You likely have a sense about stress being a bad thing for your health and happiness. Studies have shown that chronic stress can be more fatal than smoking1 and a stronger predictor of weight gain than genetics.2 As important as it is, you may feel that its causes are beyond your control. Many feel resigned to hectic schedules and the pressures of modern life. I’d like to work with you to rebrand your concept of what stress is and what you can do about it.
The original concept of stress comes from a researcher named Dr. Hans Selye. It was a response that he saw was caused in laboratory animals from a wide variety of triggers. Some of these triggers we would immediately think of as stress, such as loud noises and dangerous situations. Yet many other invisible factors can trigger this same stress response.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest causes behind stress is your blood sugar. When it is kept between the glucose levels of 75 to 95, (ng/dl) you function at your best. The more time you spend outside of this range or the more radically your blood sugar shifts within this range, the more your body feels stressed.
How can your blood sugar cause stress?
When we experience regular stress, our adrenal glands make more of a stress hormone called cortisol. Along with managing stress, this hormone also manages your blood sugar. Whenever your blood sugar level changes too fast, your adrenal glands release cortisol to pull it back up again. Unstable blood sugar can make you feel the same as you would feel when an event makes you angry, frustrated or frightened.
Even when you cannot control every cause of stress in the world around you, the simple act of keeping your blood sugar levels stable will make you more resilient. Not only that, but stable blood sugar levels will help you stay lean and energized. This is because along with stress hormones like cortisol, unstable blood sugar causes you to make storage hormones like insulin, which causes weight gain and fatigue.
What makes your blood sugar unsteady and what can you do to help it stay stable?
All throughout the day a large number of factors either help or hurt your blood sugar, but what happens in the morning has more effect on your day then events at any other time. This is true because your body sets its blood sugar regulation based upon the first events after you wake up.
Morning events that raise stress hormones include:
Skipping breakfast – Having no food lowers your metabolism in preparation for famine. This makes you less able to burn fat for fuel.
High sugar breakfast – In the modern world we have weird ideas about breakfast foods being desserts. You will function much better when you stay under 7 g of sugar from all sources combined.
High amounts of caffeine – Why does caffeine in give you energy? Because it causes you to raise your blood sugar in the same way that sugary food does.
Morning events that help you reduce stress hormones include:
Physical activity – anything works, walking, time in the gym, running, you name it.
A high protein breakfast – Look at labels and get 25-35 grams for most women, 30-40 grams for most men.
Feeling psychologically centered – Take a few minutes to journal and mentally rehearse your day. Think how you would like to feel and what you’d like to have happen.
Your body and mind strive to reach states of balance and happiness. Even though you cannot control the world around you, you can help yourself become healthier and more resilient by making easy adjustments in your daily habits.
How has stress affected your and health and what strategies have worked for you? I would love to hear your experiences below.
1. M. Kumari, M. Shipley, M. Stafford, and M. Kivimaki, “Association of diurnal patterns in salivary cortisol with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: findings from the Whitehall II study,” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, vol. 96, no. 5, pp. 1478–1485, 2011.
2. Marniemi J, Kronholm E, Aunola S, Toikka T, Mattlar CE, Koskenvuo M, Ronnemaa T. Visceral fat and psychosocial stress in identical twins discordant for obesity. J Intern Med. 2002;251:35–43.