My patients are often surprised that I spend so much time talking with them about seemingly "non nutrition" topics such as stress and sleep. While at the surface these topics appear to be outside my scope of practice, in reality stress and sleep have a very intimate relationship with food, nutrition and health. Let's look at how.
STRESS - BLOOD SUGAR BUSTER
"Stress" is not just an emotional or mental state. Your body is also under stress and releasing a cascade of stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) after a night (or several) of less than adequate sleep, after and during very intense workouts and during periods of illness. You've all likely heard the old story that our bodies are adapted for the "fight or flight" response to activate in times of dire emergencies, like running away from a tiger in caveman days. Fortunately, not many of us have to run away from wild animals these days but the same stress response activates when we feel overwhelmed and anxious about life/ work/ family and we are not taking good care of ourselves with enough sleep.
One of the key adaptations that happens during this "fight or flight" response is the mobilization of blood sugar. Intermittent high stress will make us a bit insulin resistant, meaning we need more and more insulin to bring glucose into our cells. If this is short lived - not a big deal. If the stress is chronic, we start to see higher rates of things like Diabetes and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Accumulation of some extra body fat is also likely to happen - especially around the middle. I can't tell you how many patients I have seen that complain of an extra 5-10 pound weight gain, concentrated on their gut but deny any change in diet or exercise. On further investigation, this patient is under extreme stress and only sleeping 6 hours per night. Bingo! The stress and sleep connection is now the priority to address above all else.
Additionally, when we are under stress and/or have not been sleeping enough hours per night we may experience certain cravings. And those cravings are typically for our "comfort foods" like sweets or savory high carb foods. There's a reason for this: seratonin is temporarily released in response to consuming something carb-rich. This makes you feel good and relaxed, but only for a hot minute. So then you want more! And the cycle continues.
BREAK THE CYCLE
So how can we stop this cycle of stress --> insulin resistance --> sugar cravings --> weight gain/ rising blood sugar? The first step is to take inventory on the stressors in your life. Maybe there are some responsibilities that can be passed on to someone else, maybe you need some more organization help via planners or to do lists (or less time on social media), or perhaps paying for some experts to help you out (like a house cleaner). These steps clearly can't eliminate the BIG stresses, but it can help to pare down some of the smaller ones and free up some emotional and mental space. The next step is to help reduce the negative impact that stress has on our bodies. The category of "mindful activities" can help astronomically here. Some of my favorite activities for myself and my patients are: guided meditation, journaling, deep breathing, and spending time in nature. Doing these regularly, while also focusing on a nourishing diet, plentiful sleep and moving your body can help to combat the negative effects that stress has on your health and disease risk.
Your turn- what are your favorite de-stressing activities?