Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lesson #42: Craving Relief (Part 2)

Last week we touched on the emotional component of cravings, and how, while we tend to make certain foods, drinks, etc., the "enemy," it is really our relationship with these substances that is the problem. Until we address these deeper, more emotionally-based inner cravings, we will never be free of the outer symptoms.

This week, I'd like to balance the discussion by addressing the physiological component of cravings, which is also very real. If we can learn to differentiate between physical and emotional cravings, and make some adjustments, together we can find relief from the cravings that are disruptive to our lives.

So then, when the body experiences cravings, it usually means we haven't been eating properly, or that stress, fatigue, etc., has thrown our bodies off balance. Serotonin is our feel-good hormone. When Serotonin and/or blood sugar levels are low, the body signals the brain that it needs a pick-me-up. Thus, the cravings for sugars, simple carbohydrates, caffeine, (and probably nicotine). These substances tend to give us a burst of energy, but then cause us to spiral downward, and the cravings return. This can create a cycle of ups and downs that leaves us feeling physically and emotionally out of control.

Physically, the remedy for this is proper nutrition, which is to say a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and  fats, at regular intervals. (It's the proteins and fats that help us feel grounded). Weight loss diets, even the high protein/low carbohydrate varieties, can cause metabolic problems and throw the body off kilter, so it's very important to adhere to a balanced diet if you want get off the cravings roller coaster and feel good in your body.

Okay, so there are emotionally-based cravings, and physically-based cravings, which can overlap and become intermingled. How then, in the heat of the moment, are we to tell what's what, and how can we manage the cravings?

First of all, consider what you've eaten (or not eaten) recently. If you're like me, you sometimes skip breakfast and tend to forget to eat your proteins. In fact, as much as I'd rather not admit it, I'm sort of attracted to the highs I experience from a blast of sugar or caffeine. This is a problem, both in terms of mood/craving swings, and overall health. There are plenty of ways to experience life's highs without abusing one's body in the process.

The standard textbook advice for dealing with cravings is to wait a few minutes (a cooling-off period) before indulging, and/or to redirect your attention to something else. I've found these to work sometimes, but they require willpower, which is not always available in moments of acute craving. That said, these can be good tests of whether or not you're physically hungry or emotionally hungry, because physical hunger will increase over time, whereas emotional hunger will subside when you're distracted or when you've had a chance to settle down.

Perhaps the most helpful thing to do when you're experiencing an intense craving, is to get in the habit of taking a couple deep breaths and asking yourself, "What do I  need right now that I'm not getting?" It only takes a moment, and you will probably find that there are a few standard responses you get, like "I'm exhausted (I need an energy boost)," or, "I feel frustrated, depressed, angry, unloved, scared, overwhelmed, etc., (I want to bury this feeling), or "I'm bored" (I wonder what's interesting in the fridge), or "I worked hard today" (I deserve a reward).

For so many of us, turning to food, caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol. or drugs has become the automatic response to having an uncomfortable thought or feeling (including fatigue and boredom). The groove in our brain gets etched deeper and deeper every time we repeat the same cause and effect behavior. (Remember Pavlov's dog? Ring a bell: dog salivates. It's the same for us, feel rejected: eat baked goods).

It can be very difficult to undo the groove and create a new one, but it can be done. It helps to have several ready-to-go ideas for what to do when you're feeling vulnerable. Spend some time brainstorming about what would truly nourish you when emotional cravings crop up. This way, when the need arises, you're ready to spring into action.

For instance, if you're exhausted, lying down for a few minutes might work better than turning to a stimulant. If you're bored, what would spike your interest besides raiding the refrigerator? If you're feeling difficult emotions, it might work well to journal, talk to a friend, go for a walk, or take a soothing bath. And if you want to reward yourself for a job well done, get creative. There are plenty of treats in life that don't involve frosting!

Finally, getting off the ferris wheel of cravings requires that you forgive yourself for all the times you made unhealthy choices, and that you reject all-or-nothing thinking. For instance, if you vowed to kick the habit of drinking a large coffee with  french vanilla creamer first thing every morning on an empty stomach, and you somehow find yourself at the espresso drive-through one morning, avoid the temptation to label yourself "bad" and eat a donut just because you already "blew it!" We don't have to be perfect. We can just do our best in any given moment, and then move forward.

I'd love to hear what works for you. Happy Thanksgiving and good health to you and your family.