How Hormones Affect Cravings

Every person deals with cravings for sweet or savoury snacks at some time or another throughout their life. A food craving is a strong longing for a specific food. Sometimes the urge to eat can be near impossible to ignore, and this can leave some feeling that no matter how much they eat, their hunger remains until they eat the food they were craving. [1]

So what is responsible for the insatiable cravings for chocolate and other sweet foods? Fortunately, researchers have been able to identify several biological factors that cause and regulate food cravings.

Hormonal changes in women

Hormones are substances in the body that function as messengers. They are produced in different parts of the body and coordinate how our cells and organs work.[2]

In 2016, researchers looked at how women’s hormones can affect cravings and the amount of food they eat. Some of the women had intense yearnings for chocolate and other sugary foods. Others would have cravings for high-carbohydrate foods, including chips and crisps. Estrogen and progesterone were both found to influence cravings when the women in the study were on their periods.

Estrogen was the hormone linked with increased cravings for carbohydrate-rich food—progesterone linked with higher consumption of sugary foods. The hormone responsible for telling your body that it is time to stop, leptin, was not affected by either estrogen or progesterone. [3]

The link between specific hormones and the kind of craved foods is essential to bear in mind. During the menstrual cycle, these two hormones can vary hugely and affect the types of foods women crave. Progesterone levels peak at the luteal phase (right after ovulation) of every woman’s menstrual cycle, between days 18-23. Estrogen peaks about a week after ovulation, between days 19 and 22. [4]

The four hormones of hunger

When it comes to the food we eat, hunger and feeling satiated, hormones play a significant role. There are four big players when it comes to our cravings and what controls them.

  • Insulin. This hormone regulates the amount of glucose (sugar) in our bodies. Anybody who has eaten a lot of chocolate and experienced the sugar-crash that follows is well-acquainted with insulin. Overeating sugar can cause insulin to spike, resulting in the sugar crash
  • Ghrelin. Sometimes called the “hunger hormone”, ghrelin is made in the stomach, and its job is to regulate appetite. The hormone is responsible for telling our brains that we are hungry and need to eat. Not getting enough sleep at night can interfere with Ghrelin production.
  • Leptin. The other side of the coin to ghrelin. Leptin acts like the brakes on our stomachs, telling the brain once we are full and do not need to eat anymore.
  • Peptide YY. Similar to leptin, this hormone also signals when we are full and have had enough to eat.[5]

How do hormones affect cravings?

Cravings are more complex than just a “sweet tooth” or a lack of self-control. A craving is more like a spider web of interactions between the food we have access to, brain messages, and eating habits. Like other animals, our appetites link with foods that light up the reward pathways in our brains. [6]

When we eat food we yearn for, our brains reward us with positive feelings. The euphoria we get from eating certain foods encourages us to repeat the experience regularly. Chocolate, crisps, and other salty foods, sweet or rich, all stimulate the release of hormones. These hormones include insulin, dopamine, cortisol, leptin and ghrelin.

Foods we crave can interfere with how our brain deals with the normal appetite hormones if eaten too often. This interference is why we sometimes continue to feel cravings, despite having eaten more than enough during a meal. Researchers have even found that a high-sugar or high-fat diet can disrupt brain signals in animals. The disruption may cause hormones to be released, which reduce feelings of stress and unhappiness. Stress reduction may well explain we desire “comfort foods” in times of stress.[7] [8]

How to reign in hormones and reduce cravings?

Dealing with cravings can be challenging, especially when you are under a lot of stress. Fortunately, there are a few ways to reduce your cravings for less healthy food.

  • Reduce the number of sugary drinks consumed
  • Include a source of protein in each meal. Fish, grass-fed meats, and chicken work well. Otherwise, try high-quality fat, including nuts, seeds, coconut, olive oil or avocado
  • Make some time to de-stress at the end of the day
  • Get enough high-quality sleep. Sleep deprivation can interfere with your body’s production of peptide YY and ghrelin.[9]
  • Avoid long stretches of not eating anything. Try to eat something nutritious every three to four hours. Being extra-hungry from long periods without food can lead to over-eating and severe cravings for sugary or salty foods.
  • Try activities known to cause the release of dopamine, like jogging in the park, dancing or watching your favourite movies. [10]

[1] Johnson, J. (2020). What causes food cravings? [online] Medicalnewstoday.com. Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318441#:~:text=A%20food%20craving%20is%20an,they%20get%20that%20particular%20food. [Accessed 2 Jul. 2021].

[2] Kidshealth.org. (2021). Definition: Hormones (for Teens) – Nemours KidsHealth. [online] Available at: https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/hormones.html [Accessed 2 Jul. 2021].

[3] Krishnan, S., Tryon, R., Welch, L.C., Horn, W.F. and Keim, N.L. (2016). Menstrual cycle hormones, food intake, and cravings. The FASEB Journal, [online] 30(S1). Available at: https://faseb.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1096/fasebj.30.1_supplement.418.6 [Accessed 2 Jul. 2021].


[4] MSD Manuals (2021). The Pituitary and Hypothalamus. [online] MSD Manual Consumer Version. Available at: https://www.msdmanuals.com/en-gb/home/women-s-health-issues/biology-of-the-female-reproductive-system/menstrual-cycle#:~:text=The%20ovulatory%20phase%20begins%20with,progesterone%20level%20starts%20to%20increase. [Accessed 2 Jul. 2021].‌

[5] Hyman, M. (2019). Do You Binge Eat at Night? Here’s Why Your Hormones Are to Blame. [online] Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. Available at: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/binges-blame-the-4-hormones-of-the-apocalypse-infographic/ [Accessed 2 Jul. 2021].

[6] Sinha, R. (2018). Role of addiction and stress neurobiology on food intake and obesity. Biological Psychology, [online] 131, pp.5–13. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S030105111730087X?casa_token=9h9pShPa2wEAAAAA:C4ZDeG1IG2yRZoSbddEFcd6JpSFicOdOz96jXQvBXHat5QZ6vSKljGfc8iiaRzPTLRXlQyohSg [Accessed 2 Jul. 2021].

[7] Jacques, A., Chaaya, N., Beecher, K., Ali, S.A., Belmer, A. and Bartlett, S. (2019). The impact of sugar consumption on stress driven, emotional and addictive behaviors. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, [online] 103, pp.178–199. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763418308613 [Accessed 2 Jul. 2021].‌

[8] The Nutrition Source. (2021). Cravings. [online] Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/cravings/ [Accessed 2 Jul. 2021].

[9] Hyman, M. (2019). Do You Binge Eat at Night? Here’s Why Your Hormones Are to Blame. [online] Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. Available at: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/binges-blame-the-4-hormones-of-the-apocalypse-infographic/ [Accessed 2 Jul. 2021].‌

[10] The Nutrition Source. (2021). Cravings. [online] Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/cravings/ [Accessed 2 Jul. 2021].


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