The most wonderful time of the year is just around the corner. With the holidays quickly approaching, you’re likely in store for an array of holiday parties, family gatherings, and cocktail catch-ups with all the delicious cookies, chocolate, mashed potatoes, and more. It’s the season of carbs and sugar. And you may find once you start indulging, it's hard to stop. Then the side effects of weight gain, sluggishness, and digestive distress creep in.
But why do you crave sugar and carbs so much more during the holidays? Well, there are several reasons behind your gravitational pull toward these treats. Sugar and carbs directly impact your brain chemistry by increasing the production of feel-good brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters not only help us feel better during times of stress but also make sure we associate comfort foods and holiday gatherings with emotional and mental pleasure. Grandma’s Christmas cookies spark delight, pleasure, and long-term memories in your brain.
In short, sugar helps our brain cope with holiday stressors and adds a layer of nostalgia to special gatherings. So, how do you strike a balance by enjoying the holidays without feeling sluggish afterward? Continue reading for everything you need to know about curbing cravings and feeling good this holiday season.
Your Brain and Cravings
What is a craving?
Most researchers define something as a craving when it meets both of the following criteria: 1) it is an intense desire and 2) it is directed at a particular food, drink, or taste.  Cravings often occur during times of stress. Studies have shown that when stressed, people crave comfort foods—particularly foods that are high in sugar, including carbs—even if they’re not hungry.  That’s because the brain uses these foods to medicate and feel better during stressful times.
How your brain is wired for pleasure
Have you ever found yourself reaching for a piece of chocolate, or let’s be honest, the whole chocolate bar, after a stressful day? There is a physiological reason your brain drives you towards these types of sugary, high-carbohydrate foods. It makes you feel better. But that feeling only lasts for a short burst of time.
Sugar and simple carbohydrates simulate a large spike in feel-good serotonin and dopamine, lighting up the happy, pleasure centers of your brain. Sadly this effect does not last and is followed by a crash in happy brain chemicals that can leave you feeling blue. Let’s look at the actions of these neurotransmitters and some signs of low levels.
Serotonin’s role in your body:
- Reduces feelings of anxiety and depression
- Produces happiness
- Promotes healthy digestion & motility
- Regulates hunger
- Improves sleep
- Increases libido
Symptoms of low serotonin: lack of joy, fear, agitation, anxiety, worry, guilt-like depression, overwhelm, perfectionism, and cravings for high carbs snacks in the afternoon when serotonin naturally dips.
Dopamine’s role in your body:
- Feeling of satisfaction
- Pleasure & happiness
- Learning & memory
Symptoms of low dopamine: depression, low motivation (poor compliance), irritability, poor self-image, lethargy / moving slow.
So, what happens under stress? Why are you more likely to crave sugar and sweets?
Stress hijacks your brain
But wait—you may be thinking: what does stress have to do with the holidays? The answer is, well, everything. A 2015 survey revealed that 62% of respondents describe their stress levels during the holidays as “very or somewhat” elevated, while only 10% claimed to experience no stress during the holiday season.  Between missed flights, tense encounters with family members, and the financial strain of gift shopping, the holidays can actually end up being the most stressful time of the year.
If your brain perceives higher levels of stress, it will look for ways to make you feel more relaxed, happy, and calm. A quick fix? Sugar and holiday treats. Research has shown consuming sugary foods or drinks can directly impact the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis which regulates your stress response through the release of hormones like epinephrine, cortisol, and blood sugar.  The problem is that your brain is not thinking long-term. While sugar can relieve feelings of stress, the effect has been shown to be temporary. Over time, eating large amounts of sugar and processed carbohydrates can lead to resistance to dopamine and serotonin, meaing you need to eat more sugar, more frequently to get the same effect. It’s a crazy cycle in which you eventually lose and end up feeling sad and fatigued.
Cravings and nutrient deficiencies
Another lesser known cause of food cravings is being low or deficient in certain micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants). For instance, low magnesium levels can cause chocolate cravings. Low in omega-3s? You may find yourself with really intense cravings for carbs. And what is one of the causes of micronutrient deficiency? Stress. Deficiencies in many micronutrients can be linked to high stress levels. For example, low magnesium and zinc levels have been found in people with depression, which is often triggered by stress.  These deficiencies can make sugar and carb cravings even more intense, so it’s important to ensure you’re not deficient in vitamin B12 and other B vitamins, such as vitamin B6 and folate, which can all be linked to depression.
But have no fear, there are simple ways to get off the crazy cycle of sugar and carb cravings this holiday season while helping your brain find happiness by naturally producing adequate amounts of serotonin and dopamine.
How to manage holiday sugar and carb cravings
1. Healthy Stress Management
If stress is the main culprit behind your holiday sugar cravings, it’s important to manage your stress levels. You can do this by prioritizing getting outdoors at least once a day, going for walks, meditating, writing in a journal—or whatever works for you.
It’s important to get an adequate amount of sleep during the holidays since studies have linked poor sleep to an increase in appetite, particularly for sweet and salty foods. This occurs because sleep deprivation leads to higher levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, and lower levels of the satiety-inducing hormone leptin—leading to an increase in hunger and appetite, particularly for sugar- and carb-heavy foods. 
Of course, getting a good night’s sleep is easier said than done during the busy holiday rush, but it’s especially crucial to maintain healthy sleep habits during stressful periods. Getting 7 to 9 hours of good quality sleep each night helps to lower stress hormones and increases repair and even leads to improved micronutrient absorption.
3. Nutrient Rich Foods
You can manage cravings by ensuring you’re filling up on nutrient-rich, whole foods. A healthy diet will mitigate blood sugar swings that occur when you’re stressed, which then kicks off the stress-induced cravings cycle. In conjunction with a precision multivitamin routine, making sure your diet is full of healthy vitamins and nutrients is a great way to target any deficiencies. For instance, nuts, seeds, and broccoli can boost low levels of magnesium, which could be the reason behind your chocolate cravings, and ensuring you have adequate levels of protein in your diet can be a great way to stabilize blood sugars and get ahead of cravings before they even happen.
Next, stay hydrated! When you’re stressed, your body’s hormonal changes cause an uptick in your respiration rate (stress sweats, anyone?), which increases your need for hydration. So it’s important to stay on top of your water intake during the holidays, especially since thirst can actually often disguise itself as a food craving. Keeping up with your water intake is especially necessary if you’re indulging in cocktails, so make sure you’re regularly filling up that water bottle.
5. Get a Holiday Buddy
Find a friend or colleague that can help you stay on track this holiday season. Create a plan for events, process stressful events with your buddy, set healthy boundaries for yourself and share with your holiday buddy to create accountability and support to turn your plan and desires into action.
The bottom line
Managing your stress levels may be the key to conquering your cravings this holiday season. It’s a good idea to keep sugar and carb cravings at bay so you don’t overdo it and start the new year feeling sluggish and burnt out, but you certainly don’t need to deprive yourself, either. Instead, practice mindful eating. Know your body’s hunger signals and stress signals and learn to recognize when the two signals are being crossed. Being conscious of the food and drinks you put into your body will allow you to enjoy the holidays with loved ones without depriving yourself or worrying about over-indulging and dealing with the consequences later.
Want to take it a step further? Assess your stress hormones and get a personalized plan to stay on top of your health goals this holiday season.
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- Yau, Y. H. C., Potenza, M. N. Stress and eating behaviors. (2013, September). Minerva Endocrinologica. Retrieved November 7, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4214609/
- Ulrich-Lai, Y. M. Self-medication with sucrose. (2016, June). Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. Retrieved November 7, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4787559/
- Avena, Nicole M., Rada, P. Hoebel, Bartley G. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. (2007). Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Retrieved November 13, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/
- Holiday Stress and the Brain. Harvard Medical School. https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/holiday-stress-brain
- Lopresti, Adrian L. The Effects of Psychological and Environmental Stress on Micronutrient Concentrations in the Body: A Review of the Evidence. (2019, August). Advances in Nutrition. Retrieved November 13, 2022 from https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/11/1/103/5555581
- 3 Ways Decreased Sleep Contributes to Overeating https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/2010/01/01/3-ways-decreased-sleep-contributes-to-overeating-2/