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 the second of this three part series, I help you identify another pitfall: the overconsumption of sugar and fat, understand the effects this has on your health and your body’s ability to handle stress, and offer tools you can use to correct this pitfall.
Pitfall 2 – You succumb to sugar or fat cravings
The problem with doing this:
When your body is stressed, your adrenals (two little glands that sit above the kidneys) secrete adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that help your body handle the stress. These hormones break down stored fuel and increase your heart rate, delivering blood and energy to your muscles to prepare you to either fight a stressor or run from it. They also increase metabolism, causing your body to burn through nutrients at an increased rate. When you are under stress, your hormones and body demand fuel, and it is tempting to grab something sugary for a quick energy boost or something fat-laden for more sustained energy. Unfortunately, although it may provide a temporary solution, the gain is short-lived and may actually do more harm in the long run.
Sugary treats such as cookies, candy, and sugar-filled drinks provide very few (if any) nutrients and only simple sugars. Simple sugars are those that are easily broken down and released quickly into the blood stream. Although this may seem like a good solution to your energy slump, it’s not. The problem is that insulin, a hormone that moves sugar into the cells where it can be used, is secreted by the pancreas in response to the rise in blood sugar. If too much sugar enters your bloodstream too rapidly, insulin may overshoot its target, moving the sugar quickly into your cells and out of your bloodstream, leaving you once again with low blood sugar and more sugar cravings. To make matters worse, the metabolism of sugar for energy requires B vitamins and other nutrients. If these aren’t provided by the food along with the sugar, the sugar actually robs your body of these nutrients.
This doesn’t only happen with obviously sugary foods; white flour, white rice, and other refined grains are also simple sugars. In other words, any type of grain product (breads, cereal, bagels, crackers, pretzels, or pasta) that doesn’t start with the word “whole” on the ingredient list is metabolized exactly like sugar, raising blood sugar and insulin levels rapidly, and then setting you up for a lower drop in blood sugar after. Fruit juice also provides a high quantity of simple sugars without the benefits of fiber, found in the skin and the pulp, to slow the sugar’s release into the blood. With juice it is also easy to ingest more sugar than you realize. Typically you would probably eat one orange for a snack. If you drink a glass of orange juice, you are ingesting the sugar equivalent of approximately 6 oranges!
(For more about the specifics of adrenals and blood sugar regulation, see Pitfall # 1)
Certain fats, or lipids, are essential to life. French fries, ice cream, and croissants are not. Many processed foods are made with partially hydrogenated oils and trans-fatty acids. Hydrogenation is the process of forcing hydrogen atoms onto a lipid. This improves the fats’ shelf life, but gives them an altered structure that is the opposite of what the body naturally uses. Since lipids are required in the formation of the membranes of all cells and in the synthesis of cortisol, this altered structure causes detrimental effects throughout your body, including your stress management system. In addition, these partially hydrogenated fats, as well as saturated fats (found in high concentrations in red meat and whole fat dairy products), also contribute to inflammation and weight gain, triggering chemical messengers that exacerbate fatigue and foggy thinking.
Choose complex carbohydrates over simple sugars. Complex carbs are broken down more slowly and their sugar is released into your bloodstream over a longer period of time. Good choices include beans, lentils, whole fruits, vegetables and whole grains such as whole oats, brown rice and quinoa. When choosing fats, select natural sources of healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocados and fish. These foods are high in omega 3 (good) fats, as well as other nutrients. Use additional fats in moderation. Good choices for oils include fresh virgin olive oil, flax seed oil and expeller-pressed canola oil. In addition to complex carbohydrates and healthy fats, incorporate lean protein sources into each meal or snack to stabilize blood sugar and reduce cravings.
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.