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Natural Awakenings Washington DC Metro

Stress and Sugar Addiction

Nov 30, 2016 04:31PM
Elizabeth McMillan, MS, CNS
The holiday season is approaching, bringing feelings of joy and plenty of stress. Along with work deadlines, taking care of family and often sitting in heavy traffic, we add shopping, entertaining and traveling to our regular routines. Stress is a normal physical response. Historically, humans became stressed when they were faced with a challenge, such as a predator or shortage of food. Today, we are constantly under stress, thus feeling as though the body is under attack. This triggers the body to make energy more available to fight or take flight.

One of these changes is the increase in the hormone cortisol in the blood. This hormone is known as the stress-response hormone. Higher levels of cortisol cause impaired digestion, decreased immune response, decreased metabolism, less mobilization of fat and impaired cell regeneration. It also alters mood and brain hormones and the destruction of healthy muscle and bone tissues. Today, chronic stress is causing an epidemic of high cortisol levels.

Excessive dietary sugars can also cause increased cortisol levels. This begins a cycle of craving sugar. When we are stressed, we crave sugar. High stress and increased cortisol levels can cause an increase in appetite. Over time, chronically high cortisol levels decrease the brain’s ability to utilize glucose (sugar). This leads to a dysfunction of many other brain hormones like serotonin and dopamine.

This dysfunction is the root of the carbohydrate or sugar craving. To stabilize serotonin and dopamine, our mood stabilizer hormones, we need more glucose to meet those needs. As blood glucose levels start to drop, more glucose is needed to meet the hormone’s needs. Thus, we are constantly needing more glucose or carbohydrate intakes to satisfy the brain hormones. This cycle keeps escalating like any other stimulant addiction. Scientific studies report that this addiction is harder to break than cocaine.

To break this cycle, we need to inhibit strictly dietary sugars. A mixed-meal dietary pattern with moderate amounts of protein and fats combined with complex carbohydrates is the best strategy for carbohydrate addiction. Decreasing artificial and additive sugars is also extremely important. The best way to stop the sugar addiction is to quit sugar cold turkey—even cheat days are not suggested. This does not mean that one must decrease on taste. There are many ways to add flavor and satisfy your sweet-tooth with healthy, natural sugars.

Sugars, carbohydrates and sweets are all around us. Especially during the holidays with all the enticing cookies and drinks at family gatherings and parties. Consequently, it is no surprise we crave them. However, most of us do not understand the biochemical craving that corresponds to sweets and carbohydrates, especially when we are stressed. It is a high price to pay for a few seconds of indulgence!

Elizabeth McMillan is a board-certified clinical nutritionist at Rose Wellness. She is offering free cooking seminars and demonstrations for the holiday season such as Adding Color to the Table, Baking Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free and Dairy-Free and Holiday Detox Strategies. See for more information. 





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