Stress, Coffee, Insulin and Cortisol, and the role of Breakfast in blood Sugar Balancing (Seasonal Newsletter - Autumn 2015)
Stress, Coffee, Insulin and Cortisol
The role of Breakfast in Blood Sugar Balance
I have in a few words explained the notion of the blood sugar rollercoaster: when you body is not efficient enough at dealing with intensive loads of Carbohydrates in the form of sugar(s). Blood Sugar Levels spike, then Insulin responds accordingly: the higher intake of sugar the higher the production and release of Insulin into the blood stream.
The above illustration shows the impact of a small dose of Glucose – or of a Low Glycaemic Index (GI) or Glycaemic Load (GL) food – in a healthy person with proper Insulin Sensitivity. When ingesting food with a high GI and high GL, the blood sugar level will go much higher than shown in illustration.
Plus, as also shown in illustration, Insulin is still being produced and injected in the blood stream by the Pancreas even though Blood Glucose levels have fallen back to initial levels. In larger quantities Insulin has to match the wave of Glucose entering the body and the delayed response means that Blood Glucose levels may fall well below the initial levels and acceptable levels for the body to cope without Glucose.
As more and more Insulin is pumped into the blood stream less and less Glucose is available for the body to use as fuel. This is when the body “crashes” and asks for immediate source of energy (e.g. the much-needed Glucose) for proper functioning.
This is what creates cravings for sweet foods or other stimulants, such as caffeine (sending you again on a high-then-low blood sugar rollercoaster), so that you have enough energy to being productive or exercising, until the next crash.
As mentioned in previous article, a daily occurring Blood Sugar Rollercoaster may subsequently lead to Insulin Resistance, when Insulin, as a key, no longer fit the lock to let Glucose enter cells. If no changes are made, this will lead to Metabolic Syndrome, most commonly known as Type II Diabetes.
The role of Breakfast?
Breakfast must replenish the stores of nutrients, which have been used during sleep, or lost during sweating. Metabolism is slowed down during sleep; however, it is not halted. Chemical reactions occurs every seconds of the day, and night. Sleep is the time of day when the body repairs and builds new cells (Adam, K. Oswald, I. 1983), bones, nerves, and assists in memory formation, and cognitive functions; and body heat retention.
But breakfast must also set the tone for the day to come. By preventing Blood Glucose to spike, this will allow the body to remain within acceptable levels, preventing your to snack as soon as mid-morning, and reaching for sugary foods and caffeine-laden drinks, which will set you up for a Blood Sugar Rollercoaster throughout the day.
Understanding the Stress Cycle, Cortisol, Blood Glucose and Weight Gain
“What role does Cortisol plays in metabolism? Cortisol is a catabolic chemical, meaning it causes wear and tear if it is too high, which in turn can make you gain weight and crave sugar. Your adrenal glands do a delicate dance to maintain your weight, and when your Cortisol is too high, the rhythm is disrupted.” Explains Sara Gottfried, MD, in the forewords in Alan Christianson: The Adrenal Reset Diet. “I like eating a good, solid, protein-rich breakfast because I need my energy all day […] nor should I borrow from tomorrow’s energy today by drinking coffee all day just to get through. Every day should be like a profit centre that is self-sustaining.
If you think you’re doing yourself a favour by waking up to whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk and a cup of orange juice, you might want to think again. I know you were told at some point that it’s a good breakfast, but the truth is that this standard breakfast is largely converted into triglycerides, contributing to a problem with Cortisol. Before long you’ll find yourself, as I did, with burned-out adrenal glands.” (Christianson, A. 2014. p. 17–29)
“Let’s start with the calorie model for weight gain. It certainly is appealing in its simplicity: people gain weight because they eat more calories than they burn. Although the calorie model does reflect what happens to healthy people in controlled settings, it does not explain what happens when bodies are stressed and move into survival mode. During most of our past, stress came from immediate danger, such as predators trying to eat us or us having too little of our own food. Our genes adapted to stress by causing us to store food as fat rather than to burn it as fuel.
If the global weight explosion is not caused by too many calories, lack of personal responsibility, or bad genes, then what is the cause? To answer that question we need to think about what else has changed during this same time period. Many researchers have wrestled with these questions, and some common answers have emerged. To begin, within the last few decades our world has gotten more toxic, a lot noisier, and much faster paced. Our food has more sugar, less fiber, and many more chemicals. We spend less time in sunlight and we sleep less. We take more medications, feel less certain of our financial futures, and have fewer friends.
Although experts debate which of these culprits is the most important, they strongly agree that global weight gain is brought about by some combination of these changes. Because any one of these causes has such strong evidence linking it to obesity, researchers have become individually fixated on one cause or another.”
“Though we’ve come to think of stress as something we feel when we’re under emotional pressure—a response to feeling too busy, overwhelmed with duties and the rush of modern life—the earliest definition of the word stress included anything that would trigger survival mode in an animal. This trigger, thus, includes physical and environmental stress, dietary stress, and mental stress. To understand how many different factors can add up and push our bodies to create fat, therefore, it is important to think of stress in this broader way.
All animals can maintain their body weights within a certain range, even when food intake goes up or down. This is regulated primarily by our adrenal glands. In response to stress, the adrenal glands release Cortisol into the bloodstream. Whether we are surviving or thriving determines how the Cortisol will act in our brain, liver, and belly fat. In survival mode, the Cortisol causes us to slow down and store fat. When we are thriving, we eat for hunger and our bodies are able to adjust the metabolism to keep our weight healthy, even with minor amounts of stress. But when we get pushed into survival mode, this all changes and we become more apt to gain weight. Stress does not create weight gain until there is a disruption in this adrenal rhythm.”
“When we are under a constant state of adrenal stress, our bodies prepare for famine by burning fewer calories and storing fat around our organs—that visceral fat that was mention a little earlier in this chapter. Think of visceral fat as cash under the mattress. It is the quickest, most accessible fuel resource your body can have for a crisis. The fat on the hips, thighs, and under the skin is subcutaneous fat. It’s more like savings bonds: a safe source of fuel, but we can’t get to it very easily.
When a person is in survival mode, he or she will gain more visceral fat than an unstressed person eating the same number of calories. However, stress does not cause us to store more of the harmless subcutaneous fat below our skin, just the dangerous visceral fat around our organs. This is because our bodies rely on visceral fat as fuel during times of crisis. Not only that, the extra stress hormones prevent the body’s organs from effectively using energy in the muscles or brain, leading to fatigue and depression.
What about those people who lose their appetite when stressed? It is true that not everyone gains pounds when under major stress, but those who do not gain scale weight still typically experience a loss of muscle mass and an increase in body fat.” (Christianson, A. 2014)
This extract from Allan Christianson, The Adrenal Reset Diet: “strategically cycle carbs and proteins to lose weight, balance hormones, and move from stressed to thriving”, is the latest on Adrenals, Stress and Blood Glucose Balance reference. I had to share the main points with you, and it is available on Amazon if you wish to read further on the subject.
Stress from food
“Processed foods in the modern diet can increase inflammation and disrupt blood sugar levels. This inflammation causes the body to make more Cortisol to reduce that inflammation and control the blood sugar level in the same way as when the body makes more Cortisol when it senses fright.
The main culprits of inflammation include fructose and toxic proteins.”
Toxic proteins are the undigested proteins that the digestive system is unable to break down and inflammation is generated from the presence of those proteins because the body is fighting them as foreign matters, or a virus.
Stress from Environmental Pollutants
“Along with our increased consumption of processed foods, the numerous pollutants we are exposed to daily can trigger our bodies to go into survival mode. They do this by chemically activating the storage enzymes of the liver. These environmental pollutants can be found in our air and water, leached from the containers out of which we eat, and even emitted by artificial light.”
Stress from Modern Lifestyle
“Life today brings with it change and uncertainty. Even though our lives are rarely in danger, our days are filled with constant low-level stressors that take the form of text messages, emails, deadlines, and distractions. We also face more frequent major stressors like job relocations and frequent separations from our extended families. Some estimates show that the pressures of modern life may have risen by as much as 30 percent just since the 1980s”
“When faced with high levels of the stress that comes from your consuming processed food, exposure to pollution, or the pressures of life, the adrenal glands have to work harder. If they are pushed too hard, it’s as if they flip a switch inside your body that stays on survival mode. When the switch is off, your body is thriving and it adjusts your metabolism to keep your weight steady, even if you change your diet or exercise routines. But when it’s in survival mode, your body holds on to every available calorie and converts it to visceral fat. In the past when humans faced famine, survival mode was helpful. Today, we get triggered into survival mode by many things that are not really immediate dangers. Thus, what used to help us survive is now the cause of our greatest threat.” (Christianson, A. 2014. p. 97–98)
Understanding the Stress and Sleep connection
“The adrenal glands are a couple of little lumps of tissue that sit on top of your kidneys, deep inside your lower back. They are spongy, orange, and shaped like little pyramids. Each one is about the size of a sugar cube and about the weight of three or four paperclips”
“What time you wake up and what time you feel sleepy are events carefully controlled by your adrenal glands. This timing is called your circadian rhythm. Your adrenals have a partner in this job, the pineal gland; it is one of the glands in your brain, and it makes a hormone important for sleep, called melatonin. The pineal gland is extremely sensitive to how much light your eyes take in, the exact wavelengths of that light, and even whether the light enters your eyes from above you or below you. It seems we are better adapted to sunlight from above us than to TV light from in front of us.
You could imagine Cortisol and melatonin as two hormones on a seesaw. When you wake in the morning on your own, it is from a surge of Cortisol that was released about an hour earlier. This release is like an internal coffeemaker that is timed to be ready when you’re up and about. When the Cortisol surges, the melatonin production is stopped.”
“The Cortisol production starts being lowered after lunchtime and is almost completely shut off by bedtime, when you are healthy and thriving. This allows the melatonin to take over. ”
“When you have not eaten for a few hours, your adrenals release Cortisol. This moves carbohydrates out of their stores in your muscle and liver and into your bloodstream to keep your brain fed.”
“But if your blood sugar drops off suddenly, your adrenal glands have to work harder and make extra Cortisol. This happens when you miss a meal, eat too few good carbs, or eat too many bad carbs. These elevated Cortisol levels may make you feel stressed out or edgy when you’re hungry. A drop in blood sugar triggers the same fight-or-flight response that fear does. In summary, when your blood sugar is well controlled, you feel energised and you stay lean. When your blood sugar is poorly controlled, you feel depressed and you gain weight. And when the latter situation goes on for long periods of time, bad things happen, like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.”
During sleep, Cortisol levels must be low and Insulin levels higher for Glucose to be safely stored inside body cells, and not travelling freely through the blood stream. Acting as a constant energy supply, metabolism cannot be slowed down, and you may not feel tired, nor be able to sleep or stay asleep.
Sleep Deprivation, Caffeine, and Alcohol All Increase Cortisol.
Have a look at the short video on TED Talk:Sharon Horesh Bergquist: How stress affects your body
Christianson, A (2014). The adrenal reset diet: strategically cycle carbs and proteins to lose weight, balance hormones, and move from stressed to thriving. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
Van Cauter, E. Leproult, R. Plat, L. (2000). Age-Related Changes in Slow Wave Sleep and REM Sleep and Relationship With Growth Hormone and Cortisol Levels in Healthy Men. The Journal of the American Medical Association. 284 (7), pp. 861–868.
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Olivier is a Michelin trained chef, a registered Naturopath and Nutritional Therapist, embracing fully his passion for good food and healthy eating.