“Pickles and Ice Cream” or Why You Crave Sweets

by Patrick Nemechek, D.O. on July 31, 2011

Salty or Sweet:  Your Brain’s Need for Increased Blood Flow

Most people crave either salty or sweet food.  They sense these foods make them feel better and because of that they like to eat them.  But many people have never been taught what these food cravings actually mean to their brains.  The reason for your salty or sweet food cravings is quite surprising.  You crave certain foods because your brain needs more blood flow.

The brain is the most demanding organ of your body.  Your brain demands a certain amount of blood flow in order to get the oxygen and glucose that it needs to function properly.  You crave carbohydrates or salty food because you don’t have enough blood flow to your brain.

Carbohydrates and salt increase blood flow to the brain. I will explain how those processes work but the interesting thing to learn is that your salt or sweet cravings are often due to your brain’s drive to normalize the proper flow of blood supply to itself.

Your brain has figured out a way to get what it thinks it wants but what it craves is what causes the problem in the first place.

Let me explain by first discussing the old adage that pregnant women often crave pickles and ice cream, and the scientific explanation why this occurs.

Brain Blood Demands During Pregnancy

A women’s body needs to expand its blood volume by 30-40% during pregnancy in order to accommodate the increasing metabolic demands of the developing child.   That may not sound significant but it is an enormous physical change.

Many women’s bodies are simply unable to accomplish this drastic expansion of their blood volume.  This results in inadequate blood flow to the brain.

Blood is an important delivery system for the body.  Blood carries the glucose and oxygen that are required by our brains to function properly.  Inadequate blood flow results in inadequate supplies of oxygen and glucose.  This in turn results in symptoms or sensations such as fatigue, poor concentration, lightheadedness, dizziness, and even fainting.

These symptoms are all signs that the brain is not getting the proper amount of blood flow it requires. These symptoms are essentially the brain telling your body that it is operating without enough oxygen or glucose.

Cravings For Salty and Sweet Foods

Most of you have heard that pregnant women often crave foods such as pickles or ice cream during pregnancy.  This is no myth.

Women commonly have strange cravings during pregnancy.  Their cravings are powerful, and provide an excellent example of how our brains and our food choices are intricately connected.

The brain is the most selfish organ of the body.  The brain controls most aspects of our physiology in order to make sure it receives the proper amounts of nutrients and oxygen that it requires to survive.  This is referred to as the Selfish Brain Theory.  The brain has no problem putting its own needs first.

What happens during a woman’s pregnancy is that her brain learns on a subconscious level that there are two kinds of foods that will temporarily improve blood flow to our brain, salt and carbohydrates (sugar and starches).

The first type, salty food, increases blood flow to the brain because salt causes fluid to be pulled into the blood vessels.  The fluid expands the volume of your blood making it easier for your heart and blood vessel system to pump the proper amount of blood to your brain.

The second type of food, carbohydrates, can increase blood flow by a couple of different mechanisms.

The first mechanism is that carbohydrates (sugars and starches) can directly stimulate a part of your body called the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.  Sympathetic stimulation by carbohydrates causes some of the blood vessels in your arms and legs to constrict (become smaller) and this forces more blood into your circulation.

Secondly, the sympathetic stimulation also causes your heart to increase how much blood it pumps out.  Both of these effects result in improved your blood flow to your brain.

It is for these reasons that pregnant women crave pickles (salty food) or ice cream (sweet carbohydrate food).  The result is improved blood flow to their brain.   Improved blood flow reverses many of the symptoms the women were having, thus causing the women to feel better.

The subconscious mind gets positive reinforcement that these foods will help increase blood flow, and it will continue to selfishly use these craving signals to improve its blood supply the next time it is suboptimal.

In essence, a pregnant woman becomes a slave to the blood flow needs of her brain.  Ask a pregnant woman who has experienced this sensation and they will often tell you these food cravings are so powerful that they do feel like a slave.

Do You Crave Salty or Sweet Food in The Afternoon?

Many people men and women (non-pregnant) I come across in my medical practice are experiencing very similar and strong cravings for salty foods or carbohydrates.  While these food cravings can happen at any time of the day or night, they are especially strong in the afternoons.

These patients often are suffering from lightheadedness, dizziness, fatigue, poor concentration, headaches, depression, anxiety, poor balance, or feel tired or sleepy as a result of poor blood flow to their brains.  Their poor blood flow to their brain is because is their autonomic nervous system has been impaired from the excessive consumption of carbohydrates in their daily diets.

Patients will unknowingly yet successfully do a variety of things to improve the blood flow to their brains.  Some patients get up out of their chair or sofa to simply walk around. Others will sit with their leg or legs folded underneath them. Some patients drink large amounts of water. And most importantly, many eat salty or sweet foods (i.e., pickles and ice cream).  All of these techniques and maneuvers improve (even if temporarily) the blood flow to their brains.

And just like the pregnant women, my non-pregnant patients have these incredibly strong cravings for salty snacks or sweet food or drinks in the afternoon.  Theirs brains are forcing them (by issuing the commands sensed as “cravings”) to eat these foods in order to improve blood flow to the brain.

Craving certain foods in the afternoon is extremely common but can also occur any time during the day.   Think about your own meals, snacks, and what you drink during your day.  You may feel that you need to snack all day long, and snacking makes you feel better.

You may drink soda, diet soda, or energy drinks in the afternoon to keep going.  Most people have access to carbohydrates all day long.  Food items such as candy, cookies, pretzels, and chips for snacking are conveniently found in our stores, homes, and places of employment.

The problem is that the same carbohydrates that provide short term relief of low blood flow to the brain are the same carbohydrates that are damaging the nervous system and causing the low blood flow.  Our excessive daily consumption of carbohydrates has tricked us into an unhealthy pattern of behavior with eating more snacks.

It is a vicious circle: we first consume carbohydrates to generate enough blood flow to the brain that makes us feel better.  After an hour or so, our blood brain pressure decline and our symptoms return.  We crave and consume more carbs, round and round we go.

We continually eat and drink more carbohydrates in order to maintain better blood flow to the brain.  Carbohydrate and sugar snacks are not the healthy choice to improve blood flow to the brain.

The Brain Can’t Do Without

The brain is the most demanding organ of our body.  In spite of only consisting of 3-4% of our total body weight, it requires 20% of our oxygen consumption as well as 25% of our blood pumped by our heart.  It does not function well if there is even a slight decrease in the supply of oxygen and glucose.

Many parts of the body can function with less than ideal energy and oxygen supplies.  Your heart, lungs, kidneys and muscles can make metabolic adjustments to function adequately if oxygen or energy supplies aren’t in the ideal range.  Unfortunately, the brain cannot make these adjustments.

The brain can only function well if oxygen and glucose (blood sugar) supplies are maintained at a precise level.  Any decrease in blood flow will result in a decrease in the delivery of oxygen and glucose, and these further results in decreased functioning of brain cells.

It’s the inadequate supply of oxygen and glucose to the brain from poor blood flow that causes my patients as well as pregnant women to feel the lightheadedness, dizziness, fatigue, poor concentration or feel tired or sleepy.

Your cravings for certain foods and drinks may actually be a blood flow problem that your brain is desperately trying to solve.  To determine if your food cravings for salty foods and carbohydrates are signals of low blood flow to your brain, you can do a simple test at home that I call the chicken broth test.

The Chicken Broth Test

 There is a simple way to see if your cravings for sugar, and the physical symptoms of headaches, fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness, poor concentration or feeling tired or sleepy, is due to poor blood flow.  The test is to increase the blood flow to your brain by temporarily using salt (sodium), not the damaging carbohydrates and sugars, to see if your cravings and symptoms improve.

It’s called the chicken broth test, and you can do this by drinking a cup of chicken or beef broth (not the low sodium type) twice a day.  Drink one cup of broth in the morning, and the second cup of broth in the middle of the afternoon.  Do this for 2-3 weeks.

The broth has a lot of salt (the equivalent of eating lots of pickles), salt pulls fluid into your blood vessels and will improve the blood flow to your brain.  (Always consult with your doctor first if you have any serious medical problems.)

If your cravings for sugar and your other symptoms are due to poor blood flow, you will notice a significant improvement in these symptoms within only a few days of drinking the chicken or beef stock twice daily.

It is simple, if your brain is getting ample blood flow from the salt in the broth, it will not need to increase blood flow further by forcing you to crave carbohydrates.  You should sense your cravings for carbohydrates dramatically decline.

The improved blood flow will also make your symptoms of low blood flow (fatigue, lightheadedness, dizziness, poor concentration, headaches and feeling tired or sleepy) greatly improve as well.

Once you do the chicken broth test and understand that you feel better with better blood flow to your brain, you will need to alter your eating and drinking habits so that you do not need to drink broth for the rest of your life.  You must reduce your carbohydrate consumption.

Carbohydrate Reduction Allows Your Brain To Recover

You now understand that pickles and ice cream (salt or carbohydrates) can improve the blood flow to your brain.  My serious concern for my patients is that their excessive carbohydrate consumption is causing damage to their brains.   In order for your brains to recover, you need to eat more pickles (salt), and eat less ice cream (carbohydrates).  It sounds backwards, but when you crave sugar you should eat salt.

My medical experience and training has taught me that if I can get my patients to eat less than 100 grams of carbohydrates per day, their brain’s blood pressure regulatory mechanism will often recover within 2 to 6 weeks.

It is necessary to do two things at once, decrease carbohydrates and increase salt consumption.  If you simply decrease your carbohydrate intake without any other changes, you will feel worse because you will experience low blood flow symptoms and still have your food cravings.  What you need to do is to decrease your carbohydrate intake while increasing your salt intake at the same time.

You can accomplish this transition by decreasing your total carbohydrate consumption to less than 100 grams per day AND drinking 1 cup of the chicken or beef broth twice daily.

After a few weeks you will notice that you’ll need less and less salt from the broth as your brain’s blood flow regulatory system slowly recovers and is able to provide better and better supply of blood flow on its own.

I have found that after 2 to 6 weeks, the majority of people do not need any more salty broth because their brains will have recovered enough to provide ample blood flow on its own.

Your Future After Recovery

Now that your brain’s blood pressure recovery system has recovered don’t think you can go back to your old ways of eating carbohydrates because you simply cannot.  You must continue on your new lifestyle of reduced carbohydrate consumption.

If you increase your carbohydrate intake again, you will notice that your symptoms of low blood flow (fatigue, lightheadedness, dizziness, poor concentration, headaches and feeling tired or sleepy) will quickly return.

I have found that if my patients have gone through the few weeks of the chicken broth test and have felt their bodies recover, most of my patients also feel healthier.  And the biggest bonus yet is that most of them have begun to spontaneously lose weight as well.

Once my patients lose the symptoms of low blood flow they are highly motivated to keep their daily carbohydrate intake below their 100 gram per day allowance.  Eating like this finally gives their brain the oxygen and glucose it needs.

If they can do it, so can you.  At least go buy some chicken broth and give it a try for 2 weeks.  All you have to lose are those horrible cravings, several pounds and those symptoms of low blood flow that are dragging you down.


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