Updated: May 28, 2020
A little science
First, let's discuss stress as a critical process in life, stress is responsible for getting us out of bed in the morning, keeps us motivated, keeps us striving toward something. However, there is a sweet spot for stress, and most of us are not living in the delicate balance. To understand stress more, we are going to take a brief dive into the science of stress: physiologically stress (physical, emotional, or otherwise) stimulates the HPA axis in the body, more specifically, the hypothalamus regulates autonomic tone in the body, the balance between sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) responses. The hypothalamus then stimulates the pituitary gland to stimulate the adrenal glands to release hormones cortisol and adrenaline to sustain the fight or flight response.
Fight or Flight?
Okay, so now you're in a fight or flight state, what does that mean? This is literally a life saving state, this is the state that kicks in to get us out of danger, fight off the threat, or run from it. What needs to happen for that? Well, the body will divert focus from non-critical process like digestion, tissue repair, reproductive processes, seep etc. It will increase blood flow and nutrients to the muscles, think: "Run away from the tiger!" So why is this a problem?
So glad you asked! As highly intricate and efficient as the human brain is... it cannot discern truly life-threatening stress, the HPA axis responds the same regardless of whether you're facing an impending deadline at work, rush hour traffic, or a literal tiger. The tough part of this is we are constantly bombarded with stresses these days and this creates chronically elevated stress hormones which then becomes chronic low-grade inflammation.
Effects of chronically elevated cortisol
Imbalanced blood sugar (dysglycemia)
Disrupted sleep patterns
Deregulated hormone production
Today we are only going to address blood sugar regulation. We will look at the other affects of stress on optimal health, sport performance and weight loss in a four part series.
Dysglycemia, weight management and performance
How often have you heard insulin insensitivity is the problem? Increase your insulin sensitivity, increase your metabolism, increase weight loss... right? I mean, it makes sense...insulin pulls glucose from the blood to store for future use. I bring you back to fight or flight, when faced with stress, a hormone called glucagon is released to stimulate the break down of glycogen into glucose for energy.. Tiger ! Run!
So, if we are constantly facing stress, and cortisol is constantly raised, stimulating the release of glucagon, wouldn't that be the root of the problem? I like to explain this by relating it to the "boy who cried wolf," so here is your body facing stress. The body increases glucose to supply energy to the body, then the body yells "Quick! Insulin, glucose in the blood! Open the cells, let glucose in!" This continues to happen chronically and insulin becomes less and less sensitive to glucose in the blood stream. Ignore the hormone crying "wolf".
Generally, we won't eliminate glucose, glucose is critical to every metabolic process in the body, so if we don't need it to run from the tiger, we will convert it and store it as excess body fat for later use. In addition, that constant roller coaster of blood glucose levels results in brain fog, fatigue and inflammation which is obviously going to make performance in sport and daily tasks very, very challenging. Does that mean we need to avoid all sugar to get results? NO!
Let's simply focus less on how to increase insulin sensitivity and focus more on how to manage our blood sugar levels. Let's focus on how to manage our cortisol (stress) levels.
Balancing blood sugar strategies
1. Eat smaller meals throughout the day: One of the worst things a lot of us do to ourselves, is skipping breakfast (except maybe a large coffee with a heaping spoon of sugar and milk), having one or two snacks through the day, and loading our plates late in the evening with protein a heaping helping of carbs. Good luck gut, you're gonna need it!
So, morning is challenging, the snooze button is enticing. a few things to try:
Prep mini muffin tin omlettes to grab on the go
Not hungry in the morning? Swap your coffee for bullet proof coffee for energy and focus. (actually.... do that anyway).
Don't like coffee? Add MCT oil to your tea or smoothie, make sure to balance that smoothie with a fruit, a green, a fat like cashews or chia, MCT oil and protein isolate.
2. Don't put so much weight on the GI index, it doesn't take into account portion size, how much carb is being digested, or how a food affects an individual. GI only looks at how fast a food is broken down into glucose. Instead, eat the fruits or vegetables that you might normally avoid, (there are a lot of benefits to these foods), just combine simple carbohydrates with a quality fat.
Apple slices with nut butter
Berries with greek yogurt and some chia
Sliced veggies with quacamole
3. Increase your complex carbs, glucose is released much slower into the blood stream providing steady energy through the day.
4. Exercise! Even 20 minutes of mindful movement, a low impact cardio session or go pick some heavy things up and put them down. Exercise requires glucose to feed those muscles, regulating blood sugar, increasing insulin sensitvity.
Balancing cortisol levels
1. Try progressive muscle relaxation before bed. Lay in bed, start by tensing your whole body and releasing. Then begin at your toes on one side of the body, work all the way up your leg and repeat on the other side, do the same with each arm and than your torso.
2. Try out a free meditation app. I use Insight Timer, hundreds of different guided meditations, music compilations, soundscapes and podcasts, in various categories from anxiety to goal setting available at your finger tips.
3. Take some time to figure out what activities help manage your stress, it's a good idea to have some go-to solitary options, as well as options to enjoy with loved ones. We don't tend to take a lot of time for ourselves, in addition we tend to pride ourselves on how busy our schedules are... It is so important to have some time alone, be a little selfish now and then, you can't take care of your friends and family if you're not taking care of yourself.
Feel free to reach out to me by email, if you'd like more information on dysglycemia, stress and weight loss. Part 2 of this series will cover how stress affects our sleep cycles, and how dysfunctional sleep patterns will intern affect weight loss and performance. Stay tuned!