My sister sent me a rum cake. She makes them every year; the recipe, I believe, involves super-moist cake mix, vanilla pudding mix, and a lot of butter and rum poured over the top. It’s loaded with everything a self-respecting acupuncturist would avoid putting in her body. It’s obscenely delicious. And, in the name of holiday stress, celebration, and family tradition, I pretty much ate the whole thing.
The holidays are like that. And that’s fine. The entire purpose of holidays is to get us out of our daily rut, shake things up a little, and give us permission to enjoy pleasures that we don’t indulge in every day.
The problem — especially with sugar — comes later, when we’re ready to return to normal. Because our whole relationship with sugar, and with food in general, has changed. And it can be really, really hard to get back in balance.
There has been a good deal of research on the addictive qualities of sugar, with some researchers suggesting it’s more addictive than cocaine. That’s a somewhat controversial claim, but one thing is for sure: if you think it’s hard to kick the sugar habit, you’re not making things up.
It’s All About the “Spleen”
From a Chinese medicine perspective, sugar cravings are all about the “Spleen”.
The Chinese medicine Spleen has almost nothing to do with the biological spleen, which filters blood — instead it represents the entire digestive system, and the process of converting food into energy. This also includes the emotional aspects of nourishing and nurturing (which reflects how easy it is to eat when we feel lonely or unloved).
The Spleen is particularly affected by the sweet flavor. Small amounts of mildly sweet food (think, sweet potato or caramelized onion) can actually help balance the Spleen. Too much sweet will damage the Spleen and create stronger sugar cravings, thus setting up the vicious cycle we know so well.
If you’re craving sugar, it’s a sure sign your Spleen is stressed. And chances are, the sugar cravings are only one of the ways you’re feeling out of sorts. Below are some other common symptoms of a Spleen imbalance.
Signs of an Out-of Balance Spleen
- Bloating after eating
- Loose stool or diarrhea
- Poor appetite
- Feeling lightheaded, spacey, shaky, or irritable between meals
- Feeling tired or sleepy after eating
- Bruise or bleed easily
- Excessive worry
- Obsessive, repetitive thinking
- Insomnia, of the can’t-turn-off-my-mind variety
- Pale, swollen tongue
- Excess phlegm or nasal congestion
- Foggy head
- Feeling groggy in the morning
- Fatigue that feels heavy, especially in the arms and legs
How To Get Out of The Sugar Cycle
Ultimately, the only way to get out of the sugar cycle is to eliminate or greatly reduce your sugar intake. You can taper down or do it cold turkey; but as long as you’re eating sugar, you’ll crave more sugar. The more healthful, nutritious, non-sugary foods you eat, the less you’ll want sweets. As your body adjusts, mildly sweet foods will satisfy your sweet tooth, and cakes and cookies actually start to taste too sweet.
It’s common, of course, to have good intentions, and still find that your sugar cravings are stronger than your willpower. The way to change this dynamic is to support the health of your Spleen so that the cravings aren’t so insistent.
Here are my best tips to strengthen your Spleen, improve energy and digeston, and ease sugar cravings:
Avoid artificial sweeteners.
It’s a logical substitution, but artifical sweeteners can actually increase your cravings by signaling the body to get ready for sugar.
Eat sweet vegetables.
Examples are winter squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, parsnips and onions. These help stabilize your blood sugar and prevent cravings. Click here for a great soup recipe. I recommend adding ginger if you like it. Ginger is warming and supportive to the digestive system and helps support a normal appetite.
Get plenty of protein.
This also helps keep your energy steady, and avoids the sudden, ravenous hunger that makes it feel like an emergency to find the nearest cookie.
Cut back on dairy, greasy foods, and cold foods,
This includes iced drinks and raw salads. Along with sugar, these are the foods that are hardest on the Spleen. Especially in the winter months, try soup instead of salad for your vegetable intake.
Pay attention to how and when you eat.
The Spleen is affected as much by your eating habits as it is by the food itself. It actually makes an enormous difference to eat on a regular schedule, in a relaxed and enjoyable manner. It’s good for your sanity too. Here’s an article with more info.
Consider using acupuncture or Chinese herbs.
Both acupuncture and herbs can help quell cravings, and bring your Spleen back into balance more quickly. It’s totally, totally okay to need help! Plus, those of you who have had acupuncture know it’s really relaxing and boosts your mood — and who can’t use that?
You Can Do It!
Just like any other change in habits, the first few weeks are the hardest. Follow these tips, and pretty soon it will feel natural to eat a more healthful diet. And you’ll feel a ton better.