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Neuroscientist supports claims that ‘crazy COVID cravings’ are real

Has lockdown had you craving foods you wouldn’t normally dream of eating? Sugary doughnuts, towering Big Macs, creamy choc-nut sundaes, and salty crisps? Blame it on COVID and something called the CRF, says a neuroscientist.


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Before COVID took the wind out of my sails, I was super fit, strong and healthy. Thankfully, I have managed to maintain some semblance of health and fitness by exercising regularly, but my usually healthy eating habits seem to have packed their bags and headed for the hills and crazy cravings have taken their place.

Never one for sweet things unless I needed energy for a training session in the pool or a hockey match, I now seem to crave inordinate amounts of sugar. Biscuits, chocolate, ice-cream, and waffles — you’d swear I was Augustus Gloop, the “great big greedy nincompoop” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who gorges himself on everything in sight.

And I’m not alone either. Friends tell me tales of making ice-cream sandwiches with Oreos, stirring their coffee with Dipped Flake, and eating Twinkies. Seriously.

But according to Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Michigan Department of Psychology, Kent Berridge, crazy COVID cravings are not uncommon.

Cravings all boil down to stress

Berridge says that stress is a major factor in the onset of cravings, and we have certainly had enough of that. From an incurable global pandemic to living under lockdown with no stress-relieving vices like alcohol, COVID is enough to make the toughest health nut reach for the jar of Nutella and a spoon.

Berridge believes a heightened amount of prolonged stress can drive cravings for comfort foods.

“Virtually all stresses trigger what’s been called the brain’s master stress neurotransmitter, CRF (corticotropin-releasing factor),” says Berridge. “CRF can directly promote craving itself, causing foods to become a form of ‘hedonic self-medication’.”

“Home isolation and financial consequences are stressful, that would definitely set the stage for the processes above to kick in and magnify craving,” he says.

Lack of sleep

Another contributing factor to piling on the pizza is disturbed sleep patterns.  

The coronavirus pandemic has interrupted daily routines, and balancing the normalities of day-to-day life has become a challenge. Social distancing, heightened levels of stress, and simply trying to navigate the curveballs of life can lead to disturbed sleep patterns and insomnia. And when you wake up in the middle of the night, you inevitably head for the fridge. And it’s not because you’d kill for a carrot.

Studies done at Harvard University show that there is a correlation between disruption in sleep routines and cravings for sweet carb snacks, and fatty and sugary foods. They showed that when people are stressed, they seek comfort foods to calm them in times of need.

COVID-19-related stress can range from fearing for your own health or loved ones’ health, the constant bombardment of facts, figures and news related to the pandemic, difficulty sleep or concentrating, or increased use (or severe lack thereof in our case) of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.

Carbs make us feel good

Husband-and-wife team, MIT professor of neuroscience Dr. Richard Wurtman and Dr. Judith Wurtman have done numerous studies on the link between carbs and depression. Their research has shown “that carbohydrate craving is related to decreases in the body’s feel-good hormone serotonin, decreases which are marked by a decline in mood and concentration”.

“Carb craving is part of daily life. It’s a real neurochemical phenomenon,” Dr. Judith Wurtman says. “When we eat carbs, our bodies create more serotonin. Reaching for carbs may simply be an unconscious attempt to lift a depressed mood.”

So, there you have it. That BLT with extra mayo in the middle of the night might take a few weeks in the gym (when they finally open) to burn off, but it made you feel good, and that’s what counts in these dark days of COVID.

Now if you’ll excuse me – there is a double-dipped chocolate scone with strawberry jam and a huge dollop of fresh cream calling my name…