Controlling food cravings and managing metabolism with herbs
By Guido Masé RH (AHG)
Have you ever noticed how, when you’re under pressure, it gets harder to control cravings? We turn to sugar, stimulants, or anything else we can find to help take the edge off the stress we’re experiencing. Food, especially sugar, can be a powerful way to buffer our mood, and we reach for it sometimes just to cope. This strategy works in the short term, and there are good reasons why: sweet-tasting foods, by stimulating sweet taste receptors on our tongue, trigger a flood of dopamine in the reward centers of the brain (1). This feel-good neurotransmitter acts as a chemical “pat on the back”, evoking a drug-like sensation. No wonder we end up craving it so much!
Over the long term, things get more complicated. When we repeat this pattern over and over to cope with stress, our metabolism and hormone balance get thrown out of whack. The microbiome, the signature of our gut flora, shifts to a profile more geared to a high-sugar, high-carbohydrate environment (2). All of this conspires to create inflammation, insulin resistance, and loss of self-control (3) in a vicious cycle that, over time, disrupts our metabolism and sets the stage for heart disease and diabetes.
It’s easy to say that one should just stop eating sugar. But the interplay of stress hormones, wildly swinging blood sugar levels, and a disrupted microbiome can make it almost impossible to do. As an herbalist, I see this in my clinical practice: one client, desperate to control her sugar cravings and jump-start her metabolism, came into the office looking for herbs for weight loss. During our visit, she broke down, telling me that, despite having started a great exercise program, she just couldn’t stop overeating chips and salty snacks. This was especially true at the office when her work got stressful.
I couldn’t blame her. Carbohydrates, and the dopamine rush they stimulate, give us short-term relief. Knowing this, the junk food industry has made them available everywhere (4). Asking my client to control her cravings by herself was like asking a smoker to quit while sipping drinks in a 1920s Paris café. What we needed was some form of support to make breaking the vicious cycle easier.
Herbal medicine has some safe and effective strategies to help control cravings for sweet and salty carb-rich foods, and to support a healthier, balanced metabolism. I rely on two classes of tonic medicinal plants, the bitters and the adaptogens, as centerpieces of this support program. Being tonics, they are quite safe (especially the ones I mention below). They also yield their best results when taken consistently over time. Of course this makes sense: if it takes years of stress and reactive eating to shift the metabolism out of balance, it will take some time to restore it with bitter tasting herbs and hormone-balancing adaptogens. I usually suggest incorporating the herbs into your life slowly over the course of a week, and continuing to take them for at least eight weeks before assessing progress.
Bitter plants, by stimulating bitter taste receptors instead of sweet ones, have remarkable effects on carbohydrate cravings (5). They slow down the absorption of sugar, so our blood sugar doesn’t spike as high (6). They make us feel full and satisfied with less food – 20% to 30% less, in recent clinical studies (7). Many bitter plants, like chicory root (Cichorium intybus), contain abundant fiber and undigestible prebiotic starches that help encourage the shift back to a healthy microbiome (8). And if you crave sweetness in the moment, bitter tasting plants can give you immediate support. This helps control blood sugar swings – one of the biggest triggers for cravings.
Adaptogens work on the other major trigger: stress hormones such as cortisol. Cortisol, secreted by our adrenal glands when we feel threatened or pressured, immediately raises blood sugar levels (the subsequent crash reliably starts sugar cravings). Plants such as schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) and holy basil (Ocimium sanctum) help the body set an “upper limit” on cortisol secretion, effectively reducing its concentration in the bloodstream during times of stress (9). Not only does this make us feel more calm, focused, and balanced, but it also keeps blood sugar levels from rising too high (10). Stress affects us less, and we crave sugar less, too.
Taken consistently over time, bitter plants like artichoke (Cynara scolymus) and chicory, along with adaptogenic herbs like schisandra and holy basil, help us stress less, balance key metabolic hormones, and reduce the urgency and intensity of cravings. We eat less, and enjoy our food more. The formula I made for my client included two other herbs with powerful effects on blood sugar levels: cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, cassia, or burmannii) and fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum). After four weeks, she reported a two-pound weight loss, much less snacking, and (most importantly to me) feeling calmer and more in control at work. And isn’t this what we are looking for? Feeling grounded, centered, and responsive during the course of the day is one of the key signatures of wellness. When we’re in this place, metabolism shifts back into balance and things like healthier eating patterns fall into place naturally. Tonic herbalism can provide the crucial elements that synergize with exercise and mindfulness, using just a few simple habits.
Below, find my client’s formula. But remember you can substitute in other bitter and adaptogenic herbs if you’d like, and achieve similar results. Some possibilities for bitters include dandelion (Taraxacum officinale, more syrupy in flavor, milder), burdock (Arctium lappa, more nutty, very mild bitter, and excellent for skin complaints), or gentian (Gentiana lutea, the strongest of the bitter herbs, used if there are a lot of digestive complaints). Adaptogens include rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea, especially if there is fatigue and sluggishness) and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus, a good all-purpose adaptogen useful for the athletic types). Keep the proportions the same as in the recipe. You can find all these ingredients at your local herb shop, or at online retailers like Mountain Rose Herbs (http://www.moutainroseherbs.com).
Ingredients you will need:
1 pint (about 500mL) of 100-proof vodka
1 pint-sized wide-mouth mason jar and lid
Stainless-steel strainer and cheesecloth
Label and pen
3 TBS chopped artichoke leaves (fresh or dry)
3 TBS chopped chicory root (fresh or dry)
4 TBS schisandra berries (dry)
4 TBS chopped holy basil leaves (fresh or dry)
1 TBS whole fenugreek seeds (dry)
1 TBS cinnamon powder
Mix all the herbs and the cinnamon powder together in a bowl or large measuring cup. Add the mixture to the mason jar then add vodka to cover the herbs with about one inch of fluid (you won’t use the whole pint of vodka). Close the lid tightly and shake the jar well. Come back and shake it more, at least three times a week for 30 seconds or so, until four weeks have passed. Then place the strainer over a large measuring cup, cover with cheesecloth, and pour out the vodka and herbs. After most of the fluid has drained, wrap the moist herbs in the cheesecloth and squeeze out the last of the extract. Discard the herbs and pour the extract into one or more bottles of your choice (dropper bottles work well). Store out of the heat and sunlight, and take between a half and a full teaspoon twice a day before eating, or a half teaspoon as needed to control carb cravings. Try mixing the extract with just a little sparkling water in a small glass. Cheers!
Guido Masé is a clinical herbalist at the Burlington Herb Clinic. Learn more about Guido's work as an herbalist here. He and other herbalists at the clinic are available for consultations. By working with an herbalist, you'll receive personal guidance through the process of using herbs and nutrition to better your health. Book an appointment here, or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, (802) 540-0595. Guido's personal blog can be found here.
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