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It is pretty safe to say that many of us have leant on a packet of biscuits (or a block of chocolate, or a tub of Haagen-Dazs) to get us through a stressful time. Comfort food, right? Exactly when we need comforting!

The clincher here is that high intake of refined sugars can exacerbate stress, though it mightn’t feel like it initially.

The stress response

When your mind or body perceives a threat, like a snarling saber tooth tiger, a blaring car horn, or a stampede of Boxing Day sale revellers, your adrenal glands (sitting neatly atop the kidneys) are stimulated into action, preparing you to flee or fight in order to survive. They do this by releasing adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline increases heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow to muscles, and blood glucose levels. Cortisol is necessary for maintaining blood glucose levels, and in times of stress, stimulates stored carbohydrates, fats and proteins to be converted to glucose, for use by muscle tissues and the brain. Together these hormones want to provide you quick access to stored energy to spur you into action.

So, stress hormones are pretty great!

Well, they are, but only in the short term. Chronically, all kinds of madness can take place.

Busy, busy, busy – the chronic state of stress

It is interesting that we live in a society where we thrive on the idea of being busy, or stressed, and people may even congratulate us for it. But is it doing us any good?

Being in a chronic state of stress hampers the activity of the part of the nervous system (parasympathetic) that works in opposition to the stress supporting half (sympathetic). As the body believes escaping the tiger is probably more pertinent than most other bodily processes, this results in:

  • Weight gain
  • Alerted digestive function (including bloating, heartburn, constipation, diarrhoea)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Weakened immune system
  • Suppressed reproductive system (affecting libido, menstrual cycles, and even fertility)
  • Brain fog (such as memory and concentration issues)
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue

As mentioned, cortisol calls on stored carbohydrates, fats and protein to boost blood glucose levels, to run from that pesky tiger (that just won’t go away). When this demand is persistent, over time, protein in muscle tissue diminishes. Muscle tissue is where much of our energy molecules – ATP (hello, 9th grade biology) – are created. Less muscle over time leads to a less sustained source of energy. And what do we do when we want a hit of energy? Did someone say Snickers?

Sugar, stimulants and stress

Stimulants Stress Sugar Cycle 160301_TSF_FBPost

Stress and craving stimulants, such as processed foods, caffeine, alcohol or nicotine, often go hand in hand. The body reacts to either or both of these with a release of stress hormones, and a further desire to smash back something sweet. This is usually a refined type of sugar with high glycaemic load, for a quick hit sugar high.

Then the body realises there isn’t a tiger. And you aren’t running or physically fighting. In fact, we are more than likely sitting most of the day. So the body wants to store the rampant amount of glucose in the blood for use for the next tiger threat, and before it can inflict much damage (as it shouldn’t be floating around the blood in high levels long term). Insulin is then produced to store the excess glucose as fat. At this point after a whopping high, blood sugar levels typically plummet very low, and we crash. So what next? We reach for stimulants and sugar, and so the cycle continues.

What to do?

When you get that sweet or stimulant craving, ask yourself – are you stressed? Even a little?

We must understand that we are in a very stimulating environment, with bright lights, constant noise, and faces glued to smart phones. We then add a busy job, caring for kids, supporting friends and family, running extra hard at the gym as you haven’t moved much today, feelings of guilt that you are never doing enough…well, you can see it doesn’t take much to move into a stress response state, and crave sugar and stimulants to carry us through.

When that craving hits, drink some water, and perhaps go for a 5-10minute walk, or undertake some deep breathing. Long controlled exhalation can go a long, long way in helping moderate a stress response, and help you work toward jumping off of the stress-stimulant-sugar cycle train.