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Have you ever wondered why a doughnut or a bagel with cream cheese sounds so delicious the morning after you’ve pulled an all-nighter or stayed up late with a sick baby? Or why most people would opt for a pint of ice cream over a bowl of mixed berries at the end of a long day? The reason is pretty simple, actually: stress.
Sugar and other foods can influence our internal regulatory systems.
We know that eating tasty (aka: high-sugar, high-fat) foods in response to stress can activate the reward system in the brain via the opioid, dopamine, and the endocannabinoid systems—which are the systems responsible for the feelings you gain from using morphine, marijuana, and cocaine. Basically, this means that when you eat that doughnut in the morning, you're influencing these systems, which makes you feel good and activates the part of our brain called the limbic system—which influences instinct and mood, in addition to fear, pleasure, and anger, among other emotions.
As a result, we reinforce a behavioral pattern in our brains that says, "You need to eat this to help you feel better." When we do this, it reduces or blunts the stress activation system, which does actually make us feel better in the moment. In other words, we use yummy, addictive foods to self-regulate our stress-activation system, which involves the adrenal glands and the stress hormone cortisol. And that's just the beginning of the story.
Short-term hits of anxiety relief can mean long-term insulin and blood sugar problems.
While eating sweets and other energy-rich foods may make us feel better in the short term, they definitely do not help us in the long term. Excessive amounts of sugar drive up the levels of pro-inflammatory insulin, which helps deliver the sugar to our cells. When there isn't enough insulin or the insulin doesn't work as well, we develop insulin resistance. Glucose levels will then build up in the blood and put us on the road to developing pre-diabetes and, eventually, full-blown diabetes.
In response to all this, the body increases the amount of insulin it releases to try to keep us balanced. But, ironically, insulin also makes us hungry, and the food we eat is more likely to be stored as fat when we have higher insulin levels. As you can imagine, this creates a vicious cycle: When we have spikes in insulin as a result of eating high-sugar foods, our hunger drive can be stronger and our cravings also get stronger. And if what you eat is stored primarily as fat (from higher insulin levels), in between meals you may develop cravings and hunger because the fat cells won’t let go of the energy stores as readily as other cells in your body, so you'll want to eat again to feel better. The cycle goes on and on and on.
Not surprisingly, the microbiome is also involved in anxiety and blood sugar balance.
What is even more interesting is that higher cortisol levels are associated with the development of type 2 diabetes. For starters, stress can affect how we think and regulate our emotions, which means it naturally influences our eating patterns and sleep habits. It also can influence the gut microbiome, which is the ecosystem of trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live inside of our gastrointestinal tracts. All of these things taken together can lead us to develop conditions such as obesity, diabetes, fatty liver, stroke, and heart disease.
Poor dietary choices and chronic stress are definitely risk factors for blood sugar imbalance. These are also risk factors for an imbalance in the gut microbiome. This is where the root cause of many chronic diseases comes from, including anxiety and depression. In fact, a recent study showed that there was a particular pattern of imbalance in the gut microbiome in those people who had generalized anxiety disorder.
Five ways to balance blood sugar (and relieve anxiety at the same time).
As a doctor, I'm constantly amazed by the human body. This is such an intricate system we have, isn’t it? The main thing to know is that what we eat, how we eat, and what lifestyle choices we follow can significantly affect our blood sugar balance and our mental balance. It's all tied together. So what can we do about it? It can feel overwhelming at first, but the body's systems are so intricately connected that making a few small changes can create big changes in our overall health. Here are five of my go-to tips for tackling all of these issues at once:
Take some time to relax daily, even if it means you take a minute or two for some deep breathing exercises. This can also help with reducing cravings. In fact, a recent study suggested that emotional freedom techniques (EFT), such as tapping, may be helpful in managing anxiety and depression for those struggling with obesity and unhealthy food cravings.
Try to aim for seven or more hours of sleep per night. Sleeping better helps with both stress management and food cravings.
3. Avoid excessive alcohol.
This is a great way to reduce stress and cravings. It also helps to develop a diverse and resilient gut microbiome.
5. Eat healthy foods.
Avoid unhealthy fat—like hydrogenated oils and some seed oils—processed foods, sugar, fast foods, sodas, and snacks. Focus on healthy whole foods and eat plenty of colorful vegetables and fruits, like these fruits and veggies that are great for managing your weight. It may be tough to get rid of these unhealthy foods, but once you do, your cravings will also change and you will probably be searching for those berries instead of the pint of ice cream at the end of the day!
Remember: Our hormones, cravings, brain function, and digestion are all closely connected to one another. If you make some simple changes in your lifestyle, you will find that everything starts working together in harmony.
Ready to learn more about how you can keep your brain healthy, no matter your age? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman, where you’ll learn how to make diet and lifestyle modifications right now for better brain health!