The Connection Between Stress and Blood Sugar

Fight or flight.

The human body has evolved a mechanism to cope with extraordinary stressful situations. When faced with stress, we can choose to get away from the situation (flight) or stay and combat it (fight). When we are stressed, (originally we may have been under attack by a predator), our body reacts by going into the flight or fight mode. We switch-off non-essential operations like the creation of fertility hormones and create extra energy and courage by releasing adrenalin.

When in fight or flight mode our immune systems become hyper-sensitive, ready to attack infection should we become injured. It is now thought that allergies and sensitiveities may be caused by an immune system heightened by stress. 

These days we rarely have to fight or flee from predators, but emotional stress, work deadlines or financial worries can still trigger such a flight or flight response. Even a busy schedule of day to day chores, school runs, and housework can put us into flight or fight mode, and once your body gets used to having it switched on, it's hard to switch it off. 

Operating on flight or fight mode has many detrimental consequences for us. It can cause muscle aches, infertility and undernourishment. If we are on flight or fight long term it can even result in the storage of excess fat around the tummy, stored as energy reserves for times when you have to run. We may recognise it as a 'spare tyre' impossible to shift however much you diet and exercise.

Adrenal fatigue

The adrenal glands make the hormones that help us manage stress; cortisol and adrenaline. If the adrenal glands are not working very well, or burnt out as people say, they may not make enough of those hormones and we can feel anxious about things that wouldn't normally make us anxious. Stressful situations can become very difficult to deal with, which can in turn, make us feel more stressed and create a downward spiral. 

Being in fight or flight mode long term causes the adrenal glands to burn out.

Adrenaline also regulates when the body turns stored sugar into energy. When we eat sugar or refined carbohydrates, like whit bread or pasta, the body experiences a sugar rush. We make insulin to prevent blood sugar getting too high. The insulin causes blood sugar to drop rapidly and if the adrenal glands are not working well they may struggle to prevent blood sugar diving dangerously low. This can be experienced as a very tired feeling after eating carbs or sugar.

A rollercoaster diet (with lots of sugar spikes and insulin troughs) will put strain on the adrenal glands and consequently it will be harder for them to make the hormones that help you deal with stress.

Conversely chronic stress will put strain on the adrenal glands and make it hard for them to make the homones to keep your blood sugar up.

Get off the blood sugar roller coaster

A very simple way to massively improve your adrenal health is to manually keep blood sugar nice and steady. Eating a low GI diet and eating little and often, avoiding excessive carbs, eating small amounts of protein every few hours and avoiding sugar, white bread, white pasta and carbohydrate heavy meals will make you feel lighter and help you make the hormones you need to manage day-to-day stress. You may feel the benefit within days.

Of course removing stress or finding ways to help you cope with it is also going to help. This is often harder to implement but is . You may be caught in a difficult situation or bad relationship and it may be hard to exit or improve. If you can't directly remove the source of stress, practising yoga, meditation, walking, swimming, exercising or just prioritising time for self-care, what ever makes you feel better will improve your burnt out adrenals (excludes cake!)

The good news is they are very resilient, and they will heal even if they've had a really bad battering.

Troubled sleep

Another symptom of burnt out adrenal glands is finding it difficult to sleep. Particularly, you may wake up around 3 o'clock in the morning, often feeling hungry. If your blood sugar drops at night when you are asleep your body will make adrenaline as an emergency measure, and you will wake up feeling like you've had several cups of coffee possibly craving sugary carbs.

The solution is to make sure you eat some protein before you go to sleep. A protien rich snack will keep you blood sugar up in the safe range all night and prevent and unpleasant wake up call. If you do wake up eat some protein, a fizzy vitamin C drink may help too (don't give in to anything else sugary or carb based. You may be able to get back to sleep. It's quite hard once the adrenaline kicks in, you may find yourself thinking round and round about all sorts of odd things that you wouldn't think were even a worry to you. try reading - avoid screens, try to think calm thoughts (obviously easier said than done)

Supplements and vitamins

Good doses of vitamins C, B vitamins, particularly B5, magnesium and omega-3 can be really helpful if you feel your adrenals are not quite working at full capacity.

Calm down herbs

Camomile tea, valerian tea and herbs like skullcap are great at at times like this, Caffeine is your enemy (even though you will crave a cup of coffee to get you going in the morning).

Try to limit coffee and black tea intake, and never, ever, drink caffeine before you've eaten a good breakfast with protein in it, or if you wake up in the night.