Why We Have Cravings and How To Control Them
Cravings can drive us to extremes. We crave sugar, alcohol, or substances because our minds seek to recapture the feeling we have when we take in sugar, alcohol, or substances. Repeated consumption of the substance of our choice alters our brain’s chemistry.
Our brain remembers pleasure. We seek out the source of what makes us feel good because we have memories of pleasure. Cravings are intense memories linked to our brain’s neurochemistry. Studies show there is measurable activity when a person sees their preferred substance—such as alcohol, substances, or sugar—the brain activates a strong response to the image.
Smell, taste, and touch bring us back to times when we were happy. The satisfaction of tasting, smelling, or touching objects such as a glass, a pipe, wrapper, or a specific scent becomes linked with alcohol, substances, or sugar. Every time we feel, smell, or taste something that reminds us of what pleases us, the stimuli trigger our brain, causing us to want what makes us feel good.
The consumption of alcohol, substances, or sugar changes how our brains and bodies react to those substances. The brain wants to feel like it did the first time the substances were introduced. Each time the brain wants to feel like it did the first time, alcohol, substances, or sugar was used. Seeking to feel good makes sense. We remember how pleasurable events, such as sex or other compulsive experiences feel, so we want to do them again. The urge to repeat negative habits becomes ingrained in our body and brain.
The body plays a part in our cravings. Actions like sex or other pleasurable behaviors become memories. Our body enjoys the sensations and wants to recreate the steps that lead up to the release of pleasurable feelings. When introduced to the body, alcohol, substances, or sugar bypass the regions that regulate normal organ function. With repeated use, they change how the organs respond by forming metabolites.
Sugar is addictive. The reason sugar is included in the list of cravings is that people become addicted to sugar. Studies looking into the effects of sugar on the brain find sugar can be as addictive as cocaine. When people joke about sugar highs, the joke is based on fact. Our brains crave the feeling sugar gives us when we ingest candy, sugary drinks, or baked goods. The brain releases dopamine that floods the body with favorable sensations. However, despite some believing sugar is harmless, long-term use of sugar will cause health issues. Two of the effects are obesity and diabetes.
Few people would argue against the addictive nature of alcohol. Alcoholism can destroy families and friendships. The cost of alcoholism affects everyone around the alcoholic, and it affects society. Our everyday routine becomes challenging to maintain. The myth of the functional alcoholic denies the rift alcohol creates in relationships and performance in social settings. The study Neurobiology of Alcohol Dependence: Focus on Motivational Mechanisms says:
“People use alcohol as a way to feel comfortable in social settings. Mental health disorders such as social anxiety block people from effortlessly engaging in activities like parties, gatherings, and recreational activities. People feel freer, looser, or expressive when they have a drink or two. These feelings exist because the brain releases dopamine, brain chemicals that make us feel good when a person drinks alcohol. Drinking doesn’t solve the underlying issue of social anxiety. Instead, it masks the mental health disorder while creating an addiction.”
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines the development of alcoholism as:
“Alcoholism, also called alcohol dependence, is a chronic relapsing disorder that is progressive and has serious detrimental health outcomes. The development of alcoholism is characterized by frequent episodes of intoxication, preoccupation with alcohol, alcohol use despite adverse consequences, compulsion to seek and consume alcohol, loss of control in limiting alcohol intake, and the emergence of a negative emotional state in the absence of the drug.”
Substances aren’t limited to drugs such as cocaine or heroin. Molly, shrooms, marijuana, prescription drugs, or other recreational drugs are included in the substance category. Our brain responds to substances the same way it does to alcohol or sugar. When we use our drug of choice, pleasurable feelings occur, and dopamine is released. People with mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder can use drugs to help them feel happy, calm them down, or curb intense emotions.
Tips to Cope With Cravings
Cravings aren’t easy to ignore. Since they are triggered by smell, taste, or touch, avoiding what reminds us of alcohol, substances, or sugar is difficult to avoid. Recognize the craving. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed by the feeling of wanting a drink, substance, or sugar. Acknowledge the desire and work on refocusing your attention to a healthy habit. Here are a few tips to aid in getting past a craving:
- Get involved in a group that addresses cravings
- Learn a new healthy lifestyle choice such as yoga, meditation, or exercise
- Be open with friends and family about your addiction
- Seek help. Therapy is essential to recovering from cravings
Diverting cravings to healthy lifestyle choices can help us address the negative ways we seek pleasure. Learning how to identify, cope, and reduce or eliminate cravings can involve therapy. Therapy isn’t a sign of weakness; starting treatment is a sign of strength.
Cravings are difficult to ignore when anything can trigger the memory of how we feel when we drink, use a substance, or ingest sugar. Everywhere around us is temptation. We want to feel good; we want to be happy. Using alcohol, substances, or sugar to make us feel better when we are in social situations or feel sad, hopeless, angry, or suicidal only increases those feelings. Our brains and bodies’ chemical response to alcohol, substances, or sugar is a temporary feeling of pleasure. When the pleasurable feeling ends, we can feel worse than we did before we drank, used, or consumed sugar. Continued use of alcohol, substances, or sugar has serious long-term effects on our brain and body. Often we become dependent on our preferred drink, substance, or sugary treat, neglecting to acknowledge what feelings lie beneath. If you think you have an addiction to alcohol, substances, or sugar, call Achieve Medical Center at (858) 221-0344 to find out more about addiction or mental health disorders.