When you’re under stress, do you fall prey to one of three common dietary pitfalls: skipping meals because you feel like you don’t have time to eat; succumbing to cravings for sugar or fat; or relying on caffeine to try and rev your system? If so, you’re not alone. It’s easy to give in to poor nutritional choices when you’re fatigued and under stress. Unfortunately, although they may feel like a quick fix, these behaviors can create more problems in the long run. In this three part series, I will help you identify the pitfalls, understand the effects they have on your body, and offer tools you can use to correct them.
Pitfall 1 – You skip meals or forget to eat
The problem with doing this:
Low blood sugar is a stress on the body. If you are already experiencing stress and you skip meals, you are actually compounding your stress. It’s the job of the adrenals (two little glands that sit above the kidneys) to support your body during times of stress, including times of low blood sugar. If you have strong adrenal function or your adrenals are only mildly fatigued, you might be able to get away with skipping meals every now and then. However, if your adrenals are fatigued from chronic or severe stress and you continue to make meal skipping a habit, you could be spending more of your energy bank account than you realize.
Cortisol is one of the principal hormones secreted by the adrenals. One of its primary functions is to maintain blood sugar (or glucose) levels. Glucose is the body’s ready source of energy. When glucose levels drop (as they do several hours after eating), or when your cells require more energy (as in times of stress), the adrenal glands secrete cortisol and the fight or flight hormone, adrenaline. These hormones work to raise your glucose levels by promoting the creation of new glucose from non-carbohydrate sources (like protein) and break down of a storage form of glucose, called glycogen. However, this process is meant to be a temporary, short-term fix; not a substitute for refueling with food. Skipping meals depletes your reserves, and the production of adrenal hormones requires energy and nutrients.
Adrenal fatigue complicates the situation further. When your adrenals are fatigued, it is more difficult for them to produce adequate levels of hormones. Without enough cortisol and adrenaline, your blood sugar remains low, and your brain continues to stimulate the adrenals, trying to make them produce more. The situation is much like beating a tired horse, and it makes it far more difficult for the adrenals to recover.
Although skipping meals is one of the most common dietary pitfalls for people with stressful lives, a little planning may make it the easiest one to avoid. Breakfast is just that – breaking a fast. Eat before 10 am to give your body the fuel it needs and to replenish the energy stores you have depleted while sleeping. Then eat moderately sized, healthy meals approximately every 3 hours to help stabilize blood sugar throughout the day. Eating a few bites of a healthy snack before bedtime will often help maintain blood sugar and cortisol levels throughout the night and prevent sleep disturbances and panic attacks in the middle of the night. Every meal and snack should include protein (animal or vegetable), complex carbohydrate (whole grains, fresh vegetables, and fruit) and a little healthy fat (preferably fresh vegetable, nut or fish oil). Since time is often a factor for people with stressful lives, it can be helpful to prepare things in advance and store them in individual portion sized containers. Also, having quick sources of high quality protein on hand such as protein powders, boiled eggs, single serving tuna, hummus with veggies, and packages of nuts can get you through during a real time crunch.
Many people with adrenal fatigue don’t feel hungry in the morning and even have difficulty eating at that time. This is typically due to one of two reasons: either they ate too much too late the night before, or lowered adrenal function is causing sluggish liver function. If this is true for you, make sure to keep your evening meal(s) small, and consider eating foods which support liver function such as beets, broccoli, and cabbage, and the spice, turmeric. Fiber and live beneficial bacteria, like those found in some yogurts, can support optimal gastrointestinal movement.
About the Author
Dr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.