While there are a multitude of factors that play into what we crave, and what we consume, understanding the role your gut health plays can be helpful if you’re finding yourself falling off the healthy eating track come 3pm.
Research continues to support the theory that the unique population of bacteria that live in our intestinal tract - also known as the gut microbiome, may be partly responsible should you crave sugary foods and drinks.
Sara Knight, naturopath at the Gut Clinic, explains how our gut microbiome may be behind it – and what you can do about it.
The battle within the gut microbiome
The key is to understand that there is a multitude of different kinds of bacteria in our gut, and each kind or species of bacteria prefer certain types of foods over others – some preferring carbohydrates and sugars, whilst others prefer fats.
The microbiome is all about competition and survival; their very survival depends on getting their preferred foods, at the expense of their neighbour. This means the various bacteria will constantly compete for resources and space. And they’ll do whatever it takes to win.
How do they do this?
The gut and the brain are connected via the vagus nerve, which is actually a collection of nerves that allow communication between the gut and the brain. Bacteria utilise this communication pathway by producing toxins that promote feelings of unwell or low mood. In this instance, these feelings or mood are improved by eating the sugar, which then halts the production of toxins by the bacteria.
Another way that microbes may influence our food preference is by altering receptors throughout the gut. For example, those microbes may prefer sugar and they can then cause the body to increase the number of sweet receptors through the gut. Which then lead to craving more sugar as the increase number of receptors usually translates to a greater desire for these foods.
Bacteria also influence neurotransmitter synthesis. Low GABA levels can translate to sugar cravings. Certain bacteria can help produce GABA so a low concentration of these bacteria means lower levels of GABA and increase in sugar cravings.
Because our gut microbiome is constantly changing in response to the foods we eat, certain medications, and our overall health, it’s fair to say nurture plays a role.
A diet high in sugar can create a snowball effect where it boosts the population of sugar-loving bacteria, which in turn then have more ‘soldiers’ in their army to fight for more sugar.
How to win over your sweet tooth
The bacteria in your gut are just one, albeit critical, piece of the puzzle when looking at how to manage sugar cravings.
Look at the whole picture of what is happening for you when you crave sugar, as this will help you redress the balance.
If you crave sugar at 3pm, then this can mean not enough protein in your breakfast, and you are using sugar to help you deal with a low mood or fatigue, or it may be a habit – perhaps you get a side of office gossip and camaraderie with your choccie cake.
Seeing sugar cravings as a symptom rather than the cause means you can implement sustainable changes leading to better gut, and therefore overall, health.
Once you’ve looked at your triggers, you can come with a plan to tackle them. For example, adequate protein intake is good for both energy and mood which can mean fewer cravings. A diverse intake of colourful vegetables and fruits increases your nutrient intake which can mean less cravings. Certain nutrients and herbs can help so getting professional help is a good idea.
Prebiotic and probiotic foods will also help. The greater the diversity and health of the gut microbiome, the less influence any one species, say the sugar loving ones, will have on the body. Onions, garlic, asparagus, yoghurt, kombucha, kefirs, sauerkrauts can all help to contribute to a healthy gut microbiome.