Humans are practically born craving sugar. In fact, some research shows that infants and children all over the world prefer sweet tastes from birth. No one’s to blame here: Sugar is delicious and our brains run on glucose, the simple sugar derived from carbohydrates. It only makes sense that we dig dessert.
That said, there’s a difference between hankering for some cake here or there and craving sugar around the clock. If you’ve noticed you seem to want something sweet, like, ALL the time, it may be a subtle signal from your body that something’s not quite right.
Here’s a look at various reasons you might be dreaming of pastries 24/7, plus simple steps to turn down the volume on intrusive sugar cravings.
1. Your Blood Sugar Is Out of Balance
Your body has a way of telling you what it needs, and sometimes what it needs is actually (surprise!) more sugars. “Low blood sugar levels can certainly cause cravings for high-sugar foods,” confirms dietitian Amanda Lane, M.S., R.D., C.D.C.E.S., founder of Healthful Lane Nutrition. Though this is especially important for people with diabetes, they’re not the only ones who can experience periodic episodes of low blood sugar. Waiting too long between meals, putting in an intense workout, and even being out and about in excessive heat and humidity can throw anyone’s blood sugars out of whack.
To get your blood sugar back in the black, Lane recommends keeping healthy snacks that are balanced with protein, fat, and carbohydrates handy. Though the sugar cravings may drive you to grab something sweet or carby, opting for fruit with nuts or cheese, for example, is a better bet for balanced blood sugar than simply munching on fruit alone.
Some other options to consider include an apple with peanut butter, a small turkey sandwich, or Greek yogurt and berries.
2. You’re Fatigued
Doesn’t it seem like it’s always after a poor night’s sleep that you can’t stop thinking about the Snickers bar in the office vending machine? Research shows there are several reasons for the sleep-sweets connection. For starters, being sleep deprived has a tendency to make you hungrier in general. And then there’s the fact that, when you’re tired, you have less dietary restraint—because c’mon, you’re exhausted!
Beyond these factors, there’s an even more intriguing reason why being tired might make you crave sweets. According to 2019 research from Northwestern University, losing sleep influences the neural pathways that process smell. In an experiment of 25 healthy subjects, those who had four hours of sleep followed their noses to sweeter, more calorie-dense foods than those who had gotten a good night’s rest.
Thankfully, following a healthy sleep hygiene routine might be all it takes to quell next-day sweets cravings. These tactics can help you score quality sleep, even in times of stress (when falling—and staying—asleep often suffers).
3. Your Hormones Are In Flux
For some women, a hankering for sweets is just another part of the PMS experience. “During the menstrual cycle, hormones fluctuate—and these fluctuations play a role in sugar cravings increasing for many women,” says naturopathic doctor Louise Westra, M.S., N.D.
According to Westra, fast-paced changes to women’s delicate balance of hormones (including drops in estrogen, progesterone, and serotonin) that occur before menstruation can leave women craving sugar before or during their time of the month. The reason? “Carbohydrates (a.k.a. sugars) help increase levels of serotonin and fight cortisol production, making you feel comforted and happier,” she says.
While female reproductive hormones may be the most common culprits behind endocrine-related sugar yearnings, they’re not the only ones. “Another hormone that plays a role in sugar cravings is cortisol,” Westra says. “This stress hormone heavily influences our blood sugar.” Given that, it’s no wonder feeling stressed out has you running for the pantry. Sure, managing stress is easier said than done, but a bit of mindfulness or other stress-reduction practices can certainly help take the intensity—and the cravings!—down a notch. Get started with these easy ways to add meditation to your day.
4. You Have an Overgrowth of Bad Gut Bacteria
The more we learn about the gut microbiome (the sum of trillions of bacteria in your GI tract), the more it seems it can influence just about any area of health. It appears this mini-universe of gut bugs could even impact your appetite. “Some gut bacteria can manufacture special proteins (called peptides) that are very similar to hormones that regulate hunger,” says Westra. “This raises the possibility that our microbes may be able to influence our eating behavior directly.” Potential evidence for this: Some research shows that people who crave chocolate have different microbial byproducts in their urine than those of so-called ‘chocolate-indifferent’ folks.
Though research is still ongoing here, it seems excess Candida bacteria may be tied up in sugar cravings, along with lower amounts of beneficial Bifidobacteria, according to Westra. People with increased appetites in general (as well as higher body mass) also seem to have increased levels of Staphylococcus, Enterobacteriaceae, and Escherichia coli species in their microbiome, she adds.
Without a clinical test, it’s tough to truly know whether your microbiome is the culprit here. However, if you’re experiencing lots of sugar cravings, it’s worth talking to your healthcare provider about whether your gut might be out-of-whack—and what you can do to support balance.
5. You Have A Regular Sweets Routine
Do your cravings seem to hit at the same time each day—say, mid-afternoon or before bed? And (be honest) do you usually make a beeline for something sweet without a second thought? If so, you may have inadvertently trained yourself to crave sweets.
“Habits can certainly create associations with sugary foods,” says Lane. If you always eat dessert after dinner, for example, going without it a few nights in a row might feel like deprivation. Still, with a little emotional work, it is possible to break a sugar habit that’s not serving you. “One way to break this type of cycle is to reflect on what about that habit or event you enjoy,” Lane says. “If it’s meeting up with friends or spending time as a family for dinner, then try to find something else to do together, like go for a walk or play a game.” The more you add these and other uplifting activities to the parts of your day when cravings often strike, the sweeter life will be—without the need for extra sugar.