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Stress and Carbs: Unpacking Low Carb Diets and Female Hormones


How Does Stress Affect Our Bodies? 

Carbs. Most of us these days have a love-hate relationship with carbs, particularly since the introduction of low-carb diets like Atkins and the South Beach Diet. Many people have seen wonderful results switching from a SAD (Standard American Diet) to a low-carb approach and, arguably, many lives have probably been saved with the reduction of starchy, sugary carbohydrates like bread, pasta and pastries. Today’s post in no way, shape or form is meant to demonize low-carb diets or spread dogmatic information related to carbohydrate intake. However, as with any dietary strategy, it’s seem that we’ve taken this one a bit too far, especially as women, and I want to discuss some of the long-term ramifications that an extremely low-carb approach can have on our overall health.

Women are complex creatures. Just ask any man and he’ll most likely back this up! Sadly, most of us have come to despise the beautiful, feminine qualities that make us who we are, a.k.a. hormones. Either we spend our time trying to cover them up and push them away or we don’t give them much though at all and can’t figure out why we feel “off” or not “quite like ourselves.” Simply put, hormones are messengers. They carry signals from your endocrine glands around to various parts of your body to manage processes like hunger, menstrual cycles, stress levels, sleep, bone density, thyroid levels, sex drive and many other daily, bodily functions. In a word, hormones are VITAL to our health. But what happens when they get thrown out of balance? As you can see, hormones play a role in almost every function you can imagine, so they create quite a stir when things get thrown off kilter.

What Do Carbohydrates Have to Do with Hormones?

In order to understand why carbohydrates are important to hormone balance, it’s important to know a little bit about the stress response in the human body and you’ll also need to understand something called the “Pregnenalone Steal.” We’ve talked a lot about stress and how it effects the body. You can find more on the topic here. However, its safe to say that stress comes in both physical and emotional packages. When we refer to stress, most of us are talking about perceived stress, or emotional stress. This is the type of stress that exists in our mind when we’re feeling overwhelmed, scared, anxious, busy, angry etc. The reason we called it perceived stress is because of its relativity – what stresses me out might not bother you one bit and vice versa. Then there’s physical stress, which is the result of outside forces causing internal stress such as too much exercise, eating foods that don’t agree with our body chemistry, lack of sleep, etc. Both of these combine to make up our total stress response.

Now, the main hormone responsible for regulating our stress response is named Cortisol. Cortisol has several really interesting jobs in the body, but it’s mainly used to mobilize and gather up glucose to provide our arms, legs and heart with the energy they need to deal with a given stressor. For example: Let’s say you’re walking down a dark alley (not sure why, but just go with it) and a man in a dark hoodie comes up to you with a gun and asks for your wallet. In this instance, your body is immediately going to go into what’s called Fight-or-Flight mode, or in more technical terms, sympathetic dominance. During this time, you’re making split decisions about whether to fight him off or run away. Either way, you’re going to need a lot of extra energy and wits to get the job done, and this is what cortisol and adrenaline are responsible for. They do things like increase your heart rate and blood pressure, break down stored glucose for energy needs and increase your cognitive abilities. Cortisol is also released like this during exercise, which is why some people can get addicted to high intensity regiments. Cortisol makes us feel powerful, alert and energetic…to a certain point. You see, cortisol was never meant to exist in our systems for too long. It was made for acute, more natural, stressors like the scene described above. Similar to recreational drugs, the effects are only fun for the body and brain up to a certain point, at which they become degrading and dangerous.

So here’s the thing: The stress response will ALWAYS take precedence over every other function in the body. It was meant to get you out of dodge and save your life and dag nabit that’s what it’s going to do. Heading back to the scene above, do you imagine your body is thinking about digesting your dinner or making a baby? If you’re not sure, the answer is NO! Your body is thinking about two things – fighting or “flight-ing.” So – stay with me here and listen closely to this next part. Cortisol is released during both acute bouts of stress (the gunman) AND chronic ones. Chronic referring to: traffic on your way to work, fights with your spouse, hating the job you go to every day, eating too much sugar, eating foods you’re allergic or sensitive too, exercising too much with little recovery, worrying about money, worrying about health, worrying about your weight, worrying about anything and everything, staying up late watching TV instead of sleeping… you get the idea. Basically, most of us have created lives for ourselves that require us to put out much more than we put in and our scales are left way out of balance. During all of this, cortisol is being released leading to heighted and chronic amount circulating through our blood stream, which, funny enough, is stressful to our body.

Now, back to that strange term, “prenenalone-steal.” Your sex hormones and cortisol are made from the same building block called pregnenalone, which is made from cholesterol. In a perfect world, pregnenalone gets evenly distributed to all the different hormone pathways and all is well. However, in someone with high stress levels, there is a greater need for cortisol which means there is a higher need for pregnenalone. Your body will shuttle any and all pregnenalone to the process of making cortisol in order to keep up with those stress demands to the detriment of your other hormones. This is why we refer to it as a “steal,” because cortisol is essentially hogging all the good stuff for itself and leaving everyone else high and dry.

Tweetable (or something like that): If you’re experiencing chronic stress, and not taking any measures to reduce it, it will be impossible to balance your hormones.

So What’s the Deal with Carbs?

Now, you might be wondering at this point how your carbohydrate intake fits into this picture. We’re getting there, just had to throw in the foundations first. Carbohydrates play sort of a double role here.

In times of stress, we use up more nutrients because stress is expensive. It amps up our bodily functions and puts us in a state of high alert. This means we need more calories, more carbs, more fats and proteins and more vitamins and minerals than we usually would to keep up with the demands. This goes for physical AND emotional stress. Now, our bodies are pretty neat since they can literally turn proteins and fats into usable glucose. But, and here is the caveat, that is a slow process no matter how efficient your body is at it. Eating carbohydrates will always be the fastest way to increase blood sugar levels, thereby usable energy. When blood sugar levels drop, this is registered as a top priority stressor to your body. So – what happens? You’ve probably got it by now, but yes, cortisol gets called to action once again, further perpetuating the cycle. This is why, particularly in times of stress, eating some slow-digesting, complex carbohydrates can go a long way in putting a wrench in the nasty blood sugar/cortisol cycle we see so many women going through. Often times you’ll see someone start on a low-carb/high fat approach and it works wonders (by the way, we’re talking 10-50 grams of carbohydrates daily here) Their skin clears up, their energy shoots through the roof, the fat melts away and their periods balance out. But then, a little while later (sometimes months, sometimes years) things start to shift. Usually, we can trace it back to a stressful time period or event, and they start to feel terrible. They begin to feel bloated, tired and heavy, their cycles get irregular or go missing all together, their energy plummits and sleeping becomes erratic and unsatisfying. They can’t understand what happened or why they aren’t feeling good, so they naturally think, “I must be eating too many carbs again,” and start to restrict even more leading to greater and greater disturbances.

Often times, fixing these issues and imbalances is merely an equation of carbohydrates. Our needs to various nutrients change as the season and tides of our lives change as well. Sure, maybe high fat and 20 grams of carbs a day worked, but then you had a baby, started working out more to lose the post-pardem weight, got a full time job, lost a full time job, went back to school, had another baby, started eating more sugar because you’re tired all the time, started exercising even more to make up for it, and on and on and on… Life happens. Our job is to flexible and intuitive enough to understand this and to adjust our nutrition and exercise with the tides of our life. When our body needs a rest, give it a rest. When we are working harder than usual, give it more carbs. When you’re feeling rested, pull back a bit or up the exercise volume. Listen and flow. Usually when we get stuck, it’s because we’ve gotten stiff. Dead trees are stiff trees and they break in the wind. Trees that are full of life sway and bend when the winds of life stir. Which one would you rather be?

That’s all for today friends. If you’ve been struggling with any of the issues above or have been considering changing up your nutrition routine, you can always schedule a free discovery call here to see if Nutritional Therapy could benefit your health.

Much love,

Sy

 

 

 

 

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10 Tips for Surviving Stress and Fatigue


Hey guys! So, if you’ve been keeping up on the blog or following me on social, you probably know that I consider myself an ex-cortisol junkie and that I struggled deeply through adrenal dysfunction for several years before finding recovery in diet and meditation. If not, feel free to READ HERE to catch up on my journey. Today, it’s my mission and flat out passion to help other women who are stuck in the quicksand of stress, fatigue and all manner of other physical symptoms get their heads above water and get back to living a healthy and vital life. I know for a FACT that if I can do it, anyone can. As cliché as that might sound, just go ask any of my friends or family who watched the fight during my darkest days. They certainly weren’t pretty, and some would have called them downright ugly. But, in the midst of all those awful symptoms, I started slowly employing the tips I’m about to give you and began to see some major shifts in my body and mind that eventually led to my full recovery. Keep in mind that there is not one single approach to recovery that will work for everyone. Each of us is uniquely different in our body chemistry, which is a beautiful thing called bio-individuality, but that also means that what works to heal my body may not work for yours or vice versa. All this means is that getting in tune with your body’s signals will be the best tool you have for finding a long-term approach to health that works for YOU. So, with that in mind, you may not need every single one of these tips in your arsenal, but I would give them all a try and see what feels good to your body. Perhaps a mix of gentle exercise, meditation and cutting the caffeine will do it, or maybe yours is more about regulating your sleep and cutting out food sensitivities. Whenever I am working to do some healing, I try my best to look at it as fun research and take a curious approach which helps to mitigate disappointment if for some reason my body doesn’t respond the way I’d hoped it would. In other words, if you’re feeling like shit right now, stay hopeful  J Ps. These are in no particular order or level of importance.

 

Ten Tips for Surviving Adrenal Dysfunction

 

1.     Get a Handle on Those Emotions Girl Part of dysregulation in our stress system (aka adrenals) is about the level of emotional and mental stress that we feel in our lives. Notice I said feel, because simply put, stress is all a matter perception. Not quite convinced? One of my favorite books on the subject is called “The Myth of Stress,” by Andrew Bernstein. In it, he explains how if we become present with what is ACTUALLY happening in our lives instead of our THOUGHTS about what is happening, we can move forward to a place of calm, reality-driven action. For example, if you were to wake up in the middle of night to a tall, dark object at the end of your bed, you might panic thinking a burglar is trying to harm you. But then, upon waking up a bit more, you remember that you left your suitcase one your ottoman because you were too tired to unpack and your panic might even turn into humor and laughter. The point here is, nothing about the situation changed. In both cases, there was no actual harm present. What did change, however, were your thoughts about the situation and, upon your determining, the scenario changed from one of fear to one of humor. If we choose to utilize this reframing method when experiencing emotional or mental stressors, it will automatically down-regulate our cortisol production and put us into a para-sympathetic state – which folks, is exactly where you want to be.

 

2.     Heal your Gut – We’ve talked about this quite a bit, but eating foods day in and day out that are irritating to your body is extremely stressful and raises cortisol levels in an attempt to soothe inflammation in the gut. The most common food intolerances include gluten, dairy, grains, corn, soy, nuts, eggs, alcohol and sugar but sometimes other things arise while doing some investigative work. I usually recommend that my clients cut them all out for a period of at least 30 days to give the body a chance to heal and then reintroduce them one at a time to see how the body handles that food. But, if you suspect a certain food group bothers you, start slow and just cut that one for now and see how you feel. Personally, I suspected gluten first and it was another few months before I even attempted to look at how my body processed those other items. The idea is to get rid of stress, not add more, so take the time that feels right for you.

 

3.     Eat your fats Far too often, I see clients (*women) who have been on a reduced or low-fat diet for years and years. Sadly, post-World War II dietary advice falsely demonized fats in every form and admonished people to eat highly unstable, processed and industrialized seed oils in place of healthy animal fats. This left our bodies starving for the very nutrients that make up our cell membranes and compromised at least 10 vital processes in our body from hormonal synthesis to the inflammation response. Fats are necessary to stabilize our blood sugar and to keep us satiated after meals, which can both be a problem during adrenal fatigue. I remember days where it felt like there was a bottomless pit in my stomach gnawing and growling until I fed it once again. When I began to add more healthy fats into my diet, I found that my in-between meal time increased, my nervous system felt soothed and I felt able to keep up with the energy demands of constantly high cortisol and stress.

 

4.     Get horizontal No, not like you dirty girl, although that doesn’t hurt either if you have the energy or desire for it. What I really meant though was to work on those sleep cycles and allow for plenty of rest as your body needs it. Even the simple act of lying down for 10-15 minutes can be extremely valuable when your body is craving some rest. If you can, try to head to bed before or around 10 pm. Your level of cortisol begins to rise after midnight, which means that your best sleep is done in the hours prior. If you have a difficult time falling or staying asleep, which is often the case, try eating a small snack before bed, like a bit of coconut oil or some nuts, to keep blood sugar levels steady and melatonin levels nice and high. The hours of 7-9 AM seem to be extra restful for those experiencing adrenal fatigue, so if sleeping in is a possibility, by all means do. No one was ever called a hero for skimping on sleep, although you’d think that was a pre-requisite for the job with how much we glorify it.  

 

5.     Chill Out At the gym that is. If you’re currently facing adrenal dysregulation, there is a good chance that when it comes to your workout, While I totally understand how addicting a good, hard workout can be, if you are trying to reduce stress in your body, competitively CrossFitting 6x a week isn’t going to be the kind of thing that allows your system any time repair. Put this kind of physical stress on top of a sympathetic state of being, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. You may see things like major fatigue and other nasty symptoms of overtraining such as frequent illness, slow healing times and slow recovery start to pop up. If you’re noticing that, despite putting in extra effort, you’re not getting stronger/faster/ thinner etc. it may be time to take a look at your training and reduce your load.  Keep in mind, (as you start to panic about time off) that, technically, progress and growth only occurs during rest as the body puts itself back together.

 

6.     Get those Nutrients! If I could recommend one supplement to every person on the entire planet, it would be Desiccated Liver from Grass-Fed Cows. Obviously, the real food form is even more superior, but if you’re like me and gag at the very smell, let alone the taste of organ meats, desiccated pills are the next best thing. Liver is the world’s most perfect food in my opinion with perfect combinations of vitamins and minerals. Liver is extremely high in B vitamins, which are calming to the nervous system, as well as vitamins A, D, E and K, Fatty Acids, copper (necessary to adrenal function), zinc, and usable iron. I remember when I was still in the middle stages of my healing feeling like something was still a bit off. I had heard about the benefits of iron being supportive during stressful times and decided to give it a whirl. Almost instantly, I noticed my energy levels were higher, my brain fog felt lifted and my mood was happier and lighter. I still to this day continue to supplement with liver and use it as my whole-foods version of a multi-vitamin. So, in other words, go eat your liver!

 

7.     Give yourself permission to heal Now, please don’t take offense to this. One of the hardest conversations I have with clients begins right here, but it is also the part that finally springs them into healing if they haven’t been seeing success. So listen closely – if you are struggling chronically with a condition, it might be because you aren’t ready to move on. Somewhere in the back of your subconscious mind, this illness/ disease/ condition/symptom is benefiting you in one way or another. I realize that if you’re sick, and have been for a while, this might sound like crazy talk, but stop for a moment and just be open to the possibility. What is it about letting go of your symptoms that is scary? Perhaps they’ve been there so long, you aren’t quite sure what life will look like without them? Or maybe you are the kind of person who has a difficult time saying no and it allows you to finally take some time for yourself? There are a thousand different faces this could take, but I encourage you do sit with the idea for a little bit and see what comes up. And the best part? You probably don’t even have to do much. Often times, recognition is enough to move us forward.

 

8.     Get Rid of the Vices A lot of times, if you ask someone is they experience fatigue or energy dips, that person will say no way. Take a look at their diet, and they are simultaneously hopped up on sugar and caffeine all day. Ask them about their sleep, and they will say they fall to sleep easily. Again, scroll through their food journal, and they have 2-3 drinks every night before passing out after a long day. While it may not seem to be a problem on the outside, if we get rid of all the substances keeping us awake and forcing us to sleep, we finally see how dysregulated we have become. Ask yourself if you can function without that coffee in the morning? Can you resist those sugar cravings in the afternoon? Will you be wide awake without that second glass of wine to calm you down? If so, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but the system is broken and in need of repair. While these mind-altering foods can be pleasurable additions infrequently, if you can’t exist comfortably without them, you would do well to cut them out and let your system reboot. How will you ever know what level your body is functioning at if you are constantly blanketing it with cover-up solutions and soldiering on?

9.     Have Some Fun! I know that this can be much harder than it sounds. You might even be thinking, “I would love to have some fun Sy, but I have xyz to finish and the house needs cleaning and I have to get ready to my work trip and the kids need to finish their homework and on and on and on.” Don’t worry, I get it. Life is busy, and you are probably a go-getter on top of that. I know you are hard on yourself and you expect the best out your life. And I am not here to tell you that you are bad for wanting an excellent, extraordinary life. What I am here to tell you, is that part of living a wonderful life includes enjoying it. So many times we get busy but forget why we are doing it and begin to look at life as mundane, hard and exhausting. I personally find that a meditation practice is what allows me to practice being present, so that when my family is on vacation camping and having some drinks around the fire at night, I am right there with them instead of thinking about the emails that are piling up as I’m away or the presentation I have next month that I’m nervous about. Start small and do something everyday that you enjoy. It doesn’t have to be something crazy. Do you love writing? Reading? Cooking? Running? Dancing? Yoga? Sports? Being outdoors? Playing with your dog? What is the thing that when you do it, you feel like a kid again? Do that thing for 5 minutes today and see how the rest of your day unfolds. Science says those endorphins will be extremely healing.

 

10.  Boost your Immune System Last but not least, make sure you are providing your immune system with plenty of energy stores. Immunity and your adrenal glands take a big hit when under chronic stress. Vitamin C is stored in the adrenal glands, but if they are constantly working to pump out stress hormones, these stores can become depleted making it harder for your body to fight infection and free radicals. By taking Vitamin C 2-3 x a day, morning-noon-night, you supply your body with the necessary ingredients to maintain a healthy repair system in the body. 

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