Hello everyone! Welcome back to my series on weight loss and cravings. Many are familiar with the emotional triggers that can lead to cravings and over-eating, but as stated in my previous article, few are aware that cravings have many physiological causes. Most practitioners tend to view over-eating and constant cravings as either a lack of willpower or an emotional health issue. However, as an integrative practitioner who practices holistic medicine, I am always looking for connections between the body and mind and how to best support both. Naturopathic philosophy not only aims to relieve symptoms, but to unleash the body’s innate healing potential to create lasting results. This means, digging a little deeper into functional biochemistry and getting to know each patient as an individual.
Today’s topic of weight loss and food cravings is no different from my approach to any other condition. Maybe some people view Naturopathic Doctors as specialists who focus more on the mind-connection rather then the science of the body, but on this topic, there may actually be a reversal of this perception. (To my patients, I know this concept doesn’t hold true for our meetings, we work for balance and integrate the best of both, right?) In other words, although underlying emotional issues are important and must be addressed in order to balance weight, physiological factors should not be ignored, and they usually are in conventional medicine! The following physiological triggers are just as important to address with eating disorders, and when balanced can actually make the emotional issues easier to deal with!
A review of the six most common physiological factors of food cravings that I see in my practice are:
1. Yeast overgrowth
2. Low serotonin or neurotransmitter imbalance
3. Mal-absorption (Leaky Gut) & nutritional deficiencies
4. Food allergies
6. Hormonal imbalances
In this issue, I will address factor three, mal-absorption with resulting nutritional deficiencies and provide a link to my past article on food allergies and sensitivities. (For those that missed Part I of this series and are interested in learning about yeast overgrowth and neurotransmitter imbalances, click here).
3. Mal-absorption (Leaky Gut) & Nutritional Deficiencies
Mal-absorption and leaky gut result from sustained damage to the gastrointestinal lining. This damage causes breakdown of the epithelial gap junctions within the intestine and decreases its ability to filter out and protect the body from unwanted bacteria and toxins. Without proper filtering, these little critters and by-products can squeeze through the larger formed openings and be re-released into the blood stream. This can create a wide array of symptoms, allergies, and immune conditions.
Along with reduced filtering ability, increased permeability of the intestines also creates less surface area for absorption of nutrients and other helpful biological substances. This can lead to changes in appetite. The gut communicates its hunger signals through hormones such as insulin and leptin to the hypothalamus, the portion of the brain which regulates survival instincts such as hunger and sex drive. Without proper absorption, nutrient deficiencies occur and cause deregulation of this gut- brain communication. This interrupted feedback loop can cause intense food cravings or overeating of various foods that the body is unable to process as being “digested.”
Intestinal damage can be caused by a variety of factors. These include: medication such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), antibiotics, and cytotoxic agents; food sensitivities or allergies; chronic inflammation; excessive alcohol or addictive substances; immune disorders including auto-immune conditions; trauma; decreased digestive enzyme output; and chronic stress.
Due to the fact that 80% of your immune system lies within the gut, from those friendly bacteria we discussed in part one, and its unique filtering system, mal-absorption not only causes digestive problems, but also a wide array of symptoms. These include: stomach or intestinal pain/discomfort, gas, bloating, low mood or energy, joint pain, cloudy thinking, hormonal imbalances, low tolerance for stress, excessive or depressed appetite, self-imposed dietary restrictions, skin rashes, and intense cravings.
If the body can’t absorb complex foods due to intestinal tract disorders, the body will naturally vacillate to what I label “extreme foods” such as sugar, caffeine, and processed foods. These are sources of quick energy for the body, but can create a cycle of dependence. The body really craves these foods as a protective mechanism because it is unable to absorb more complex and nutrient dense foods with a damaged intestinal lining. However, these foods can not sustain a healthy body. This is not because “extreme foods” are “bad”, but because they can intensify nutrient deficiencies.
For example, processed sugar has no nutrient content left and can rob the body of essential components while it tries to digest it. If one is already healthy, with a strong digestive tract, and full of nutrients, an occasional sugary treat can be handled, digested, and enjoyed with no problem. However, for the unfortunate with a permeable gut lining, this same treat can create much embarrassment in the form of an additional unwanted dialogue coming from your belly and back end. Processed foods can be harmful in that they are not only void of nutrients and have the same issue as sugar, but they also contain many chemicals which can further damage the lining. As you can see this can create a viscous cycle or tail-chasing.
I usually recommend specific lab tests through my clients primary care doctor to rule out any major issues and to help verify what is being addressed. Intestinal permeability can be measured specifically through a CDSA (comprehensive stool analysis) and a mannitol and lactulose urinary test. These tests along with a case history provide a good basis for how to proceed in addressing weight issues combined with other symptoms.
For example, if one is very gassy and certain foods cause bloating, one could simply lack enzymes needed to break down certain substances. This cause of gas and bloating would be addressed with a high quality enzyme and nutritional support. Lack of enzymes can lead to mal-absorption. This would be treated differently from a permeability issue which would call for the use demulcent herbs to soothe and coat the digestive tract, anti-inflammatory herbs, and nutritional support. This is why it is important to consult an integrated practitioner rather than treat yourself.
Cravings are an attempt for the body to re-establish balance. Once balance and nutrient absorption are re-gained, it is less likely to crave extreme foods. Then one can better deal with emotional triggers that may have caused the ingestion of an overabundance of these foods to begin with.
4. Food Allergies and Sensitivities
I have already addressed food allergies and sensitivities in a previous feedback, if you want a refresher it is located here.