Do you find yourself exhausted, burnt out, anxious or depressed for no clear reason? Many of my new patients find themselves struggling with these symptoms believing it to just be "that time of year." Yes, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is often experienced during the long winters, but the winter season is not the cause of SAD.
In many cases, these problems are an issue related to blood sugar regulation. When the brain does not have a constant supply of glucose (sugar), it sends signals to the body prompting hunger or irritability, fatigue, confusion, and lightheadedness. The most common cause of blood sugar drops and related symptoms is actually due to too much sugar in the diet.
Our bodies are designed to adapt to stress by maintaining "homeostasis", or balance. Stress can include anything from environmental toxins, emotional stress, or reactions to foods. Sugar (especially refined sugar) is a well-known stressor to the body. When ingested, sugar is rapidly absorbed in the gut, spiking blood glucose. The pancreas responds by releasing insulin to balance blood glucose levels. But when sugar is consumed often and regularly, the body over-compensates bringing blood glucose levels down lower than it was prior to eating the sugary snack! This is also known as "hypoglycemia." Low blood glucose levels often cause more hunger and sugar cravings. The viscious circle of sugar addiction thus begins. Low blood sugar leaves one to feel the physical need for more sugar, thus indulging in what the body craves and providing a temporary relief, then leaving them physically and emotionally drained once again.
So how do you avoid this bittersweet trap?
1. Stop eating sugar. I know, easier said than done. It takes a lot of will power at first. Cutting back on sugar is much like weaning from caffeine or nicotine. Sugar is an addictive substance! Plan ahead for the cravings, make substitutions, surround yourself by supportive people. A naturopathic doctor will also help you with your individual needs during the adjustment.
2. A diet diary may help you to spot where sugar is sneaking into your diet. Write down everything you eat and drink for 3-5 days, including a weekend day. You may be surprised how quickly sugar adds up, be it in your daily coffee, alcoholic beverages, jams, desserts, etc.
3. Read your labels! Avoiding processed foods all together is the best move in avoiding sugar. But look at the ingredients list. Common terms for sugar include (high fructose) corn syrup, dextrose and sucrose.
4. Not all sugars are created equal. Agave syrup is NOT a healthy substitute as it is highly refined and processed. Weston Price provides an excellent article explaining the dangers of agave nectar. Less toxic sugars to the body include raw, local honey, real maple syrup or dates. Healthy or not, remember that the body still reacts to the healthier sweets just as they do the others. Even fruit has a lot of sugar, wreaking havoc on the body if consumed too frequently.
5. Eat more protein and more often! Protein provides a more efficient, longer supply of energy. Eating protein prevents the glucose spikes and lows that lead to glucose dysregulation. Protein snacks between meals will also help to maintain adequate energy and alertness throughout the day. Always keep a handful of almonds on you, snacking every few hours. Other great protein foods include free-range eggs, wild-caught fish, and grass fed meats. Raw dairy products, nuts and seeds, beans and quinoa also provide quality protein.
6. Sugar cravings often indicate a magnesium deficiency. Consider supplementation in the evenings before bed as it has a relaxing effect. A word of caution- too much magnesium can lead to looser bowel movements. Some individuals are more sensitive than others. Some may also find magnesium more stimulating, so they can take it in the mornings.
As mentioned earlier, sugar cessation may be difficult at first. Many of us have an emotional connection to sweets, making this a bittersweet change. But as your body adjusts, you will find a sense of accomplishment and enormous self-satisfaction, not to mention fewer physical and emotional symptoms. Remember that the body has the inherent ability to heal itself, we just need to make the conscious effort to remove the obstacles to cure.
Vis Medicatrix Naturae
Dr. Alicia McCubbins is a naturopathic physician who strives to educate, motivate and inspire. Please feel free to share your thoughts or questions so that we may collectively grow through knowledge.