” the action of reaching for a snack for another activity. 

It can also help to make sure you always have healthy snacks on hand. That way, if you are tempted to reach for something out of boredom, you'll be less likely to pick something high in fat and sugar.

Get Active & Eat Well

If you’re working on finding new activities to replace snacking or distract you from cravings, you may want to try using the opportunity to exercise. Regular physical activity stimulates “feel-better” endorphins, which can help improve your mood. 

As you’re tuning in to your body, you may also find that there are times when you think you’re hungry, but you’re actually dehydrated! When you first feel a craving, reach for your water bottle or fill up a glass first. You may find this was just what your body needed. 

After you’ve rehydrated, check back in with your body. If you’re still feeling hungry, the next step is to pause and think about what to eat. What you’re hankering for at the moment may not be what your body really needs. 

Practice Mindfulness & Moderation

Similar to how your mind might think you’re hungry when you’re actually thirsty, the meaning of a particular craving may be more complex than it seems. This is where practicing mindfulness can be helpful.  

Sugar cravings are amplified and most intense when you’re hungry. If you go too long without a meal or a snack, your body is likely to start looking for a quick source of energy. While this might address your hunger in the immediate, you aren’t likely to stay feeling satisfied until your next meal. 

Sugar and fat stimulate hunger, making it more likely you’ll end up eating beyond the need to satisfy your craving if you reach for these foods. 

When you’re truly hungry, choose nutritious foods that will address your hunger and provide your body with the energy. If you still want dessert after a balanced meal, allow yourself a small taste. However, if you’ve had something filling and satisfying to eat, you may find you no longer want a treat.

Avoid completely deprive yourself and don’t beat yourself up if you “give in” to a craving. Focus on looking for healthier substitutes instead. For example, choose a sugar-free chocolate pudding instead of a whole bar of chocolate. Or allow yourself the dessert you really want—but only have one small portion. 

Mindful eating helps you plan meals and snacks intentionally, rather than mindlessly grazing all day. You may find it useful to keep a food journal, meal diary, or use an app to help you track.

Remember: no food is “bad” in and of itself. It’s the quantity and frequency that determine how the foods impact your overall health. 

Talk to Your Doctor

If you’ve tried addressing your cravings on your own without success, you may want to talk to your doctor. Sometimes, cravings for certain foods can be a sign of an underlying health condition. For example, you might crave certain foods if you are deficient in essential vitamins and minerals.

Medications can stimulate appetite or cause blood sugar problems, including drugs used to treat depression and bipolar disorder. Other prescription and over-the-counter medications can change your appetite as well. 

If you have constant sugar cravings, talk to your doctor about the medications you’re taking. You may be able to adjust the dose or switch to a different drug.

If not, once your doctor is on board you'll be able to work together on developing strategies for coping with cravings—and their cause.

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