Do you crave sugar and carbs when you’re sick? You’re not the only one.

Have you ever found yourself reaching for a hot bowl of instant noodles or a comforting candy bar when your nose is congested, your head throbs, and you sense a cold coming on? In times of sickness, our appetite often takes a back seat. Yet, curiously, there are moments when we crave sugary treats and carb-loaded comfort foods. 

It’s quite the paradox, isn’t it?

Immunity requires energy

The answer lies in the intricate relationship between our immune system, brain chemistry, and comfort food. When we’re sick, our body’s immune system kicks into high gear to fight off the invading pathogens. This immune response requires a substantial amount of energy

Consequently, our body signals to our brain that it needs more fuel to power this battle. Sugar and carbs, being a quick and easily accessible source of energy, become a tempting choice. However, eating a lot of sugary foods when you’re sick might give you more energy, but it could also exacerbate the immune and inflammatory response, potentially impeding recovery.

Over time, consistently eating too much sugar can lead to ongoing inflammation in your body, change the mix of helpful bacteria in your gut (i.e. microbiome), and even raise your risk of chronic illnesses. To keep your immune system strong, it’s wise to focus on a mix of balanced foods like fruits, veggies, fiber, protein, and carbs that don’t cause quick spikes in blood sugar.

Notifications of laboratory-confirmed influenza, Australia, 1 January 2016 to 25 June 2023, by year and week of diagnosis. Image source.

This is especially relevant in Australia, where the flu season hits hard, and infections like the common cold are widespread. According to recent statistics, Aussies experience an average of 2 to 4 bouts of colds per year, leading to an increased likelihood of encountering those sick-day cravings.

When stress kicks in

Illness can put stress on the body. When we’re sick, the body goes through short-term stress, releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which help get more energy for the body’s needs. This can lead to a decrease in appetite.

If stress lasts a long time, it can mess up how your body uses energy. This can lead to not getting enough important nutrients, and changes in how your stomach and brain work. Which can make you more likely to want sugary or salty foods that give you lots of energy in a single go.

The hormone cortisol, which is linked to stress, can also make you want high-calorie foods that feel comforting and temporarily reduce stress.

What your brain wants

Another aspect of the science behind sugar cravings during illness involves the intricate interplay of neurotransmitters in our brain. When we consume sugar, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This can provide a temporary mood boost and alleviate the discomfort of being sick. 

However, the energy boost from sugary treats is usually short-lived, and within an hour, you might feel less awake and more tired. The connection between carbs (which turn into sugar in the body) and serotonin goes back to 1971 when researchers discovered that rats had higher tryptophan levels (which helps make serotonin) in their blood and brains after eating lots of carbs.

Later studies in humans found links between carbs and mood, especially concerning issues like obesity, depression, and seasonal affective disorder. Treatments that boost serotonin have been shown to decrease the desire for carbohydrates.

Surprisingly, nearly 90% of serotonin, a feel-good chemical, is produced in our digestive system. The large community of microorganisms living in our gut has a strong impact on our immune system, metabolism, and hunger. Interestingly, studies in mice have even found certain microorganisms that seem to make them crave sugary foods after taking antibiotics.

In conclusion

While indulging in a sugary treat every now and then is not inherently harmful, it’s essential to strike a balance, even when you feel sick. Opting for healthier alternatives such as fresh fruits or herbal teas can provide the comfort and energy needed without overloading on sugar. Moreover, staying hydrated, getting enough rest, and nourishing your body with nutrient-rich foods can help support your immune system’s fight against illness!

Opinions or facts expressed within the content have been sourced from various news sources. While every effort has been taken to source them accurately, the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates do not take any responsibility for errors in these sources. Patients should not rely on the facts or opinions in the content to manage their own health, and should seek the advice of an appropriate medical professional. Further, the opinions or facts in the content do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates. 

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