Food cravings are an everyday thing for most of us, and when we approach them as an intricate language between the body, brain, and spirit rather than something to be resented or ignored, they can be extremely useful in improving health.
The challenge with cravings is that you have to know how to translate them, and this doesn’t come easily. The majority of us have spent our lives ignoring the internal cues coming from our bodies, told even from childhood that a headache meant that we needed a Tylenol, not much more. We likely weren’t taught to consider that perhaps we were eating something our bodies didn’t like, or that we needed to drink more water; that the symptom was an intelligent and meaningful signal coming from our bodies.
The fantastic thing is that the signals are always there, and can be accessed at any time should we choose to listen, even if we’ve ignored them for many years.
Healing the rift between body and mind is challenging but doable, and thankfully, there’s tons of information out there that will help your cravings make sense on a physical level. There’s always a spiritual component to our desires as well, however, and sometimes the task of connecting the physical to our greater life experience and emotions is huge.
When we consider the spiritual message in our physical experience, cravings are unfortunately not always what they seem. Desires that appear to be honest—that our bodies are telling us what they need to operate well—may actually be the opposite of what we need to heal. Cravings can show up when our vulnerability is triggered, or to appease self-negating eating habits and insecurity, for example. The body may also issue cravings for food as it would for a drug, seeking a temporary “high” from the chemical components.
It’s complicated, to say the least.
While yearnings for individual foods have meaning unto themselves, here’s a breakdown of three basic (and commonly craved) flavors that may help you to discern the physical, mental and spiritual meaning behind what you reach for:
A craving for sugary things relates on a physical level to the cells of the body not getting enough energy. Sugar is a quick source of energy, and the body knows this. Reduced cellular energy production can occur because of a lack of minerals necessary for proper insulin secretion and sensitivity (chromium, magnesium and zinc are often low in nearly everyone, and can really help reduce your desire for sugars and other carbohydrates), or a fatty acid deficiency resulting in faulty intracellular communication.
Sweetness as an emotional experience is often craved when we are unable to process sadness; when we’re hoping to temporarily cover up our low points with a little burst of sugar high. Whether we view this experience on a biochemical level (relating the experience to a lack of serotonin, a pleasure-oriented neurotransmitter that is low when we’re sad but stimulated by sweet flavors) or a more spiritual view (that we are quite literally looking for “sweet” experiences in life, which also stimulate serotonin release) makes all the difference in the world. On a physical level, we must eat something, while spiritually that craving could be satisfied by any number of enjoyable life experiences. The challenge is to see whether the craving could be satisfied by taking a hot bath or getting a massage, or by sitting in natural settings and letting the beauty of the world sink in.
There is a difference between sweetness that heals and sweetness that temporarily bandages.
A craving for saltiness is often physically associated with the kidneys, adrenals and the water balance they control in the body.
When stress is present and intense for long enough, the adrenal glands become exhausted and reduce the creation of aldosterone, a hormone that helps to retain sodium. Individuals with high stress levels will therefore often crave salt because their body is attempting to replenish what’s lost. Adrenal support in the form of bioavailable vitamin B5, adaptogenic herbs (Rhodiola, Siberian Ginseng, Holy Basil and others) or even adrenal glandulars may help to repair and rebalance the neuroendocrine system and reduce salt cravings, as will stress reduction and yoga. A hankering for salt may be related to iodine deficiency as well, as it is the body’s way of calling out for natural sea-based minerals.
Excess and constant life stress that leads to adrenal exhaustion, however, is often a sign of resistance to “flow.” Salt cravings indicate that we are trying to “solidify” ourselves because we are overwhelmed and afraid; we are using salt as a kind of mineralized fortification, thinking that hardness and strength are what we need in order to deal with whatever experience is presenting itself. The problem is that while salt may temporarily fix the water balance and bolster our stress reserves, it does not work in the long term, and the hardness we want to develop only ends up creating resistance, not healing.
At the root of this craving is the potential to find acceptance without making our stance on life more barricaded or controlled; to find the strength in trust, in flexibility, rather than enforcing our walls even more. Cravings for salt can be appeased by affirming our trust in the process of our life; by working on mindfulness and acceptance, and fortifying ourselves with fluidity, not hardness.
Cravings for nut butters (a common one amongst us yogis, for some reason), oils or fried foods often relate to a calcium deficiency. The craving is often for saturated fats specifically (even if we can’t quite articulate it), as they are necessary to help maintain bone density and keep calcium in the body. It’s quite incredible to see changes in clients as they balance their mineral intake and soon find that their cashewmacadamianut butter lasts longer than two days in the house. Fatty cravings may also be quite straightforward in their motivation, and indicate a physical desire for good quality EFAs for hormonal balance and cellular stability: the oily fishes, borage oil, fresh seed oils.
There is a difference, however, between a gentle craving for good fats and the ability to inhale a tub of almond butter in three days…
Fat digestion occurs in the presence of bile, which is manufactured by the liver. When we tend to eat too many fatty foods because we’re constantly craving them, and then find that our upper abdominal area is bloated and uncomfortable, we have challenged the liver too much. As the liver is the physical seat of personal power—the third chakra—it is as though we are eating these difficult foods because we have yet to accept our own importance, and feel the need to keep the full reality of our power squashed down by physical discomfort. In this instance, our cravings are coming from our wounded ego, looking to perpetuate old hurts and a reduced sense of self worth.
Accepting our own authenticity and importance frees our power, but we have to want it, demand it. Going against social norms that cultivate insecurity more often than not, we can know ourselves to be worthy and incredible not because we fit into a particular box, but because as authentic individuals we are a necessary contribution to the whole. Through articulating our experience and understanding ourselves better, it’s possible to see how beautiful we really are, and how much we have to give the world. This releases restrictions on our sense of personal power, on our liver function overall.
And our addiction to nut butter.