Right about now, many of us may be wondering just exactly how we are going to manage the season that looms ahead full of holiday decadence, over-commitment and frustration. What we may not realize is that a season of overindulging in sweets and alcohol, filling up on bread and pasta and then fasting because we feel so lousy or guilty is a sure fire way to send our blood sugar levels into chaos. This blood sugar commotion adds to our stressors which can then wreak havoc on our ability to manage hormones and detoxify just when we need it most. Stress plus unmanaged blood sugar can create a perfect holiday storm of excessive fatigue, disrupted sleep, mood swings, brain fog, gut problems and that unwanted holiday weight gain.
How Blood Sugar Levels Can Impact Stress
Picture this. When we eat a big meal of refined carbs like pasta, pizza meal or even our everyday breakfast cereal and toast, these carbs turn quickly into glucose which when in large amounts creates an excess of blood sugar. The same thing can happen with say… a Reese’s peanut butter cup on an empty stomach. The body reacts by releasing a flood of insulin to tell the body to absorb some of this excess sugar, or glucose. Often the body reacts too well which in turn can fluctuate into low blood sugar.
The body then sees this low blood sugar level as a crisis and turns up the stress response system which releases cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Cortisol increases blood sugar to make sure we have enough energy for that primal fight-or-flight response which helps increase levels back to normal. If this happens too often, however, which can easily occur when eating a common American diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, the stress response system can become fatigued and get suppressed becoming less able to help manage our blood sugar levels. This imbalance in our stress response system can become even more imbalanced during the holidays due to our general level of anxiety, lack of sleep and perhaps more evident lack of spiritual or social connections with others.
Sugar + Stress = Hormone Madness
In this state of intertwined stress and blood sugar turmoil, our bodies can begin to suffer from HPA axis dysfunction which reveals itself through an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, weight gain, energy dips, brain fog, lower desire for sex and exercise and feeling increasingly overwhelmed. Does this sound like anyone you know?
These increases in insulin surges can also create damage to the thyroid gland which is like a central gear to all major systems in the body. Thyroid disorders can contribute to weight gain, fatigue, digestive problems, skin problems and hair loss just to name a few initial symptoms. And as with most reactions and processes in the body, thyroid and adrenal gland function are cyclical and come back to impact blood sugar. Inflammation and inadequate immune function along with nutrient deficiencies can also adversely affect this hormone madness as well.
How to Stop the Madness
Since the last time I checked, the holidays don’t seem to be going anywhere soon, here are a few tips to help you manage your blood sugar levels to help reduce stress and prevent hormone dysfunction this year.
- Enjoy smaller, frequent meals every 2-3 hours. Eating lighter and more often can help stabilize blood sugar and optimize insulin response.
- Eat healthy fats at each meal, especially monounsaturated and small amounts of saturated fats. Focus on olives, avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut, coconut oil, along with cold-water fish, pastured beef and poultry, and organic butter. Try my own easy black olive tapenade or this perfect guacamole from Simply Recipes.
- Start your day with a protein-rich breakfast. Protein is the building block of all hormones, muscles, neurotransmitters and enzymes. Eating a high-protein breakfast has been shown to increase energy and feelings of being satisfied (satiety) all day. Enjoy these amazing paleo egg muffins from Gal on a Mission to give your day a jumpstart.
- Replace refined carbohydrates like pasta, crackers and bagels with smaller amounts of complex carbs. Enjoy starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and legumes like split peas along with non-gluten grains such as quinoa, millet and brown rice. Try Mark Bittman’s simple Sweet Potato Fries recipe to go alongside any meal.
- Lighten your stress load. Stress can be unavoidable on this holiday journey but we can reduce our stress exposure by recognizing and avoiding frustration triggers like a Black Friday trip to the mall. We can also change how we experience a stressful family gathering by taking breaks, remembering to breathe and by channeling our inner sense of joy and humor. We can also build our relaxation response through meditation, breathing and relaxation exercise. One great place to start is Apple’s Headspace app.
• Bauman, Ed PhD and Friedlander, Jodi NC. (2014) “NC 205: Blood Sugar Regulation: The Syndromes of Insulin Resistance,” Therapeutic Nutrition. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College.
• Kresser, Chris MD. “Thyroid, Blood Sugar, and Metabolic Syndrome,” (July 2009) retrieved from:https://chriskresser.com/thyroid-blood-sugar-metabolic-syndrome/
• Ruscio, Michael MD. “Insulin, Blood Sugar and Thyroid – Hidden Cause of Thyroid Problems #1”, retrieved from: http://primaldocs.com/members-blog/insulin-blood-sugar-and-thyroid/