The Terrifying Link Between Your Sugar Cravings and Hormones
Sugar is a long-standing villain in the western diet.
With a strong correlation linking excessive sugar intake from refined carbohydrate foods with weight gain, obesity, and increased chronic disease risk, it’s no wonder.
Still, sugary treats continue to fly off the shelves.
Even foods marketed as “healthy” options continue to sneak in added sugars to their ingredients list making it more difficult for consumers to make the right choice.
Sugar has been described to have addictive properties due to its psychological effects but that’s not all.
A diet high in sugar has also been shown to impact our hormone levels which can result in sugar cravings.
Hormonal imbalances can also affect your appetite and induce sugar cravings on their own.
This can result in an unfavorable effect on our metabolism that can increase our waistline and our health risk if we don’t make some adjustments soon.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at sugar and hormones and how they affect each other.
Sugar and Insulin: The Trouble with Sugar
A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates is not just a precursor to putting on weight, it’s a precursor to hormonal imbalance.
These fluctuations in hormones and blood sugar levels can cause negative side effects.
Insulin is a hormone released by the islet cells in our pancreas that helps to regulate our metabolism of macronutrients.
These are our carbohydrates, fats, and proteins from the foods we eat.
The action of insulin is to absorb glucose from our food, mainly carbohydrates, into our blood stream.
This is then used as energy or stored as glycogen in our liver cells.
Sometimes referred to as the sugar hormone, Insulin is produced by beta cells in the pancreas.
Our endocrine system regulates glucose balance with these beta cells as well as alpha cells.
Alpha cells stimulate the secretion of the glucagon hormone to increase the production of glucose in the bloodstream with hypoglycemia, which is when your blood sugar is low.
When we consume too much sugar in our diet it can cause us to become resistant to insulin.
This means our body is unable to recognize insulin secretion.
This can cause too much glucose to collect in our bloodstream and increase our risk for conditions such as diabetes mellitus, high cholesterol, obesity, and heart disease.
Not to mention increased production of insulin, resulting in an insulin spike in the body to counteract the high blood sugar levels.
Increased circulating insulin levels increase our appetite which can lead to over-eating and risk for obesity.
But not all sugars are bad.
In fact, we require glucose to survive which makes carbohydrates an essential nutrient however, added sugars are not.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams of added sugars a day for women (6 teaspoons) and no more than 38 grams for men (9 teaspoons).
To better understand this, the average 20-ounce bottle of Sprite contains 63 grams of added sugars.
This is nearly 2-3 times the maximum recommended daily intake.
Insulin and hormones
Insulin imbalance can also be a cause, or result, of certain hormonal conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
This syndrome is characterized by imbalanced hormones that result in enlarged ovaries with small cysts as well as hyperandrogenism, or increased circulation of male sex hormones such as testosterone (1).
This is commonly associated with weight gain, acne, irregular periods, and infertility.
PCOS is also associated with mood changes such as fatigue, irritability, and depression.
Insulin resistance is often to blame for these symptoms due to it’s the effect on our reproductive hormones.
A diet high in sugar can impact female sex hormones such as estrogen, the hormone responsible for regulating the female reproductive system.
Estrogen, secreted by our adrenal glands, has been shown to help improve insulin sensitivity and prevent high blood sugar levels (2).
However, excessive sugar intake can disrupt the function of estrogen.
When your body is unable to metabolize sugar, due to insulin sensitivity, your body will continue to send more insulin into the blood stream.
high insulin levels can confuse female sex hormones by inhibiting ovulation and causing the ovaries to make more testosterone, which can cause facial hair and acne (1).
It can also increase the production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol which deplete progesterone, another female sex hormone important in reproduction, leading to estrogen dominance.
Higher levels of circulating glucose in the blood mean it must be eventually stored in fat cells if it’s unable to be used.
This can result in weight gain, most commonly in our mid-section, known as the apple shape.
At a certain point excess fat is released into the bloodstream as triglycerides and stored in other places around the body which can cause inflammation and other health risks (3).
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) can also be impacted by this spike in glucose levels.
This can occur anywhere up to 14 days before one’s menstrual cycle.
It’s common for women to complain about sweet cravings during this time.
This is because estrogen and progesterone are at their highest during this period.
High levels of estrogen cause insulin sensitivity and high progesterone can increase insulin resistance.
This impact is heightened if we are already insulin resistant, to begin with.
PMS symptoms include cramps, mood swings or moodiness, irritability, and cravings.
Menopause and perimenopause are other conditions associated with increased insulin resistance due to a sharp decline in these hormones, specifically estrogen (4).
Menopause symptoms include hot flashes, absence of ovulation, night sweats, infertility, and low estrogen levels.
High insulin can also affect our cortisol levels, which is also produced by our adrenal gland.
Sometimes referred to as the stress hormone, cortisol is a steroid hormone that can cause insulin resistance with high levels.
Cortisol levels will increase with age, certain medications, hormone therapy, and chronic stress.
In a stressful situation, cortisol acts to pull glucose from our glycogen stores in our liver cells for use, known as glycogenolysis.
Adrenaline is also released from your adrenal glands, which increases your heart rate and elevates your blood pressure.
Typically, once the perceived threat has passed, levels will return to normal.
Those who suffer from chronic stress will continue to maintain higher than normal levels.
Increased Cortisol and adrenaline in our system have been linked to increased visceral fat or midsection obesity, inflammation, decreased immune system, cardiovascular disease, sleep problems, and infertility (5).
We’ve looked at the effects of sugar on insulin and female reproductive hormones and how they affect conditions such as PMS, PCOS, and menopause, but women aren’t the only ones affected.
Insulin has been shown to increase testosterone levels in women however, it has shown the reverse effect on men (6).
In fact, obesity, which is a common side effect of insulin sensitivity can negatively affect libido resulting in low sex drive and even erectile dysfunction.
These hormone changes because of excessive sugar in the diet can impact anyone.
Hormone health plays an important role in our overall health and avoidance of these unfavorable symptoms.
How To Help Restore Hormone Balance in the Body
Because excessive sugar and refined carbs in the diet are the most common contributor to insulin resistance and hormone imbalance, lifestyle changes should be the first place for an adjustment.
You can find refined carbs in things such as white pasta, white bread, white rice, desserts, and anything with white sugar.
You also have complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, sweet potato, oats, berries, and other fruits which act differently on our blood sugar than refined carbs do and are more encouraged for good health.
This is because these often contain more nutrients, such as fiber, that can help improve blood glucose levels and keep us feeling full during meals.
Replace highly processed foods with whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean sources of protein, and low-fat dairy products.
For example, skip the candy bar for your snack and opt for berries instead.
These changes alone can have a significant effect on your blood glucose.
Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption to keep your cortisol levels in a healthy range and ensure you are getting adequate sleep at night.
Lack of sleep can result in a hormone imbalance that can confuse our hunger and satiety cues.
Leptin, the hormone associated with satiety, and ghrelin, the hormone associated with hunger can become disrupted, resulting in low levels of leptin and higher levels of ghrelin (7).
This disruption alters our appetite and is not in our favor.
If you have concerns about your hormone levels, you can have them tested by your physician.
Another lifestyle adjustments to consider are exercise.
A lack of exercise can not only increase the risk for insulin sensitivity but other chronic diseases as well such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Adding in a regular exercise routine can help to prevent high blood sugar spikes and significantly improve insulin sensitivity (8).
It can also improve stress levels, keeping cortisol in check, improve body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage for greater health overall.
Some research has supported the use of phytoestrogens to help address some of the conditions associated with estrogen deficiency.
These are a group of chemicals that can weakly act as estrogen in the body.
They have estrogen agonist and antagonist properties.
Soy are a significant source of phytoestrogens, which include isoflavones.
This is what binds to estrogen receptors in the body.
These isoflavones have shown the potential to reduce cardiovascular disease risk, specifically in women during early menopause when estrogen levels begin to plummet (9).
Other sources of phytoestrogens include flaxseed, oats, berries, other soy foods wheat, barley, beans, lentils, wheat germ, and rice bran.
Recent research in a previous study has shown some promise with the use of marine collagen peptides in improving insulin resistance and glucose metabolism in rats that show promise for future treatments (10).
So How Can You Monitor Your Sugar Intake?
The only way to manage your sugar intake and protect your hormonal health is through diet.
This can be simple if choosing whole foods.
However, that is easier said than done if cravings are involved.
If choosing to consume a packaged or processed item, check the food label on the back of the package.
Added sugars are required to be put on the food label, as well as carbohydrates.
This can help you to be informed about your sugar intake if choosing to keep some of these foods in your diet in moderation.
Knowledge of what you are putting in your body can help you to make a significant improvement in your health and wellbeing.
Choose more healthy fat and lean protein sources instead of carbs, such as avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, fish, chicken, and turkey.
These will keep you feeling full for longer and combat those cravings.
- Rotterdam ESHRE/ASRM‐Sponsored PCOS Consensus Workshop Group. “Revised 2003 consensus on diagnostic criteria and long‐term health risks related to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).” Human reproduction 19.1 (2004): 41-47.
- Yan, Hui, et al. “Estrogen improves insulin sensitivity and suppresses gluconeogenesis via the transcription factor Foxo1.” Diabetes 68.2 (2019): 291-304.
- Sears, Barry, and Mary Perry. “The role of fatty acids in insulin resistance.” Lipids in health and disease vol. 14 121. 29 Sep. 2015, doi:10.1186/s12944-015-0123-1
- Tchernof, A et al. “Menopause, central body fatness, and insulin resistance: effects of hormone-replacement therapy.” Coronary artery disease vol. 9,8 (1998): 503-11. doi:10.1097/00019501-199809080-00006
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 8 July 2021, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037.
- Grossmann, Mathis, et al. “Low testosterone levels are common and associated with insulin resistance in men with diabetes.” The journal of clinical endocrinology & metabolism 93.5 (2008): 1834-1840.
- Taheri, Shahrad et al. “Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index.” PLoS medicine vol. 1,3 (2004): e62. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062
- Borghouts, L. B., and H. A. Keizer. “Exercise and insulin sensitivity: a review.” International journal of sports medicine 21.01 (2000): 1-12.
- Sathyapalan, T et al. “Soy isoflavones improve cardiovascular disease risk markers in women during the early menopause.” Nutrition, metabolism, and cardiovascular diseases : NMCD vol. 28,7 (2018): 691-697. doi:10.1016/j.numecd.2018.03.007
- Zhu, CuiFeng et al. “Effects of marine collagen peptides on glucose metabolism and insulin resistance in type 2 diabetic rats.” Journal of food science and technology vol. 54,8 (2017): 2260-2269. doi:10.1007/s13197-017-2663-z
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