The tree is down. Decorations packed into storage. The festivities have quieted. But are you left with lingering post-holiday cravings?

My philosophy — cravings are messages from the body that something is out of balance. So here is some information and tools to get to the bottom of any cravings you may be currently experiencing…

The most common foods we crave are sugar, carbohydrates, chocolate, salt, and for some, cheese. First, let’s walk through the main causes of these cravings and then I’ll share some helpful tips for overcoming them.

  1.  Low levels of serotonin

Serotonin is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter produced mainly in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It’s thought to have a strong influence on mood, appetite and digestion. Eating carbohydrates and sugar increases the release of serotonin  making us feel fabulous (temporarily). So, when our levels are low, our brains think, “Oh! That candy bar or bagel is going to fix this!” A low serotonin level can be due to a variety of things, including poor gut health (90% of serotonin is made in the gut—more on that later), alcohol consumption, feelings of depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I don’t know about you, but I’m much more vulnerable to sugar and carbohydrate cravings when feeling stressed or sad.

2.  “Feel-good” endorphins

Eating carbs, sugar, chocolate and maybe even salt increases the production of endorphins in the body. Endorphins are human-produced opiates that make us feel relaxed. They’re also produced during sleep and exercise (aka “runner’s high” and post-P90X Live euphoria — is that too strong?!? ). So when we eat these foods and experience this feeling, we want more—similar to the way drug users become addicted to narcotics. One recent review study found that at the chemical level, sugar consumption resulted in an even more intense feeling of reward than cocaine!

3.  Imbalance in the GI Tract

As mentioned earlier, low serotonin levels are linked to cravings and your gut is the epicenter of serotonin production. In order to maintain feel-good levels of serotonin, your gut needs to be in tip-top shape so that it can absorb nutrients from your food and pump out the right amount of serotonin through your gastrointestinal tract. This process is greatly dependent on healthy levels of digestive enzymes and the proper balance of good bacteria. So when the bad bacteria overpower the good guys (stress, antibiotics, processed foods/refined sugar influence the balance), there’s a strong chance that your cravings may overpower you. Cultivating a healthy balance of good bacteria by eating fermented foods, taking probiotics, and embracing other gut-happy habits may foster the intestinal peace necessary to calm your cravings.

4.  Emotional triggers

This is a biggie. Sadness, boredom, stress, poor self-esteem, negative body image (and the list goes on) may prompt you to emotionally eat, especially those foods that trigger the immediate (but short-lived) boost. But since food cravings are often fleeting and disappear within an hour, choosing to eat a healthier food for the time being or opting for a mood-boosting activity may give you enough satisfaction in the moment while the craving passes.  I keep a list of non-food activities that offer a distraction and feel nourishing — reading, listening to music, drinking some tea, taking the dogs for a walk, painting my nails, Epsom salt bath, etc.

Now here are some strategies for becoming more conscious, aware and proactive when those cravings overtake you:

1. Stay hydrated. Make sure you’re drinking about half your body weight (lbs) in ounces of water daily (if you’re 140 lbs, drink 70 oz water a day). Thirst and dehydration make you feel hungry, and may kick up your cravings. Drink water throughout the day to help you stay hydrated and control your hunger.

2. Eat something else. Even though you feel like you “need” a chocolate bar, chances are you’ll be just as satisfied with a healthier alternative, such as hummus, nuts, fresh berries, homemade, whole food desserts made with natural sweeteners, or even a cup of tea (my tea addiction helps my daily!). Having better choices on hand to munch on can help distract those cravings until they pass.

3. Exercise and stay rested. Rather than relying on french fries and cookies to help you feel relaxed and happy, come to class (for connection, for a sweat, for a distraction — mindful in your activity!) or go for a brisk walk during the day and get into bed with a good book a little earlier in the evening. These habits produce endorphins just like the best tasting truffles on the planet. Plus, the exercise may boost your serotonin levels—something that should help you skip sugar and extra carbs more easily too.

4. Make meditation and sunshine a priority. Taking a few minutes every day to meditate (just focus on your breath) and getting 10-15 minutes a day of sunshine (and be conscious about supplementing with Vitamin D3) may boost serotonin levels so you’re not reaching for candy to turn your mood around.

5. Avoid trigger foods for 21 days. Your taste buds have a great memory. If you really want to break a food craving, one of the best ways is to avoid eating those foods for a set period of time. Find a new food or drink—low-glycemic smoothies and desserts, fresh berries, guacamole and rice crackers, raw cashews, nut “cheese,”—to grab when you’re having a craving for candy, cheese, or chips. This is especially powerful post-holiday time!!!

And just a reminder — Does this mean that you should say buh-bye to birthday cake, french fries and bagels forever ! ?!? No. Remember the powerful 80/90 to 20/10% philosophy. Choose your indulgences (the 10-20%) with intention. Savor and enjoy. No guilt. No deprivation.

But if you feel like your cravings are running your life and they are not being approached with mindfulness, I hope understanding them better and trying some of these tips will put you back into a place of empowerment.

What are your best tips for overcoming cravings?

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