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.
This strategy works in the short term, and for good reason: sweet foods trigger a flood of dopamine in the reward centers of the brain. This feel-good neurotransmitter acts as a chemical "pat on the back," evoking a drug-like sensation. No wonder we end up craving them so much!
But 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. All of this conspires to create inflammation, insulin resistance, and loss of self-control 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 doing so feel nearly impossible.
As an herbalist, I see this in my clinical practice: one client, desperate to control her sugar cravings and jump-start her metabolism, recently 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.
Herbal medicine can help break the vicious cycle by controlling cravings for sweet and salty high-carb foods and supporting a healthier, more balanced metabolism. Bitters and the adaptogens are two classes of tonic medicinal plants that are especially effective at doing so.
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.