Since I started my journey to become an LAc, I have always practiced what I preach in every area of my life (eating whole foods, taking herbs and supplements, regular exercise, acupuncture/massage/meditation) except my sugar consumption - a holdover from my stress response patterns and an eating disorder of long past. I have always been upfront with my patients regarding my struggle. I probably eat 80% Paleo and 20% flex but you know, a lot of that 20% is chocolate and gluten free snacks and sweets.
This year, I decided no more and I feel like I’ve learned so much along the way the past few months, and am so very lucky to have Chinese Medicine tools at my disposal to help “quit” sugar, I wanted to share for those of you also starting on this journey.
There is so much to share, but here is a start. Read on to learn what sugar cravings say about you from a Chinese Medicine perspective and quick-start guide to what you can do about it:
Sugar Craving - What it Says About Your Health in Traditional Chinese Medicine
“Sweet” is a flavor in Chinese Medicine that is associated with the Earth element and the Spleen and Stomach meridians energetically. Herbs in the Chinese pharmacopia that are sweet in nature are often tonifying, or strengthening, for the Spleen especially. Craving sweet things, therefore, indicates that the Spleen is weak or out of balance and needs tonification or adjustment. (Lets see, how much of the US population falls in this category…)
Chinese Medicine preaches all things in moderation - every flavor of herb and food as well. A little sweet strengthens the Spleen, a lot of sweet will damage it. Refined sugar in particular represents too much sweet and is not included as a substance which promotes health and wellness in TCM.
Our Brains Love Sugar - We Must Retrain Your Brain
Our brains love sugar - it is literally what they use for nourishment! Does this mean if we stop eating sugar our brains will shrivel and die? No no no - many many MANY things convert into sugar in the body. Truly, the sugar value of any given food isn’t the issue as much as “sugar handling” in the body is - i.e. what our body does with foods to convert them into forms we can use, and then how we use those nutrients.
But back to the brain - we’re hard wired to like sweet because in paleolithic times, sweet meant ripe, ready and high calorie which hunter-gatherers needed for survival. A few extra pounds of insulin-induced body fat around the waistline would ensure survival during a harsh winter. Sweet things cue the same dopamine response that pleasant activities and cocaine stimulate in the brain - sweet is desired, soothing, addictive.
The good news is that our brains and tastebuds (as an extension of the brain, really) are trainable. Just like taking opiate pain medications can be addictive, and can cause “tolerance” meaning that we get used to a certain dose and it doesn’t work anymore so we need more (welcome to the prescription drug addiction cycle!), the same is true of sugar and our tastebuds.
If you can take a break from eating overly sweet things, your tastebuds will down-regulate, or adjust down, and something that tasted “meh” before, will taste sweeter than sweet. That whole apple or orange will taste A-MAZING curbing your craving for sugar sugar sugar.
The challenge, therefore, is how to take a break and not go insane. Stopping a regular sugar habit is like quitting smoking or high volumes of coffee - it sucks, it isn’t easy, there’s no perfect time to do it - but the rewards are so many fold - decreased inflammation and pain, improved sleep, stabilization of emotions, weight loss, decrease in heart disease risk - you’ll likely reach a point where you realize you have to do it.
Case in point - five days after I quit sugar, I’d lost 5 pounds, not changing ANYTHING else about my diet or exercise habits - and a kiwi became the most luscious thing I could ever imagine eating.
Chinese Medicine and Quitting Sugar
“Quitting” sugar is all the rage right now and frankly, I think it should be. But truly “quitting” is kind of impossible because sugar is in so many things, and being really rigid with yourself in any long term plan can be ill advised, leading to explosion and binging. I prefer the term going “low sugar” because I think that is more accurate.
However you slice it, its really the same - it means cutting out as much added sugar from the diet as possible, and being mindful of two things - what foods contain sugar (even chicken broth, chips and marinara sauce usually contain added sugar) and what foods convert to sugar in the body (like carbohydrates) - so you can make conscious decisions about your consumption of them as well.
Here is the nitty gritty of this process - it can take 8 weeks for your body to fully adjust to a “low” sugar diet. The first 10-14 days are the hardest, but even after only 4-5 days your tastebuds will start to adjust and everything will taste sweeter. If you can persevere through those first two weeks, and do the individual work you need on attitude around food and reward, you can make it and it can be a positive healthy lifelong change. Here is a plan:
Questions? Ask me!
If you have questions or want to know more please don’t hesitate to call or email me any time. There is so much out there about sugar, its easy to find, but sometimes it is nice to have a qualified, well trained and personally experienced professional to help you! I’ve been there, and I would love to help you learn more and be part of your support team if you chose to undertake this journey.
Feel free to reply in the comments section below with some of your favorite resources or information about your personal journey with sugar. If you’re interested in Acupuncture for sugar cravings, free consultations are always available. You can book online 24/7 using the “Book Now” button at the top of the page!
Until next time,
Rebecca M H Kitzerow is a Licensed Acupuncturist practicing in La Center, Washington. With over a decade of experience she has won 10 Nattie consumer choice awards from Natural Awakenings Magazine since 2014.