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“Why am I craving sugar?” - How sleep and stress could be involved in sugar cravings

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on July 10, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Do you sometimes find yourself wondering, “Why am I craving sugar?”

Craving an ice cream cone or a piece of dark chocolate is an all-too-familiar feeling for many of us. But consuming too much sugar can come with a variety of health issues—like unwanted weight gain, tooth decay, and increased triglyceride levels (which can affect your heart health).

So what could be behind your sugar cravings? It turns out that lack of sleep, as well as high levels of stress, could be involved.

Here, we’ll take a closer look at how sleep and stress can affect those cravings for sugary food. We’ll also discuss other possible reasons for sugar cravings—so read on.


Easily check hormones related to your sleep cycle and stress levels with the Everlywell at-home Sleep & Stress Level Test.


Let’s start by briefly exploring what a food craving is.

What are food cravings?

A food craving is defined as "an intense desire to consume a particular food (or type of food) that is difficult to resist." People who experience food cravings typically report 2-4 episodes per week of intense cravings.

Sleep and sugar cravings

Lack of sleep and food desire go hand-in-hand. In fact, sleep deprivation alters our appetite-regulating hormones, which can increase your intake of calorie-dense foods and contribute to weight gain.

More specifically, lack of sleep causes the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin to increase, which causes you to eat more. It also decreases levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin.

When you’re tired, you may also tend to turn toward foods that give you a quick, easy fix of energy—like sugar. That’s why many of us start craving sweets after a long, tiring day.

Stress and sugar cravings

Stress can not only increase one’s intake of food overall, but also affect the kind of foods that are eaten. In general, stress triggers greater consumption of appetizing, calorie-dense foods—like chocolate, potato chips, and fatty foods, for example. In fact, stress is especially associated with eating sugar-filled foods: according to some studies, up to 70% of people report eating more sweet foods (think cookies, cakes, chocolate, and candy) when they experience high levels of stress.

Other possible reasons for sugar cravings

There are a few other reasons why you might be craving that afternoon candy bar—or some other sweet snack. If you forego breakfast in the morning, for example, and are trying to run off a cup of coffee and a piece of fruit, you might be more prone to give in to sugar cravings in the afternoon and evening. And if you skip meals and suddenly get hungry, a sugar craving can quickly kick in.

Sugar can also release brain chemicals that help us feel good, which leads to addictive behavior. As your tolerance for sweets builds, you may need more to feel satisfied, which feeds the vicious sugar cycle.

How to curb sugar cravings

You can manage cravings for sugary food brought on by lack of sleep and/or stress by improving the length and quality of sleep and through effective stress management.

To get better sleep:

  • Avoid caffeine (and other stimulants, like nicotine) and alcohol late in the day
  • Avoid eating heavy meals late at night
  • Get regular exercise—but aim to exercise earlier in the day, and not within 2-3 hours of bedtime
  • If you take naps, take them before 3 PM and try to nap for no longer than 20 minutes
  • Create a sleep schedule that encourages you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day
  • If you do find that you have trouble falling asleep or you can’t stay asleep at night, do something calming—like listening to soft music or reading

To help reduce stress in your daily life:

  • Get physically active and pump your body up with endorphins
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Avoid smoking tobacco and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol or caffeine
  • To help support a sense of calm, try meditating, participating in a hobby or activity you enjoy, and socially connecting with those you love

When you’re stressed, you might have trouble sleeping, and when you have trouble sleeping, you might be stressed. This cycle—in which lack of sleep and stress fuel each other—can lead to cravings for sweet food, so addressing your lack of sleep and high stress may help you curb your sugar intake.

Testing your sleep and stress hormones

To better understand your sleep cycle and stress, use the at-home sleep and stress level test to check key hormones like melatonin (the “sleep hormone”) and cortisol (the “stress hormone”). Understanding your levels of these hormones may help you find out how you can get better sleep and whether you are experiencing long-term, chronic stress—so you can take proactive steps to feel more rested and less stressed.


High cortisol levels symptoms

Can stress cause weight gain?


References

1. Chao A, Grilo CM, White MA, Sinha R. Food cravings mediate the relationship between chronic stress and body mass index. J Health Psychol. 2015;20(6):721-729. doi:10.1177/1359105315573448

2. Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T, Mignot E. Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index. PLoS Med. 2004;1(3):e62. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062

3. Ulrich-Lai YM. Self-medication with sucrose. Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2016;9:78-83. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.02.015

4. Jacques A, Chaaya N, Beecher K, Ali SA, Belmer A, Bartlett S. The impact of sugar consumption on stress driven, emotional and addictive behaviors. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019;103:178-199. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.05.021

5. Break Your Sugar Addiction in 10 Days. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed July 10, 2020.

6. How do I control stress-induced weight gain?. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 10, 2020.