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.
Since they stimulate bitter taste receptors instead of sweet ones, bitter plants have remarkable effects on carbohydrate cravings. They also slow down the absorption of sugar, so our blood sugar doesn't spike as high. They make us feel full and satisfied with less food; 20 percent to 30 percent less, according to recent clinical studies.
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.
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 (Ocimum sanctum) help the body set an “upper limit” on cortisol secretion, effectively reducing its concentration in the bloodstream during times of stress. Not only does this make us feel more calm, focused, and balanced, but it also keeps blood sugar levels from rising too high. Stress affects us less, and we crave sugar less, too.
A healing tonic recipe
The formula I made for the aforementioned client included adaptogens, bitters, as well as two other herbs with powerful effects on blood sugar levels: cinnamon and fenugreek.
After four weeks, she reported a 2-pound weight loss, much less snacking, and (most importantly to me) a calmer and more controlled demeanor 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 healthier eating patterns can fall into place naturally.
Here's a recipe to help you re-create the calming formula at home. You can substitute in other bitters like 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), and adaptogens like rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea, especially if there is fatigue and sluggishness) and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus, a good all-purpose adaptogen useful for the athletic types). You can find all these ingredients at your local herb shop or at online retailers like Mountain Rose Herbs.
- 1 pint (about 500 mL) of 100-proof vodka
- 1 pint-size wide-mouth Mason jar and lid
- Stainless-steel strainer and cheesecloth
- Label and pen
- 3 tablespoons chopped artichoke leaves (fresh or dry)
- 3 tablespoons chopped chicory root (fresh or dry)
- 4 tablespoons schisandra berries (dry)
- 4 tablespoons chopped holy basil leaves (fresh or dry)
- 1 tablespoon whole fenugreek seeds (dry)
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon powder
1. Mix all the herbs and the cinnamon powder together in a bowl or large measuring cup.
2. Add the mixture to the Mason jar, then add vodka to cover the herbs with about 1 inch of fluid. Close the lid tightly and shake the jar well.
3. Come back and shake it more, at least three times a week for 30 seconds or so, until four weeks have passed.
4. 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.
5. Discard the herbs and pour the extract into one or more bottles of your choice. (Dropper bottles work well.)
6. 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 carbohydrate cravings. Or, try mixing the extract with just a little sparkling water in a small glass. Cheers!
Guido Mase is a clinical herbalist who lives in Burlington, Vermont. He practices at the Burlington Herb Clinic and is also chief herbalist for Urban Moonshine, a bitters and tonics company. He is the author of The Wild Medicine Solution and DIY Bitters: Reviving the Forgotten Flavor.