Mar - Apr 2011

The Mind Behind the Craving

By Michael Parish, PsyD

 

A craving can range from a yearning as subtle as a whisper to one as powerful as a tidal wave. While our experiences with cravings are quite personal, common definitions include: "hunger, ache, hurting, longing, thirst or passion." A craving can also be a reaction to specific events. We can experience a craving when we are celebrating or have come to associate a specific food with a special event or person.
 
Cravings are an especially common reaction to feelings of sadness and anxiety and they have also been associated with disordered sleep patterns. Cravings are often related to well entrenched bad eating habits caused by repeatedly turning to a specific food whenever one feels hungry. While there does not appear to be any major difference in the level of craving between men and women, one study suggests that women experience negative feelings during a craving, while for men, cravings are associated with positive feelings. But with both men and women, cravings are linked with actual hunger less than 40% of the time.
 
A recent study has found that (at least in rats) high sugar intake can result in physical and behavioral dependence, not unlike addictions to alcohol or drugs. In this study, the rats were fed diets high in sugar. When these diets were withdrawn, the rats demonstrated symptoms quite similar to addicts experiencing symptoms of withdrawal. These symptoms include heightened levels of anxiety that, in turn, spark a craving for more sugar. The sugar is craved, in part, because it is the building block of the "feel good" neurotransmitters in the brain. Eating more sugar reduces discomfort and promotes calm…and the addictive cycle continues.
 
Cravings can have both physical and psychological components. Some craving can be treated pharmacologically through consultation with your physician. For the more emotional or addictive aspects of cravings, a broad spectrum of interventions may be helpful, ranging from individual or group therapy, to getting involved in a recovery program. Remember, no craving lasts forever; each has a beginning, middle and an end. We just need to find the support to get through the next episode, ONE CRAVING AT A TIME!