Are Pregnancy Cravings Real?

Now that people have found out that I am pregnant, I usually get hit with two questions: 1) Do you have morning sickness? and 2) Any pregnancy cravings?  I am definitely not at all surprised that these are the two main topics of interest when it comes to my pregnancy.  I believe that both of these pregnancy symptoms are representative of Western culture’s image of pregnancy.  In fact, ask someone to picture a pregnant woman and, more than likely, they will immediately conjure up an image of a woman throwing up over a toilet or eating pickles and ice cream.  Anyway, I’m not here to discuss morning sickness.  Morning sickness, or all day sickness, or all pregnancy sickness is very real and I have a great amount of sympathy for women who have to suffer from any degree of nausea or vomiting.  Instead, I want to talk about cravings….are pregnancy cravings real or are they a culturally influenced behavior?

I’m sure this will be a somewhat controversial topic and because there isn’t much research on the topic we can’t know one way or another.  Still, I think it’s an interesting discussion to have rather than potentially using pregnancy as an excuse to needlessly indulge in unhealthy eating habits or expect our significant others to rush out in the middle of the night to fulfill our every whim.  People experience cravings all the time pregnant or not.  If you are hungry and driving past In’N’Out and the aroma of delicious, meaty burgers fills your nose, chances are you are gonna want a burger (provided you aren’t vegan of course)! Smells, sights, or hearing someone talk about a certain food can inspire a craving in anyone.  Are pregnancy cravings really any different?  One doesn’t always have to give in to cravings either.  Just because I smell burgers on my way home and start wanting a burger doesn’t mean that I have to have a burger right at that moment.  I have had moments during my pregnancy so far in which something sounded really good.  Sometimes I would have it and sometimes I would not or I would have it at a later date and time.

Some of the limited research on pregnancy cravings points to cultural influence.  A survey of women in Tanzania found that the most common cravings for women who reported cravings were meat, mangoes, yogurt, oranges, plantain, and soft drinks.  In the US, however, the most commonly reported cravings are for dairy or sweet foods and, to a lesser extent, savory or salty foods like pickles.  If cravings are this influenced by cultural preferences, how likely is it that there is a biological cause cause for these cravings? If these cravings were specific to pregnancy, shouldn’t we observe women having the same cravings?  Something to think about…

Sometimes women report odd or even bizarre cravings during pregnancy…things they would never eat before they got pregnant or strange combinations of flavors.  These cravings are unpredictable and can even vary from one pregnancy to the next.  Now although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence for this and these type of cravings seem to be a big part of our cultural prototype of a pregnant woman, there is no scientific evidence to support or explain these cravings.  But, there are a few theories.  One is that hormones are to blame.  Specifically a hormone called Neuropeptide Y (NPY) which is a substance created by the hypothalamus in your brain that is sent to other regions of your brain to stimulate your appetite.  While some research suggests that NPY synthesis is increased during pregnancy this would only explain increases in appetite not specific cravings.

Pregnancy is also commonly associated with abnormal smell and taste perception sometimes leading to specific food aversions.  Some research supports the hypothesis that pregnancy cravings may be related to an unconscious desire to “cancel out” these aversions.  For example, a sensitivity to bitter tastes could be canceled out by something sweet like chocolate or ice cream.

A more interesting hypothesis from controversial neuroscience researcher Michael Persinger suggested in 2001 that a possible explanation for strange pregnancy cravings might be due to changes in the brain’s insular cortex.  The insula is a part of the cortex (the part on the outside with lots of folds) that resides deep in one particular fold called the lateral sulcus.  That lateral sulcus separates the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes.  The insula plays a role in consciousness and has many other diverse functions including perception, motor control, emotion, self-awarness, and cognitive functioning.  There is still alot to learn about this part of the brain but we do know that particular tastes are mapped to the insula.  Anyway, Persinger suggests that the uterus is also represented in the insular cortex and that changes to the uterus during pregnancy trigger changes to its representation in the insula.  Some of the changes to the area representing the uterus begin to encroach on the taste perception portion of the insula thus causing strange cravings or aversions.  But, as interesting at this hypothesis is, we have no idea if it is true.

So, bottom line is that we don’t really know what causes pregnancy cravings or if they are in fact different from any other type of craving.  While some women may report very strong cravings others (like me) may report no cravings.  I tend to view my “cravings” as no different than any other cravings I had before I got pregnant.  Some days I really want a steak other days it may be ice cream.

Have you had any cravings during your pregnancies? Any aversions or sensitivities? What do you think about all this? I’d love to hear from you!!




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