Sugar and Stress, Part II:

This is your body being healthy:

This is your body on sugar:

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I posted. Clearly a sign of being just too busy and not balanced…and what do ya know: my desire for sugar has been higher the past week than in a while.

Stress is an odd little monkey in my body . While the real solution to excessive stress is relaxation, deep breathing, fun, peace….yada yada yada……my body-mind seek things that keep the perpetual wheel of anxiety going: more activity, more stimulation…and more sugar.

Life is so clever. It never ceases to amaze me how I’m always being brought little lessons that remind me to pay attention and keep doing my personal growth work. Just as I decided to blog about sugar and stress, more of “that” kind of stuff pops up in my life. We teach what we need to know, don’t we?

This week really wasn’t too bad, however. I did dive in a bit and add sugar to my hot chocolate (a rarity, usually I use stevia) and I did have some frosting on Friday. Yes, I said frosting…not cake with frosting, just frosting. A birthday celebration at lunch yielded left-over cake with white frosting AND sprinkles. Hello!!! By Friday afternoon, running off of 5 hrs of sleep for several nights, I just gave in. Thank GOD there was only a small amount of cake left. I can’t say for sure what state of affairs my ability to say “no” would have been in had I been staring down 1/2 a cake and nobody in sight to see me take a monster piece.

Some of you readers might still wonder why I am even mentioning what may seem like “small” amounts of sugar. I’m an addict. A sugar addict. There are no small infractions, no small treats. Each tiny morsel stimulates in me a desire for more that sometimes feels larger than life. I will blow off social engagements, isolate from my husband, buy crappy junk food that I don’t even like…all to feed this unsaitable craving. That is, if I’m not mindful, grounded and have done the self-care to stop this from happening.

What is the physiology of this crazy addiction? Am I alone? No way – I see sugar/carb addiction everyday of my life. I see it in my clients who don’t understand why they are so able in many aspects of their lives, but have a complete weakness for some kind of refined food. I see it in our children, who would rather zone out with video games and suck down 4-6 sodas/day (the average # of sodas an American kid drinks, according to some), and who can’t concentrate at school. I see it at the grocery store when I watch people, who look tired and unwell, load the cart with frozen pizzas, boxed cereals, bread, crackers, and maybe 1-2 fruits or veggies. We are so close to it, we can’t even see it. It is both completely socially acceptable (c’mon…just have 1 dessert) and totally unacceptable (hatred of obesity) to be a carb junkie today. American consume about over 120 pounds of sugar. What to know more about that? Check out this article by Nutritionist Dr. Nancy Applegate.

What does sugar do:

Step 1: Seek out some refined carb food and put it in your mouth. You feel stoked, happy, and can’t wait to taste the sweetness (even breads register as sweet in the body)


Step 2: you chew that food item and your body starts to prepare for digestion of sweet. This is thanks to amylase, a mouth enzyme that breaks down sugar. Now, the design is clever: send a signal to the hypothalamus (in the brain), which signals the pancreas/stomach early so it can be prepared with some insulin. After all, these whole grains/fruits our body has been eating for thousands of years take time to break down, so amylase helps get the ball rolling.

Problem: refined sugar needs no breaking down. It is absorbed quickly in the blood stream. It hits hard, fast, and all at once.

Step 3: lots of insulin is produces once the signal of “sweet” is sent from the mouth (really its the brain experiencing the sensation of sweet) and when the sugar hits the blood stream.

Problem: Too much sugar at all once! Complex carbs break down slowly. Its like putting one box at a time on the conveyor belt. Remember the “I LOVE LUCY” episode from the YouTube video above? She couldn’t keep up, so she stuffed all the excess chocolates in her mouth/pockets, etc. It became an overload. It was stressful. Your body is Lucy when you feed it to much sugar.

Step 4: This excess sugar has to go somewhere. The liver takes some of it and stores it as glycogen. But it can only store 3-400 calories (about 100g of sugar max) at once. Over time, excess sugar consumption will stress the liver and engorge it, as it tries to force more storage of sugar while also trying to deal with all the other stuff it does. When it maxes out, it sends the sugar back into the blood stream as fatty acids. This is partly why excess sugar consumption raises triglycerides, perhaps more than fat consumption.

At the same time, this sugar now stimulates “fight or flight” response. Your adrenals start working. you get a little “high”. But it never lasts long, now does it? You can’t function as well b/c all the blood is being distributed to your periperhy. Your body is prepared to fend for its life. But there is nothing to fend for. You are sitting at your desk entering data into the computer,or watching TV, or anything else non-life threatening. Over time, the fight or flight activation stresses your body and makes you produce excess cortisol.

Also at this time, the hormone insulin swoops down and scoops up all that extra blood sugar so your brain can stay alive. Yay! Another day to live. However, that sugar ain’t coming out for free. Insulin converts sugar to fat. Lucky us- even if your meal was low in calories, if it was high is SUGAR it may go right to our rears. It took me a long time to believe this, until it started happening to me.

Problem: too much cortisol suppresses the immune system, so you get sick more easily . It also contributes to fat storage around the abdomen, in response to potential life-threatening stressors. It does not know the difference between stress caused by food and lifestyle and real, physically threatening stress.

Step 5: You crash. Your blood sugar dips too low and you get lethargic. Your pancreas is stressed b/c its having to play this insulin game all the time and its over it! It stops working well or your cells stop being as responsive.

Problem: Excess insulin production leads to weight gain (insulin stores sugar as fat in the hips, buttocks, abs, and thighs). The system poops out after a while too, which contributes to Type II diabetes, often associated with high-carb lifestyles. You also feel like garbage.

Step 6: The body is a system of habits and patterns. It comes to rely on certain processes, good or bad. After your crash and your “fight or flight”, you’ve now “up-regulated” certain processes in the body. They want to keep on working, so they now stimulate a new desire for more sugar. And the cycle continues.

Problem: some people are HIGHLY sensitive to this little phenomenon. In fact, for some people, sugar binds with other neurotransmitters in the body and moves into the brain to create “euphoria”. This high is similar to heroin. I’ve talked to ex-drug addicts who have told me kicking sugar was harder than kicking drugs. Some people (myself included) experience withdrawal when they get off sugar. Symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • dizziness, nausea
  • overwhelming urge for sugar. You think you “need it”
  • energy highs/lows
  • rapid heart beat
  • insomnia
  • constipation/diarrhea as the digestive system attempts to rebalance itself
  • change in appetite
  • anger, anxiety, irritability
  • thirst
  • skin breakouts

So you think your body needs sugar to live?

Although the body does require sugar (glucose), as this is the only fuel the brain can use, it is important to remember the physiology of digestion. The properly functioning human organism can produce all the glucose the brain needs through the digestion of whole, natural, unprocessed foods” Dr. John Yudkin of Queens College, London, states all human nutritional needs can be met in full without having to take a single spoonful of white or brown or raw sugar.”

All this just for some lousy sugar. And the high doesn’t even last. I also hate the feelings of guilt, tiredness, boredom, lethargy and low self-esteem that I get from too much sugar. It just isn’t worth it, for me.

I’m so thankful that others folks are starting to talk more freely about their carb addiction. Last night I came across an awesome book at Borders:

Confessions from a Carb Queen

Check out her blog

Okay, I’ve been blogging for way too long (these posts sure do take some time). I gotta get movin!
Have a happy, refined sugar-free day, if that’s your thing 🙂

6 thoughts on “Sugar and Stress, Part II:

  1. Jordan April 6, 2008 / 8:43 pm

    Hey! We haven’t had a mastermind meeting in a long time, but I have been keeping up with your’s and sara’s blogs. I am in the process of getting my marketing material ready for my business and i’m really excited!

    But enough of that, here’s the real reason I’m commenting your blog:
    I was reading about the teas for my tea parties. I was really excited because they have fun flavors for kids and I thought they might be healthy alternative. The catch is (and they come right out and say it) is they use “natural and artificial flavors.” They go on to explain what these are and what not (
    My question is what do you think about what they talk about?

    It’s hard for me, and I assume a lot of consumers, to figure out what is real and what isn’t….

    Again, after all that “natural and artificial flavors” what is your take?

    Thank you! :0)

  2. offwhiteliving April 7, 2008 / 11:24 pm

    thanks for the reply.
    You are so right – its hard to know what is real.
    One place to start is to look past the “marketing” on the front of the box/package and turn the product over.
    if you see high fructose corn syrup, sucralose, aspartame, cane juice, evaporated cane juice, sugar, etc – these are all sugars. Its not that ALL sugar is bad, its just the quality and quantity that makes it. Also , look for the word “natural flavoring” – usually NOT natural at all.

    I try and find foods with 12g of sugar or less (rice milk, cereals, yogurts, granola bar type things), or just avoid packaged foods and get my sugar where I know its good: from something I make or from fruit.

    Coffee drinks are also a HUGE sugar culprit, and its usually not good sugar, and in high quantity. Milk has sugar, so pair that with caffeine and added sugar……TOO MUCH STIMULATION!!!

    Thanks for the website – it will check it out.

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