What a surreal time we are experiencing right now. Are you finding life more stressful than usual at the moment or, despite the seriousness of the situation, less?
Because, in many ways, for some, it could be less stressful. No more commuting, business trips, meetings, no business lunches. Social engagements aren’t encroaching on your time either. There’s so much more time!
On the other hand, you are working from home AND home-schooling your kids. Add to that the fear about your health, your job, your income, your mortgage, your family and your elderly parents, and stress is piling up fast. Was life ever as stressful as this?
It is so tempting to reach for comfort foods right now. To eat to calm ourselves down, to distract ourselves, to batten down anxiety. Doughnuts, muffins, croissants, crisps and chocolate are beckoning. Time-constrains mean that we’re likely to skip cooking and order in or microwave a ready-meal but tempting as that might be, processed foods are not the answer. It may feel like that in the short term, but on the whole, they are going to make the problem worse.
Sugary foods and refined carbohydrates (think pasta, rice, bread and potatoes – the kind of thing people are currently hoarding) rapidly raise your blood sugar level. At first, that feels quite good and gives you a burst of energy. But what goes up, must come down. Insulin is secreted to remove excess sugar from the blood stream. It enables as much of it as possible to get into your body cells to be used for energy, stores some of it in the liver and muscles for emergencies and converts the rest of it – most of it, in fact – into fat and stores it around the middle, around the internal organs.
Lots of sugar means lots of insulin, lots of insulin means a blood sugar crash approximately two hours after eating. As a result, you end up feeling tired, irritable, can’t concentrate and crave more sugar.
Our body does not allow our blood sugar levels much leeway. At any given time, there should be around 5g of glucose travelling around our system. Too much is just as dangerous as too little, which is why hormones tightly control our blood glucose level. Insulin brings it down, glucagon and cortisol lift it up.
When we are stressed, our body releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline triggers the stress response; cortisol sees it through. Its job is to provide our body with everything it needs to mount a stress response, the “fight-or-flight” reaction. If we are unexpectedly set upon by a grizzly bear – which qualifies as a stressful situation – cortisol is secreted within milliseconds, causing a number of things to happen:
- The heart start to pound.
- Breathing speeds up.
- Emergency supplies of stored glucose rushes into the bloodstream.
- The muscles tense.
- The blood thickens.
- The blood vessels constrict.
As a result, we will have the energy the muscles now need for us to run away or wrestle the bear down – to fight or flee. At the same time, bodily functions not required to survive right now are put on hold: repair and maintenance, procreation, digestion. This is the body’s stress response.
It evolved to help us out, to save us from harm, to save our lives. For thousands of years it did that perfectly. The problem is that the stress response is only meant to last minutes (after which we would be safe or dead). Our modern stressors are rarely an immediate threat to our life or safety that would require us to run. Today’s stressors are far less violent, but there are more of them and they never end. Our stress response is not great for that.
If you imagine the stress response was switched on all the time, you would be left with a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, high blood sugar and insulin as well as high blood pressure. At the same time, you would be ageing faster than you should, struggle to conceive and experience digestive discomfort.
Our busy lives and our worries trigger the stress response several times a day. If on top of that we are also allowing our blood sugar levels to spike and then drop, that will cause further shots of cortisol. There are stressors in everyone’s life that they can’t do anything about. This one, however, is easy to eliminate by learning how to balance your blood sugar levels.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Quit sugar
By this we mean not just the teaspoons of white powder you add to your tea and coffee, but all sugar, including doughnuts, biscuits, croissants, cakes, jam, honey, sweets and chocolates. It really isn’t as hard as it sounds, because you are likely to feel better within days. Your taste buds will adjust and – should you accidentally ever eat sweets again – you’ll find those foods sickly sweet.
2. Choose your carbohydrates wisely
Carbohydrates are just chains of glucose (sugar) molecules. In the process of digestion they are broken down into sugar, then enter the bloodstream and raise blood sugar levels. How fast and how high depends on the types of carbohydrates you have eaten. Processed, refined carbohydrates break down into glucose fast, because the processing has already done some of the job your digestive system normally does. The more natural and unprocessed your carbohydrate foods, the more slowly it turns into sugar: whole grains, coarse brown bread, brown rice, whole rolled oats, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds. These foods shouldn’t cover more than a quarter of your plate, while half of the plate should be covered in vegetables, preferably those that grow above ground as they are very low in sugar.
3. Always eat protein when you are eating carbohydrates
Carbohydrate digestion begins in the mouth, where an enzyme in our saliva starts breaking them down. Carbs then quickly pass through the stomach and their digestion continues in the small intestine. Protein digestion, on the other hand, begins in the stomach. If carbs and protein reach the stomach together, those carbs cannot move on until the stomach has dealt with the protein. Carbs therefore reach the small intestine later and gradually, providing a slow but steady supply of glucose that the body is much better equipped to deal with.
Eating like this, you can avoid frequent blood sugar spikes, which in the long term contribute to diabetes. Paired with the high blood pressure caused by stress, this is a recipe for disaster. You can also avoid blood sugar drops that trigger cortisol, thus eliminating at stressor your system otherwise has to deal with several times a day. It’s the first and very important step on the way to better stress management.
Start implementing the 3 rules above and you will quickly find that your energy levels are more consistent, your cravings diminish and your stress levels should reduce. Some may even find that they are sleeping better.
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