Do any of these sound familiar?
- Weight gain/Weight loss
- Mood swings/Anxiety/Depression
- Low energy in the morning, a second wind at night
- Blood sugar imbalance
- Low Sex Drive
- Hormonal Imbalance
- Low/Imbalanced Immune Function
- Muscle and joint pain
- Insulin Resistance
- Bone density concerns
- Salt cravings
- Water Retention
- High Blood pressure
The adrenals are a pair of organs located near the kidneys that help us respond to stress. The term stress encompasses more than emotional manifestations (anxiety/irritability), to include anything considered stressful to the body: Infections, toxins, imbalanced blood sugar, a highly processed diet, food sensitivities, inflammation, autoimmunity. The adrenals play a role in helping the body deal with all of these, so their functions tie together multiple symptoms and diagnoses.
The adrenals produce cortisol, DHEA and adrenaline as well as brain chemicals that help with focus.
Exercise is one of the best ways to work off that acute stress response and help quiet it down. That’s how it worked for the cavemen-they used the stress response to fight or flee and this helped bring cortisol levels back to normal. However, if we don’t fuel that exercise, that is perceived as more stress.
The brain is the organ that is most dependent on a steady flow of sugar. When blood sugar drops, either due to not eating for long periods of time, or eating imbalanced with regards to protein vs. carbohydrates, the brain sends a message directly to the adrenals. It knows that part of the fight or flight response is to release sugar immediately into the blood for energy. However, it can’t say to adrenaline, ‘hey, just give me some sugar, I don’t need the racing heart, the panic, the sweating, etc.’ So we get the whole package every time blood sugar drops too low.
If we go too long between meals so that there is no stored sugar left for adrenaline to release, cortisol comes to the rescue. To raise low blood sugars cortisol kicks in and breaks down our lean tissue (converting protein to sugar) which alters body composition to favor fat over muscle. Therefore, calorie restrictive dieting can actually be very detrimental to both weight loss and muscle building.
To avoid this we need to address the following:
• Focus on balancing protein, carbs and healthy fats and paying attention to timing of meals.
• When you eat can have as profound an impact on these variables as what you eat.
• A high sugar/low protein diet can trigger a stress reaction without our even realizing it.
• The one thing that may even be harder on us than eating stressful foods is not eating anything.
• Skipping meals and going on low-cal diets creates an inner emergency state which your body perceives as starvation which is highly stressful.
• Caffeine and workouts that are improperly fueled with sufficient food before and after the exercise all add to the burden.
Neurotransmitters (Brain Chemicals such as Serotonin) and Diet:
It is very important to understand that stress as well as blood sugar imbalance (DIET) impact neurotransmitter levels SIGNIFICANTLY. To understand why this is relevant, you must first realize that the brain needs to have sufficient levels of chemicals called neurotransmitters, which are its most powerful pleasure chemicals. Some of these chemicals help to induce a sense of calm and well-being. Others help to enhance focus and memory, while still others help with sleep, reducing pain sensation as well as enhancing energy. One example of a neurotransmitter is serotonin, our ‘natural prozac’ which works to induce a feeling of calm and to relieve symptoms of anxiety.
These brain chemicals are many times stronger than drugs and your body has to have them. If not, it sends out signals that are stronger than anyone’s willpower, instructing you to find a drug-like food (often carbs/caffeine/refined sugars) or drugs to substitute for these missing chemicals. Cravings for sugars/starches (or drugs, caffeine, artificial sweeteners (diet soda), nicotine, even extremes of exercise) are common symptoms of a brain that is deficient in its essential calming, stimulating, and mood-enhancing chemicals. However, while these give a temporary mood enhancement, their effect is very short-lived and by further depleting these brain chemicals, the cravings get worse, as do the symptoms.
Serotonin deficiency is the most common mood problems in the US. Serotonin deficiency is a factor in many seemingly unrelated psychological and physical symptoms, ranging from panic and irritability to insomnia and pain. A deficiency of serotonin causes the reverse of every positive, happy, satisfied feeling that sufficient levels promote. A catch-22 occurs because stress further depletes serotonin levels and sugars and starches provide a temporary lift. Instead, these neurotransmitters are comprised of amino acids, the building blocks for proteins so a diet that is imbalanced in favor of carbs over proteins is exactly the kind to throw off this system.
Therefore in our programs we focus on improving the quality of protein intake (tryptophan is an amino acid that is found in protein foods and is the building block for serotonin) while lowering the intake of sugars and starches. Increasing the intake of fat increases the availability of tryptophan in the brain. Low fat diets have been proven to be associated with negative emotions such as depression, worry, anxiety and negativity. Nutrients such as calcium, magnesium (75% of Americans don’t meet the RDA), vitamin D and the B vitamins (eaten up with stress) are all needed to make serotonin as well as the other neurotransmitters.
Do you crave these at night?
Ice cream, hot cocoa, pudding, brownies, cake, pie, cereal or cookies and milk are favorite nighttime snack fixes because they contain tryptophan (all milk products do) as well as sugar. Serotonin production is stimulated by light which is how it relates to Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Symptoms of low Serotonin:
- Depression, anxiety, irritability
- Sleep problems
- Carb cravings
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Aches, pains, including headaches
Some reasons for low serotonin:
Diet: Not enough pro-serotonin foods like protein and healthy fats, or having too many anti-serotonin foods like caffeinated sodas or coffee, or diet sweetened drinks or food.
Under stress: As your brain struggles with chronic demands
Genetics-Neurotransmitter imbalances can have a genetic predisposition
Worse in Evening or Winter (S. A. D.): Bright light signals the brain to make serotonin Who doesn’t feel better with sunlight???
Lack of Exercise: Physical activity enhances serotonin levels.
Hormonal Imbalances: PMS and menopausal mood problems result when sex hormones, such as estrogen, which helps program serotonin in the brain, fall too low.
When life is stressful, serotonin upregulates to keep pace, then eventually runs out of steam.
My point is that many of the cravings and the term comfort foods (and drinks) refers to a need to compensate for low levels of neurotransmitters, most commonly serotonin, which is depleted due to stress and which causes symptoms such as depression and anxiety and strong cravings. We teach our patients how to get ahead of this by naturally supporting neurotransmitter production and avoiding the dietary/lifestyle culprits that contribute to their depletion.