Caffeine: The Root Cause of Your Carbohydrate-Sugar Cravings?
We have all heard that there’s such thing as ‘too much of a good thing’, but I bet you wouldn’t correlate your daily cups of zing to your intense PM cravings, would you?
While we make that first cup of coffee in the morning or pick one up along the way, we may not think that this could be the reason we are overeating later in the afternoon; and maybe that first cup isn’t the trigger. It’s when we reach for that second, third or even that fourth cup that can turn our cortisol levels haywire and crave not just carbohydrate or sugar-laden foods, but overdo our food and beverage consumption altogether.
Caffeine gives us perceived energy because it actually blocks adenosine receptors, which are chemicals responsible for making us feel sleepy. Adenosine also helps us taste sweet flavors. So, if you’re craving something around 3pm pacing your office cafeteria for something yummy, this doesn’t just have to do with lack of willpower. Caffeine literally makes you crave sweets more strongly. Once that cup of coffee wears off, adenosine comes rushing back in, causing a rebound effect.
The last thing I wanted to do was give up coffee in recent months and contrary to what I thought, I found myself to be way less hungry, way more even-keeled and even, do I dare say, more productive. This has to do with what coffee does to your palate and what caffeine does to your cortisol. Let’s take a closer look!
Cortisol, Cycles and Spikes!
Your body reads each cup of coffee as encountering a stressful situation. It puts your adrenal glands into fight or flight mode releasing cortisol and adrenaline. That means each time you’re consuming caffeine, you’re preparing for a small (1-2 cups) to large (3+ cups) catastrophe that never comes. Interestingly enough, there have been studies that show daily consumption of coffee or caffeine actually builds a tolerance to caffeine on a daily basis rather than consuming occasionally. In other words, consuming caffeine only occasionally increased cortisol across the day rather than consuming caffeine on a daily basis. While this may sound that your body is better off having coffee everyday, research shows that your adrenal glands’ ability to respond and secrete the proper level of hormones back to baseline, diminish overtime.1 This is when you start carb-craving.
Once upon a time, your grande or vente starbucks latte may have made you feel like you were on top of the world! Focusing, exercising efficiently, endless productivity, you name it. But then gradually, it gets harder and harder to produce what you need to counteract all of that caffeine, your liver takes a hit and you wind up reaching for the cookie at 3pm. Or pizza at happy hour or that extra margarita. Overeating later at dinner. Dehydrated. Tossing in your sleep.
Oh yes…. Sleep!
Not only does caffeine perpetuate cravings, it disrupts your circadian sleep cycle. Caffeine enters the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine and can have a stimulating effect as soon as 15 minutes after it is consumed. It’s also wiping out iron stores, tryptophan and serotonin levels. Once it’s in the body, caffeine persists for several hours; it takes about 6 hours for one half of the caffeine to be eliminated from your body. Depending on your chemistry, this amount that is eliminated and time duration that it takes can vary. Think about if you’re having 3 cups a day (300+ mg of caffeine), your last one being at 3pm; at 3am, you’re still detoxing in your sleep. Wondering why you’re waking up in the middle of the night, frequently? Cut down on your caffeine, for sure. Even cutting one cup, particularly that afternoon cup, could do wonders for your sleep and overall cognitive function over time; cravings will diminish, metabolism will regulate itself back to normal and cortisol will level out to baseline leaving you less stressed and/or brain-fogged.2
Getting your dopamine back!
There is no doubt that caffeine can have great physical and cognitive benefits and even bring joy to your daily routine! Not an easy thing to kick. Don’t forget that caffeine is the number one drug in the US. Your dopamine receptors and neurotransmitters are literally screaming for that caffeine fix when you don’t have it. Rebalancing particular amino acids such as tyrosine, GABA, phenylalanine, l-glutamine and l-tryptophan can help rebalance your brain chemistry and ease the shift when weaning off of caffeine. Switching to green tea or matcha tea can help, but it is still caffeine, even though it’s significantly lower in caffeine (35 – 55mg) per 8oz cup. I don’t particularly recommend cutting things out cold turkey as it could have a more detoxifying effect on the body than titrating down slowly. For instance, I was an Americano gal (and probably always will be at heart!). Having two a day was wreaking havoc on my nervous system and my energy. By cutting out the second one for two weeks, and then gradually to one espresso shot during the third or fourth week, I feel so much better, sleep better and my cravings have diminished dramatically. Still have that little shot to go! I tell you what’s helped, an amazing caffeine-free substitute over here in Denver, CO that are sold online; Golden Root Turmeric Latte sachets with a pinch of steamed organic coconut milk. It’s a blend of simple, yet potent spices such as turmeric, sea salt, ginger and cayenne with a little non-dairy coconut creamer included giving it just the right punch and creaminess with great antioxidant benefits. Of course this alone and herbal teas or even chicory root, which has a similar taste to coffee are also wonderful alternatives.
If nothing else, cravings don’t have to be such a battle. Try out lowering or eliminating caffeine altogether as a test experiment! I know your liver, wasitline and hormonal health will be very happy with you.
- WR Lovallo, TL Whitsett, M al’Absi. Psychosomatic Medicine. Caffeine stimulation of cortisol secretion across the waking hours in relation to caffeine intake levels. 2005.
- National Sleep Foundation. Caffeine and Sleep. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/caffeine-and-sleep
Natalie Steiner is a Clinical Nutritionist, MSc and certified as a Corporate Wellness Consultant from the Corporate Health & Wellness Association. She combines 20 years of corporate experience with holistic health practices to help improve the well-being of professionals and organizations. You can learn more about Natalie and her Corporate Wellness Practice at www.nataliesteiner.com and connect with her on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.