sugar cravings

Most of us crave sugar or salty foods when we are stressed.  Some have been stress baking during these unprecedented times so there is some merit to ‘stressed’ being ‘desserts’ backward.  Some are probably loving this period working from home and sleeping + relaxing while others are feeling the financial stress, emotional stress, anxiety/depressed mood, stress of homeschooling kids and the uncertainty of not knowing when to go back to work/school.

When we are exposed to stress – any kind such as physiological stress like inflammation, a surgery’s toll on the body, or emotional stress – the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in our bodies gets activated. The hypothalamus and pituitary organs are located in the brain while the adrenal glands sit on top of our kidneys (the hat to the kidney).  This HPA axis is responsible for regulating our reaction to stress through feedback mechanisms and plays a role in our digestion, immune function, sleep, mood, weight gain, and other hormonal imbalances.

Under normal circumstances, we need to be able to produce a sufficient level of cortisol to help us get through the day but the production gets increased during times of stress.  It is protective to regulate our immune system, inflammation, and other body processes.  Normally, cortisol is highest in the first hour or two upon waking to give us the energy to get out of bed and then gradually declines over the course of the day and is the lowest at night to help us go to sleep.

The Stress Response

The three stages to the stress response has been coined “The General Adaptation Syndrome” by Dr. Hans Selye, MD.  After the initial exposure to a stressful situation, we enter the ‘alarm’ phase.  This is the immediate activation of our sympathetic or “fright or flight” nervous system releasing adrenaline – our heart rates goes up, blood pressure goes up, and the body is preparing to flee from the stressful situation. The anxiety may kick in and that initial reduced "on-edge" response to the stressor feeling occurs.  After a few minutes, the brain tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol (glucocorticoid – blood sugar hormone), aldosterone (sodium and water balance hormone), and DHEA. Over time with chronic elevation of cortisol, DHEA may decrease resulting in a drop in testosterone.

The second stage is the resistance phase.  This is when your body adapts to the stressor with elevated cortisol and the adrenaline levels wll decrease.  The body is coping with the stressor on hand.

The third stage is known as the exhaustion phase when cortisol levels cannot keep up due to chronic stress or an ‘exhausted’ firing of the HPA axis and levels drop – the adaptation or coping phase is lost.

Right now many of us during these crazy times are probably moving into the resistance phase finding we are coping with the situation.  This is the time to take action and work on lowering your stress, calming the mind before we exhaust the production of cortisol, and come out of this feeling depleted and exhausted.

General Adaptation Syndrome

General Adaptation Syndrome and the symptoms at each stage

Cortisol's Impact On The Body

Blood Sugar

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid meaning it helps increase blood sugar to help get blood sugar to our muscles for energy during times of stress – a reason why we may crave sweet foods. This increase in blood sugar will also increase insulin levels and over prolonged periods may lead to insulin resistance and high blood sugar (along with high triglycerides and high cholesterol).

Melatonin and Sleep

Cortisol suppresses our melatonin levels – the substance made in our brain that helps us get that good night’s sleep. It’s no wonder that cortisol levels are highest in the day and drop at night while melatonin has the opposite pattern. Melatonin has also shown to have a lot of antioxidant properties. Too much cortisol can also affect memory and create feelings of brain fog.


Increased cortisol production and sympathetic nervous system activation decrease vagus nerve stimulation in the gut affecting digestion (more gas, bloating, constipation/diarrhea) – no wonder we don’t feel like eating when we are stressed out.


Don’t forget that cortisol also impacts your thyroid hormones and can decrease thyroid hormone production as well making you feel colder than usual, worsening the low energy, and more. For more information on thyroid health, read the post here.
Read thyroid post here

Immune and Inflammation

Cortisol is also necessary to suppress inflammation and why MDs will prescribe corticosteroids for asthma, autoimmune conditions, and transplants or whenever they want to suppress inflammation in the body such as hydrocortisone creams for eczema. This means that when our cortisol is high, it will suppress aspects of the immune system that can help with fighting infection. We do need some cortisol to keep inflammation in check but too much and too little cortisol which will lead to an increase or a dysregulated inflammatory response.


Between the sympathetic nervous system and adrenaline secretion affecting our anxiety and mood and cortisol’s effect on lowering serotonin (happy neurotransmitter), this is one of the mechanisms that feelings of stress may make us feel sad, depressed, unmotivated, and anxious. Another reason we crave sweets is that glucose and insulin have a role in making serotonin - the reason why we crave carbs when we are feeling low.


The other big thing, is its effect on our sex hormones lowering our libido and sexual desire. In females, it can affect our monthly flow! Ladies, have you ever noticed that your miss a period or your period is later than usual or maybe it’s one of the worst periods ever when you are stressed out? That’s because when we are experiencing stress, our hypothalamus in the brain is communicating to our pituitary gland and telling it to produce more hormone to stimulate the HPA axis to increase cortisol and reducing the amount of FSH and LH that is made which may decrease ovarian follicle growth and/or stop ovulation. Our progesterone levels drop also and we can end up in an estrogen dominant situation which can lead to heavier, clotted flow, more cramping and mood shifts. If your period was not on time in the last couple of months, maybe the stress surrounding this current pandemic situation might be responsible. If you deal with chronic stress and/or irregular cycles, we can figure out what your hormonal picture look like and where we need to work on balance.

Tips To Lower Your Cortisol

  • Have a regular bedtime routine because a good night’s sleep can regulate cortisol levels
  • Reduce screens and blue light 2 hours before bed to keep melatonin production optimal
  • Don’t have caffeine later in the day so you can get a good night’s sleep
  • Meditation, light exercise, yoga, dance to calm the mind can help modulate your cortisol levels.  Intense exercise can raise cortisol levels
  • Wake up to bright light or sunlight to promote your cortisol awakening response and give you great energy in the morning
  • Anything you need right now to lower your stress levels and find calm in the storm
  • Try not to eat too much sugar as it will affect your blood sugar regulation which will in turn, affect your cortisol levels.
  • Eating healthy fats and protein and more fibrous carbohydrates can help in regulating blood sugar levels and thus insulin levels
  • Take adaptogens (adrenal modulating herbs for modulating cortisol) after consulting with a naturopathic doctor in your area



  1. Selye, H, MD, Ph.D, D.Sc, FRSC.  Stress and the general adaptation syndrome.  J British Med.  1950 June 17; 1383-1392.
  2. Rocky Mountain Analytical.  Adrenal Function Information for Patients handout.  Calgary, AB.  July 2018.

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