adrenal glands

Why balance blood sugar?

Do you eat to balance blood sugar levels? If you would like to lose weight, regain more energy, stop cravings, improve your digestion, balance your hormones and speed up your metabolism, it is crucial to learn how to balance blood sugar. 

More on Stress from the Inside

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the body’s stress response, or “fight-or-flight” response. The article described what happens inside the body in a situation of immediate danger – the alarm phase. The changes I described are mainly due to the stress hormone adrenaline. It triggers a cascade of mechanisms designed to save our life. The effects of adrenaline are very short lived.

Another stress hormone, cortisol, kicks in right after adrenaline. It is produced in order to continue fighting the effects of a stressor long after adrenaline has worn off. Cortisol stimulates the conversion of protein into glucose to ensure that the body has a sufficient supply of energy even after the emergency stores of glucose have been depleted. For the same reason, it also continues to inhibit the functioning of insulin and sustains the changes to the cardiovascular system – among others elevated blood pressure and a fast beating heart – that are designed to transport oxygen and glucose to those cells that need them most in an emergency situation. Cortisol also helps us deal with emotional crisis, performing strenuous task and fighting pain and infection.

This is all extremely useful in an actual dangerous situation. Although physical danger is undesirable, it doesn’t normally go on forever. When it is over we can start recovery – again with the help of cortisol, which stimulates appetite and has anti-inflammatory properties. Eventually, all is well again and we move on.

Yet, today’s stressors are different. We are – luckily! – rarely under physical threat these days, but most of us are stressed, some of us often, some of us all the time. What this means is that our adrenal glands, where stress hormones are made, have to continuously churn out those hormones, with hardly any break, and in the long run, this can have serious consequences. If cortisol is constantly or very frequently present in the blood stream:

  • Blood pressure is high.
  • Insulin function is impaired, which over time can lead to diabetes II.
  • The heart beats fast and works overtime.
  • We are on high alert, which interferes with concentration and can contribute to anxiety.
  • Digestion is erratic at best.
  • Fertility is on hold, because as far as the body can tell this is not a good time to procreate.

This is clearly not good! Prolonged stress really is not just tiring, unpleasant and a matter of the mind. It affects the whole body and can be at the root or at least a contributing factor to a whole host of chronic illnesses.

Stress is often seen as “busyness to an unpleasant degree”, but having to rush around all day long is not the only and not the worst stressor by far. Technically, almost any change in our environment is a stressor: hot or cold, physical trauma such as illness or injury, stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and sugar, environmental toxins (including exhaust fumes, pesticides, chemical exposure from furniture, cosmetics etc.), even exercise, if excessive. Then there are emotional stressors, like bereavement, divorce, bullying, job loss, debt and more.

Apart from the effects continuous stress hormone secretion has on the body, it also affects the adrenal glands, where they are made. For one, these little glands that sit on top of each of your kidneys, have other jobs as well. They make a wide range of other hormones besides stress hormones, too. If the adrenal glands are busy making stress hormones for a long time, this takes up most of their capacity and other hormones fall by the wayside. Remember: acute stress is meant to be a priority (and short-lived), so all efforts are diverted to them.

Stress hormones also hog the “raw materials” other hormones need: Cortisol and ultimately the sex hormones progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone are made from a hormone called pregnenolone, which in turn is made from cholesterol. If all the pregnenolone is diverted towards the production of cortisol, this will have a knock-on effect on sex hormone levels: think premenstrual syndrome (PMS), polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), fertility, libido and more.

Co-factors required for other hormones, too, are going towards the production of stress hormones. Stress uses up vital vitamins and minerals that will be missing elsewhere.

If stress persists over years and years, the adrenal glands can wear out and struggle to produce any hormones at all. You’d feel very tired and exhausted to the extent where even sleep does not refresh you enough, struggle to concentrate, and might even experience depression. It is possible to recover, but it may take a long time. After all, it took a long time to get to this stage, too.

So, what to do? Watch this space! While you wait, you may want to subscribe to Nutrilicious News. Tomorrow's contains a yummy stress-busting recipe, which is easy to make, as always. There'll also be a breakdown of what it is that combats stress in this particular recipe.

If you suffer from stress and its physical manifestations, if you are suffering from stress-related illness, why not book a personal health and nutrition programme with me at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex?

Almonds are your friend

picture credit: Victor Hanacek (viktorhanacek.com) Nuts have had a hard time: being high in fat and therefore calories, they were shunned by many. However, they’ve been enjoying a comeback since fat has been exonerated and we now know that “a calorie is not a calorie”. Recent research has shown that – contrary to popular belief – almonds actually help you slim down rather than make you fat, and protect the heart at the same time. A possible reason for the slimming effect of almonds may be that they make you feel satisfied and you are less likely to reach for sugary snacks. Another possibility is that they stimulate the metabolism. Nuts (and seeds) offer excellent nutrition and are a very handy, portable snack.

Although almonds contain mainly oil, they also have a significant amount of protein. They are also a good source of soluble fibre, which aids digestion. Most of the oil in almonds is monounsaturated (omega-9), the key fat in the Mediterranean diet, which has been found to protect against heart disease and high blood pressure. Their combination of fat, protein and fibre also ensure a slow release of energy, which helps stabilising blood sugar levels. As they contain virtually no carbohydrates apart from fibre, they are an excellent food for diabetics, too.

They are great sources of magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc and iron. Magnesium relaxes the mind as well as muscles and, like calcium, it is vital for strong bones. Potassium is an important mineral to support the adrenal glands (think: stress and fatigue) and is thought to prevent hypertension and possibly stroke. Zinc is an antioxidant, an essential co-factor in energy production and, among many other things, good for the skin. Almonds also contain copper, another mineral that promotes healthy skin and brain function. Moreover, they contain vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin that protects from tissue damage, not least the lining of the arteries. The brown skin of almonds contains the phytochemical resveratrol, a chemical that enhances blood flow to the brain. Another phytochemical in almond skin – laetrile – is thought to protect from cancer, particularly cancer of the colon.

A word of caution: Don’t go crazy on them either. One reason is that that are still quite calorific, and if you do eat a ton of them, you may put on weight after all. Studies that found that almonds reduce abdominal adiposity used 1.5 oz per day (40 g). You probably wouldn’t want to eat much more anyway, but consider this if using almond butter.

Almonds contain a compound called phytic acid, which impairs the absorption of iron, zinc and to a lesser extent calcium, if only in that particular meal, not any later meals. One way of reducing phytic acid is by soaking – which is what you would do before making almond milk. If you have a dehydrator, consider soaking, then dehydrating the almonds.

Have you ever seen “activated” nuts in the health food shop and wondered what that means? These nuts have first been soaked, then dehydrated. However, they are even more expensive than ‘normal’ almonds. Apart from reducing the phytic acid content, soaking deactivates an enzyme inhibitor contained in the almond, thus activating the enzymes they contain and making almonds even more nutritious.

Almonds need a warmer climate than Northern Europe can provide, so they are generally imported. If you buy almonds from a less affluent country, make sure to buy Fairtrade. Despite the fact that they are imported, almonds – like other nuts – are still a green choice. The trees absorb and store carbon from the environment, which makes them an environmentally friendly crop. Moreover, they do not require a lot of pesticides, so if you can’t afford organic, regular almonds are fine, especially since they are relatively expensive anyway. But remember how good they are for you. Also, they are quite filling, so you are likely to use them sparingly anyway.

If you end up with a bag of nuts that tastes stale or very bitter, they are rancid. Don’t be too shy to take them back to the shop and ask for a refund or exchange, as they are too expensive to write off. At home, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Light, heat and air destroy the unsaturated fatty acids, ie make them go rancid.

What to do with almonds?

  • Coarsely chop toasted or untoasted almonds and sprinkle over salads or stir-fries or stir into yoghurt, muesli or porridge.
  • Have a handful of almonds as a quick power snack.
  • If you like to snack on fruit, combine with almonds to provide the protein you need to balance blood sugar levels.
  • Make an open sandwich with almond butter, topped with banana slices.
  • Snack on celery sticks or thin apple slices spread with almond butter.
  • Use almond butter instead of cream in cooking – it’s great to thicken sauces, very creamy and very yummy.
  • Make milk shakes using almond milk.
  • Use ground almonds to replace all or some of the flour in baking. As ground almonds are heavier than flour, make sure to increase your raising agent (baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, yeast).

A blog on how to make your own almond butter is coming up soon.

Make sure to get tomorrow's Nutrilicious News for another quick almond snack recipe and a divine gluten-free and easy to bake Almond and Orange Cake!

Your Body's Ancient Wisdom - Stress from the Inside

We’re all stressed, aren’t we? We’ve got deadlines to meet, appointments to keep, houses to clean, emails to answer, kids to get dressed and out of the house in time for school, cars taken to the garage for servicing, essays to hand in … it’s relentless, and there’s always something! In fact, we can even get stressed over things we are not doing, when we know we should, or things that might go wrong in the future: worries. Yes, we can even think ourselves into a stressed state. When we’re stressed, we often don’t feel all that good. It’s exhausting, for one thing. Sometimes we break out in a sweat or get clammy hands or feet. We feel breathless, our heart is beating faster, we’re forever starving - and grazing - or forget to eat altogether.

But have you ever wondered why that might be? What goes on in our body when we’re stressed? Everything the body does happens for a reason, so what benefit do you get from sweaty palms when you have a lot to do?

What you are experiencing when under stress is your body’s physical stress response, and if you consider that we evolved thousands of years ago, things are beginning to make a lot more sense. You don’t have to go back in time very far, to get to a point when the stress response was extremely useful - and it still can be today.

What would have been the main stressors for people, say, just 10,000 years ago? Getting food would have been the most immediate concern they had to deal with every day. Not finding anything to eat would be a stressful situation in itself, but the hunt for food often brought on other dangers: You might have ended up getting hunted yourself, either by wild animals or people. And this is where the physical stress response comes in very useful.

When faced with a dangerous wild animal or an aggressive rivalling tribe, you have two options: You can run and hopefully get yourself to safety, or fight for your life. For either of those scenarios, the physical stress response - also known as the fight-or-flight reaction - is just the ticket. It triggers a cascade of adrenal hormones - stress hormones - that cause the following to happen:

  • Energy is required, so glucose stores in the liver and muscles are released to provide it.
  • The function of insulin is inhibited - it’s job is to remove sugar from the blood stream, but that's where it's needed right now.
  • Breathing is accelerated to oxygenise the blood.
  • The heart beats faster and blood pressure goes up to get glucose and oxygen to the muscles and - fascinating fact here - not just any muscles, but the ones you need most: Your arms if you’re fighting or climbing, your legs if you need to run! Isn’t that great?
  • Peripheral vision improves and other senses are heightened, too - you’re on alert.
  • Blood is withdrawn from the surface of the skin to limit bleeding in case of injury - this would make you appear pale and you might feel cold.
  • Hands and feet start to sweat - this gives your hands better grip and your feet more traction.
  • You won’t feel pain - pain is a signal to your brain that something is not right and needs attention, but in a fight-or-flight situation it would only be a distraction that prevents you from running for your life.
  • You’re not hungry right now - but you might get really, really hungry once you see the bear toddle off in the distance, because now you need food to recover and rebuild your energy stores.
  • Digestion is put on hold - you can do that later.
  • Procreation is postponed - really not a priority right now.

Isn’t this amazingly perfect? Nature has thought of everything! Everything you need in a life threatening situation is there!

Yet, our stressors are different today: You don’t need extra oxygen just to sit in your car, stuck in traffic. Glucose doesn’t help you pay off your credit cards, and high blood pressure does not improve relationship issues. The stress response - though still good when we do actually get chased by a vicious dog or are set upon by a mugger - was not designed to deal with modern stress. It was meant to last minutes only, because after just a few minutes you would either be safe or dead. Our stress is relentless, always there, lasts for months, or years or forever.

Watch this space for what happens next.

If you struggle with stress and its physical manifestations, if you are suffering from stress-related illness, why not come and see my for a consultation at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. 

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