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Handling Sugar Cravings Naturally

February 3, 2012
By Stacey Littlefield

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Does your morning bowl of frosted flakes leave you hungry at 10am? Do you reach for something sweet to satisfy that craving, only to find yourself in the same situation soon after lunch? Do you eat a piece of candy or cookie when you’re feeling a little low? If you do, you’re not alone. The average American now consumes over 150lbs of sugar each year. But munching on sugar-laden snacks or reaching for a brownie when you’re down only makes you crave more sugar. Eating a diet a high in refined carbohydrates and sugar may quickly satisfy your hunger, or give you a rush of “feel-good” brain chemicals, but these results are short-lived and leave you wanting more.

Why Do We Crave Sugar?

There are a variety of reasons, both physical and emotional, as to why we reach for the sweet stuff.

Cravings for sugar have a lot do with the way the body manages the sugar levels in the bloodstream. When we eat simple carbohydrates, like a sugary snack or a soft drink, it raises the blood sugar almost as quickly as an injection of sugar straight into the veins. In response, the pancreas releases large amounts of the hormone insulin. Insulin triggers cells throughout the body to pull the excess glucose out of the bloodstream and store it for use at a later time. This can lead to a functional hypoglycemia – a condition in which blood sugar levels are too low. The initial rush of glucose leads to excess insulin in the bloodstream and that leads to craving more sugar which then exacerbates the condition and continues the cycle. Repeatedly overloading the bloodstream with sugar can reduce the body’s ability to respond to insulin, called insulin resistance, a pre-diabetic condition.

Sugar cravings and an appetite for sweet things could be hardwired into our brains. As newborns, our first food is lactose – milk sugar. It is the taste that we prefer from the moment we are born. Carbohydrates, including simple sugars, stimulate the release of serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for making humans feel happy. Sugar also stimulates the release of endorphins. Endorphins are a group of hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system that have a number of functions. One of those functions is to activate the body’s opiate receptors and induce a pain-killing and relaxing effect. There are some researchers who believe that this particular reaction to sugar is similar to an addiction to cocaine or heroin. It has a numbing effect on the body.

On top of all that, sugary foods just taste good and we tend to reward ourselves with treats. This reward system makes us crave sweet foods even more and is difficult to overcome. The end-results of this cycle of craving and eating and craving and eating are decreasing the body’s ability to process glucose and insulin efficiently, which could ultimately lead to diabetes, weight gain and a great deal of stress.

The best approach to dealing with sugar and carbohydrate cravings involves two separate and specific pieces – one for the body and one for the brain.

Supporting Insulin Sensitivity and Healthy Glucose Metabolism

Maintaining healthy glucose metabolism and the normal use of insulin in the body is a key step in curbing cravings for sugar and carbohydrates. Supporting the body’s natural ability to keep blood sugar levels steady can reduce the highs and lows of consuming those sugary foods. The cells’ ability to take up glucose from the bloodstream is dependent upon the action of insulin. The membranes of cells have a transport system for glucose that includes what is called an insulin receptor site. When someone is responding normally to insulin that is released into the bloodstream, insulin will “hook” onto the receptor sites and glucose will be pulled into the cells. When a person is insulin resistant, the circulating insulin does not hook to the receptor site. The cells do not seem to respond to the presence of insulin in the bloodstream, which results in high circulating levels of both glucose and insulin.

Minerals, especially the lesser known trace minerals, play an important role in insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism in the body. Chromium is an essential trace mineral that is derived solely from the diet. Chromium is primarily found in whole grains. It is fairly safe to assume that people eating diets deplete or devoid in whole grains and high in refined carbohydrates not only are consuming sub-optimal levels of chromium, but also may have a greater need for this trace mineral. Chromium aids in glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity by enhancing the binding of insulin to insulin receptor sites. Vanadium is another trace mineral that plays a role in insulin sensitivity and supporting healthy blood glucose levels.

Plants can also be used to impact a person’s cravings for sugar and carbohydrates. Some of these plants have been used for thousands of years to manage and promote healthy blood sugar balance. Take Gymnema sylvestre for instance, an herbal Ayurvedic medicine. Its Hindi name is gurmar, which means “the destroyer of sweet”. One of the most striking properties of Gymnema sylvestre is that when the leaves of this plant are chewed, a person cannot taste sugar or anything sweet. Among its many beneficial effects on the body is this plants ability to modulate glucose absorption in the small intestine. Remember that consuming sugary snacks and refined carbohydrates can produce a spike in blood sugar levels. Gymnema sylvestre can slow that down a bit to provide a more level and constant absorption of sugar. This action, in turn, may lessen the urge to reach for more sweets. Banaba leaf, Lagerstroemia speciosa, is commonly known as Crepe myrtle and native to the tropical areas of Southeast Asia, the Phillipines and India. Scientific research has shown that extracts of banaba containing a compound called corosolic acid activates facilitative glucose transporters (those transport systems we mentioned earlier), which decreases the need for insulin secretion in the body.

Supporting a Healthy Caloric Intake

Most everyone is familiar with insulin’s role in blood glucose metabolism. Not everyone is as familiar with insulin’s impact on fat metabolism. Insulin is involved in adipogenesis – or the creation of fat cells from pre-fat cells. Insulin has a fat-sparing effect in the body. It promotes the use of carbohydrates instead of fat for energy and indirectly stimulates the accumulation of fat in adipose tissue. In other words, insulin has the undesired effect of promoting weight gain. Because the combination of trace minerals and plant-based ingredients work together to promote a more efficient use of glucose and potentially lowering blood sugar levels, the need for the body to secrete insulin is reduced. When glucose in the blood is used for energy by the body and the brain, it doesn’t get stored as fat. By modulating and promoting healthy and normal levels of glucose and insulin in the body, total caloric intake can be reduced.

Addressing Stress

Resisting and controlling those cravings for sugar and all things sweet is difficult and it can cause a great deal of stress on the mind and the body. Furthermore, it has physical implications on blood sugar levels. Under times of stress, the adrenal glands produce and release cortisol. One of this hormone’s primary functions is to increase blood sugar levels; its job is to counteract insulin. It does so by stimulating the production of glucose in the liver and contributing to insulin resistance. This process is obviously counterproductive to managing sugar and carbohydrate cravings and needs to be tackled in order to fully address the issue of cravings. Adaptogens provide a great answer to this particular problem. Adaptogens are plants that help the body adapt to stress, support normal metabolic functions and help to restore balance in the body. They increase the body’s resistance to emotional, physical and environmental stress; they even provide defenses against chronic stress. They are non-specific, which means they will work across all body systems. These herbs have been used for centuries as tonics to help people recover from long illnesses and to give people a greater sense of well-being and better energy levels.

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, is classified as a plant adaptogen and has been shown to modulate and normalize the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis. More simply, it helps to restore balance to the stress response. Because of its impact on this metabolic pathway, taking American ginseng can promote normal levels of cortisol in the blood stream. Scientific research shows that American ginseng also promotes healthy levels of both insulin and blood glucose.

Support for the Brain

Sugar and carbohydrate cravings can be powerful tethers, pulling us back and forth all day long. It is known that sugar directly affects brain chemistry, which will in turn affect emotions. The emotional and mental components of this issue need to be fully addressed to assure better success. A formula for mood support should contain ingredients that support healthy levels of folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin D and promote healthy levels of several neurotransmitters – not just serotonin.