Cravings are both behavioral and biochemical and learning how to stop cravings requires understanding both. First, it is useful to distinguish what we mean by a craving. Where as hunger is felt in the gut, cravings are felt in the head. You can be stuffed in the gut, but still have cravings for food in the head.
Have you ever eaten a full meal and felt stuffed, but still had an unrelenting urge to get dessert? That’s a craving. What about eating when you are bored? That’s a craving too.
The science of cravings
Cravings develop out of an expectation or “want” in the brain and are associated with the primitive reward centers of our brains. You can think of us humans as having one brain, but two minds. One of our minds is the unconscious mind that is driven by habit, routine, and the avoidance of pain as well as the seeking of pleasure. The other mind is the conscious mind that is driven by logic, is goal oriented, and directive.
Our unconscious mind is normally where cravings come from. Often these cravings are built from habits. A habit develops due to a repeated behavior at a particular time. The series of events that define a habit are often referred to as a habit loop. You can remember the habit loop by the three Rs (reminder, routine, reward). There is a reminder event followed by a repeated routine which ends with a particular reward. And when this sequence (reminder, reward, routine) is repeated over and over, a craving develops, and that craving then ensures the routine will be repeated next time.
Here is an example. You go to see a movie. That is the reminder. Your brain is reminded that you are at the movies and when at the movies you get popcorn. There is then a routine. You walk to the concession counter and order a large popcorn with butter and a soda then go sit and watch the movie munching the whole time. And the reward is? That is the hard part and not always easy to define. Is it relaxation and fun at the movies? Until of course you realize gorging yourself on two of the most unhealthy items on the planet did not make you feel so hot, and you are no longer relaxed, feel sick, and guilty on top of it. This is the game the mind plays on you. The craving and the habit wrongly convince you this is something you like, but in the end it may actually not provide the reward you were really seeking.
You may find this whole thing a cruel trick the brain plays on you, but it is only doing what it learned to do during the millions of years of human evolution where food was not so plentiful and this habit loop ensured survival.
The biochemistry of cravings
People often talk about cravings as if they are strictly biochemical. They are both behavioral and biochemical and to truly fight them you need an approach that addresses both. Now you know a little bit about the behavioral reminders that can trigger cravings. You also know that your repeated engagement in the routine continues to feed the cravings. But what about the biochemical aspect?
There are two very important biochemical occurrences related to cravings. First is the chemical dopamine. It is the brain chemical of desire and is flooded in the brain when seeking and finding pleasure. It is a powerful motivator in this regard. The second is stress hormones. They too are involved in cravings. Dopamine provides the feeling of desire, and the stress hormones initiate the feeling of anxiety or uneasiness that push you to take action and seek out the item you want.
If you have ever been able to get centered and mindful during a craving, you will feel a sense of want and desire (dopamine) along with a sense of anxiety/urgency (stress hormones). And the stress hormones play a key role because these hormones have been shown to shut off the motivating and goal oriented parts of the brain while simultaneously activating the more primitive reward centers. In other words, stress hormones like cortisol/catecholamines may actually make you less motivated and more likely to seek out comfort foods, increasing your desire for salty, sugary, and fatty foods. And this is why we often feel under a spell when cravings hit and powerless to stop them despite the fact that we really, really, really want to stick to our goals. Stress hormones literally hijack the self-control centers of your brain.
The Fix for cravings
But you are not completely powerless. It turns out that knowing what is going on and more importantly catching it while it happens is the key. The way to attack cravings has several parts.
- Pay Attention. Recognize the craving when it occurs, which often means recognizing and paying very close attention to the environmental reminders that trigger your habits and have caused the cravings to develop. Some of these are the return home from work, the turning on of the TV, the sitting down at a restaurant, Friday night out with friends, the smell of doughnuts, seeing a friend eating a biscuit, an emotional day at work, a poor nights sleep, etc.
- Hack the habit. Once you realize the habit and the craving it has created, try to pinpoint the reward you are really after. Once you do, find a way to eliminate the trigger and/or change the routine so that the reward is the same but a craving develops for something else. Here is an example. Let’s say you return home from work and you have that combination of expectation, desire and anxiety that reminds you a craving has just been triggered. Now, realize what the real reward is that you are after. Is it relaxation? So instead of pouring a glass of wine and eating a wheel of cheese and a box of crackers (which in the end is anything but relaxing), draw a hot bath, light some candles, and take 30 minutes away from the world (a new routine). Do this new routine over and over until a new craving develops.
- Balance the brain. In addition to covering the behavioral aspects of cravings, you can also work to adjust the biochemistry of cravings. This means raising dopamine (and other brain chemicals) and doing things to lower stress hormones. Three of the most beneficial things we have found clinically to do this are cocoa powder, branched chain amino acids (BCAA), and the amino acids tyrosine and 5HTP in a 10 to 1 ratio. All three have unique mechanisms to shut down cravings from the biochemical end. When this is combined with the behavioral component, you have a devastatingly effective solution to craving control.
Practicing controlling cravings
OK, so here is how to develop your craving strategy. The most difficult aspect is starting. The truth is you need practice. It is not easy at all to interrupt the automatic mind. To do this you need to start practicing attention and mindfulness. Research has shown that people who meditate are some of the best at being able to interrupt the automatic behaviors and thought processes of the mind and catch their craving triggers.
Those who meditate are able to do this because they train their brains to notice and catch the reminders, routines, and rewards that create cravings. And once you are able to notice what is happening, you can start to develop strategies to intervene. It’s like that old saying, “knowing is half the battle.”
Here is a complete craving strategy in more detail:
Step 1. Start noticing your cravings and paying close attention to them. This takes time and practice but provides a huge payoff as you master it. In the beginning just watch and pay attention, don’t react, don’t judge, and avoid feeling guilty. This is critical. Work on catching yourself as the habit trigger hits. Notice the feelings and urges as the routine ensues. Get very clear on what is happening. Stay with the feeling before, during, and after everything plays out. In this stage do nothing but pay attention.
Ask yourself, what was the reward you were seeking? Did the routine actually deliver on that reward? As an example, let’s say you drink two glasses of wine whenever you come home from work. Ask yourself, “Did the two glasses of wine actually relax me, or did they in reality cause me to feel guilty, not sleep well, and end up causing the opposite of what I was really after?”
This first stage is critical because it allows you to observe the unconscious mind at work. And the more you notice this unconscious process, the more conscious it becomes, and the more likely you can intentionally interrupt it. The act of being mindful or paying attention is all that is required in the beginning. I advise my patients to set an “attention cue”, something that reminds them to stop and pay attention. The best time to set these cues is during the transition times of where habits normally happen. For example, if you are someone who overeats every time you sit down at a meal, then set your “attention cue” before every meal. Notice the food. Smell it. Pay attention to the feelings and urges you are experiencing. As you eat, notice the tastes and textures. Put your fork down between bites to focus on your chewing and “watch” what unfolds.
Step 2. Once you have become mindful and have gotten skilled at recognizing the environmental reminders that trigger your habits and cravings, now you can intervene. Work at finding ways to avoid these triggers, or construct new routines so that new cravings are developed overtime. This works only if you get very clear on what the reward is that you’re actually after. This strategy of re-engineering existing habits with replacement habits is what we call habit hacking. However, this step only works when you have learned to recognize the habits that lead to cravings. For an example of this, check out our blog on habit hacking.
Step 3. Since the first two steps can take time, it is wise to have some short term measures in place that can lessen the impact of the biochemical aspects of cravings. If we can do other things that raise dopamine in the brain and deliver that “pleasure” as well as lower the stress hormone component, we make it far less likely to fall prey to cravings. Cocoa powder is a wonderful asset in this regard since it raises dopamine and serotonin, two brain chemicals that when low are believed to be involved in cravings. For more on this brain/biochemistry aspect of cravings check out this blog on brain and cravings.
Step 4. The final step is to realize that cravings are closely linked to stress, and stress has a major influence on metabolism. Because of this, cravings can be used as a biofeedback tool that is useful in helping you understand how your metabolism is functioning. Low blood sugar, too much or not enough exercise, missing meals or eating too many meals, sleep deprivation, and other lifestyle factors can impact cravings.
Always check in and ask yourself how have your cravings been? I have my patients assess cravings, along with hunger and energy, on a one to ten scale with one being low and ten being high. Obviously, you want cravings to remain low, preferably less than 5. If this is not the case, then it is an indication the diet and exercise regime a person is on is NOT sustainable. Understanding this allows manipulation of several factors to correct this and turn short-term weight loss into long-term fat loss. You can read more on how this is done in my blog on the metabolic formula.
There you go, everything you ever wanted to know about cravings. Let me know what your major craving challenges are and how these tools have helped.
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