Sugar Cravings explained - why we crave sweet taste according to Chinese Medicine (part 2)

This article continues from the previous post.

2. Craving type 2: Intellectual overload

Late night work on projects or articles, dissertations, memorising things for exams, preparing for audits – if your Spleen is anyhow weakened, all that can bring about an almost physical need to devour something sweet. Even at a place where people commit to study health, such as a university’s Health and Social Care department, exam revision time brings about bags of chocolate bars, gummy bears and other such not exactly wholesome learning aids. I remember my mild surprise when I witnessed that for the first time. Yet, truth be told, my sweet craving was not far behind. My studies, my book and publishing my research cost me a good number of chocolate bars and handfuls of raisins devoured late at night. My Mother, who is an author of several books, often indulged in such eating habits as well, claiming that intellectual work needs a special "brain" food.

Why is that? Well, Western science reveals that our brain requires plenty of oxygen and glucose – though this organ accounts for only about 2% of body weight, it is responsible for around 20% of energy consumption. Chinese Medicine points to Spleen again: it is our Spleen that houses Intellect. This may sound very strange, as we are taught in the West to consider the brain to be a sort of omnipotent centre of intellectual activity. In CM, on the other hand, there are five different aspects of one’s psyche, and each is primarily governed by a different Organ. Intellect (“Yi”) belongs to Spleen, so if we are engaged in an activity which requires our thought processes to be revved up, it is Spleen's energy that provides that power. Spleen has the function of “ascending the clear” which means, among others, allowing you to clearly focus. And craving sugar in order to stimulate the intellect means that Spleen has no more strength to keep sending nice clear energy to your head: it is asking for reinforcements.


How to deal with this type of craving:

Chinese Medicine is all about balance. If you have to think so hard that your Spleen is not keeping up helping your brain to focus, it is a sign that you are asking too much work from something not ready to handle it. So first and foremost I should say: consider not working this hard in this particular way as well as strengthening your Spleen through acupuncture and CM lifestyle and dietary advise.

Apart from those long-term and thorough solutions though, I will suggest to you tools to cope with those cravings as they arise.

1) Take a break and go for a walk – this will help your Qi energy (and blood, with the nutrients and oxygen it is carrying) to flow more smoothly through your body. Spleen will have an easier time “ascending the clear” - which you can take as meaning that your brain will be bathed in the oxygen and glucose that it needs – and your craving should diminish.

2) To the same effect, you can open a window and take a few deep breaths. This will be much more effective if you do Qi Gong or Tai Chi by a window.

3) Alternatively, give your Spleen the reinforcements it is craving, but do it in a way which is loving and gentle to your body. That means, rather than cheap supermarket chocolate bars, prepare something which is equally scrumptious but at the same time loaded with minerals

Craving type 3: In times of stress

Craving sweets due to stress happens often and to many. It has been studied extensively in Western clinical trials, from early studies such as Herman and Polivy (1975) who measured undergraduates’ consumption of ice-cream after a laboratory induced physical threat, to more sophsticated designs of “ego-threats” versus a choice of chocolate, peanuts, chips, grapes (Zellner, Loaiza et al. 2006). The latter study, nota bene, concluded that the no-stress group ate more grapes, the stress group ate more chocolate.

All in all though, apart from concluding that there is often a change of eating habits under stress, the studies do not point to one coherent pattern but rather a richness of variables: type of stress, gender, usual eating habits and many more all play a role and are difficult to account for in Western clinical trial settings. If you are interested in tracing detailed conclusions, this systematic review summarised trails up to March 2006.

Let’s take a step back and look at the problem from the perspective of Chinese Medicine. Stress is a sort of buzz word one hears everywhere, at the same time, it is also a very modern concept. There is no idea of stress in Traditional CM, but people did worry, anger and suffer under all sorts of pressures and tensions since the advent of human society. Yet it is only a particular type of stress that produces the craving for sugar. Try this mental mini-quiz yourself:

In which of these situations are you likely to crave sugar:

A) When an urgent event requires you to take immediate action (e.g. give CPR to an accident victim, call the police, climb a tree to escape a wild boar)

B) when a situation makes you worry a lot, such as working on a difficult project when you are unsure about how you will cope, looking for a job, and preparing for a job interview

C) when something angers you, such as an injustice you have witnessed

In Chinese medical classics, Spleen is associated with the emotion of Worry. Therefore the modern concept of stress is likely to produce sugar cravings when it overlaps with worry. I should add that what is called “anxiety” in the West, largely overlaps with worry as well – when we are anxious, we are in effect worrying about things that may go wrong.


How to cope with this type of craving:

You need to strengthen your mind as well as your Spleen. A calm, quiet mind becomes more resilient and cannot be easily swayed by external stressors. Some excellent ways to do this are:

  • meditation,
  • qi gong or tai ji (tai chi) practice,
  • prayer, religious contemplation,
  • practising conscious relaxation techniques
  • and of course – using acupuncture (or possibly acupressure) to calm your mind as well as strengthen your Spleen.

Interestingly, many acupuncture points that affect the Spleen also have the function of calming the mind. SanYinJiiao (SP6) – whose Chinese name means the “junction of the Three Yin” is an excellent example. So while you work in your own time on the some of the methods listed above, see your local friendly acupuncturist for some extra support.


The third and last part on sugar cravings is coming in about a week.