The Blood Sugar Trigger: The Sneakiest Culprit for Depression + Anxiety
Originally published at stronginsideout.com on March 6, 2017.
When I went to my naturopath for the first time a year ago, I took a BUNCH of tests. Hormone tests, micronutrient tests, gut tests, and so on and so on. It was enough to make my head spin.
Good thing I did, though, because I found out quite a bit about myself as you might remember from last year. You can read the whole shabang about my initial stages of healing adrenal fatigue here.
One of the other conditions we discovered from all that testing was that I had low blood sugar (aka hypoglycemia)… which I thought was semi-normal. My mom has it, so I just grew up thinking it was something people just deal with.
When my naturopath saw this, however, she noted it as one of the first things we needed to address. She confirmed with me that I struggled with depression, and then she said:
“So many of my patients who have depression actually just struggle with low blood sugar.”
Hmmm, I thought. That’s one way to trivialize the disease.
After struggling so long with lows I thought I had no control over whatsoever, I couldn’t accept that this one physical symptom could be the trigger for them… because that means I could have done something about it a lot sooner. Though it was difficult to comprehend, it made some logical sense.
When blood sugar drops, it illicits the stress response in our brains. For those of us who are predisposed to depression and/or anxiety, this can be the trigger that sets us off into an episode. If one had eating habits like mine a year ago (long periods between meals or snacks, coffee on an empty stomach, inconsistency in eating breakfast), one could make the cycle chronic. [source]
That said, it’s not the one and only trigger for depression and anxiety in those of us who have it, but I have realized that it is a MAJOR one (in addition to genetic disposition, chemical imbalances, situational triggers, coping toolboxes that need work, etc.). At least, that’s what I realized about myself…
Since balancing my blood sugar, I haven’t had a depressive episode in 11 months.
That’s the longest I’ve ever gone without one since I first started having them in high school.
Now, let’s be fair: in addition to balancing my blood sugar, I’ve also been balancing my sexual hormones, adrenals and micronutrient levels on the physical side, while getting super-buff in the emotional and mental strength side of things.
My emotional recovery has come leaps and bounds since last year’s depressive episode; I have a stronger support system here in San Diego, I now default to my healthy coping mechanisms instead of old inefficient ones, and I am finally, finally, finally ok with not being ok when the feels come around. Running away or stuffing it down aren’t options anymore; I deal, and so it moves through me faster.
Addressing everything from every side of things within me led me here. It wasn’t just my blood sugar, but my spikes and crashes were making recovery extremely difficult.
Because managing my blood sugar has been so healing for me, I’m hoping that it might help you, too. Here are the steps I took to level out my hypoglycemia.
Eat Breakfast & Then At Regular Intervals Throughout The Day
I was on the intermittent fasting train for a while (with no “positive” results I’ll have you know), which means that I went up to 16 hours without eating. *cringe* For me, that meant that I’d eat my last snack at night, then wait until the afternoon the next day to eat again.
Beyond the disordered reasons why that’s not the best idea for me, it was killing my blood sugar. I had low energy all day until I ate, so I’d overdo the coffee to make up for it (more on that next).
Here’s something that seems obvious, but did not compute to me back then: your body needs food. That’s how it runs. Without it, your brain will be mush and your body will be sad. :( If you want to feel vivacious, energetic and LIGHT, you’ll need food to truly get there on a regular basis.
Eating breakfast kicks off metabolism, turns your brain on and begins regulating blood sugar for the whole day.
If you’re a lady, this is especially important for you: we tend to be extra sensitive to hormone fluctuations. Without breakfast, we’re setting ourselves up for wonky hormone levels that affect everything else we do.
If eating breakfast scares you like it did me when I first started, know that something small is better than nothing. Maybe you could try a balanced protein bar or a smoothie to start. Maybe just a piece of toast with almond butter is all you can get down, and that’s ok. I don’t take it lightly just how difficult it can be to face the fears of eating breakfast when you haven’t before; it’s one of the major things we talk about in Intentional Eating. It may take some time, but it is one of the most healing things you can do for your physical and mental health.
In addition to the necessity for breakfast, eating at regular intervals is just as important.
When we go for longer than 3–4 hours without eating, blood sugar drops and we offer up the opportunity for depression or anxiety to walk back in all over again.
If you can’t eat meals this frequently, have snacks on hand. I live on Oatmega bars* or turkey jerky when I’m on the go. The key is to find balanced snacks that won’t spike your blood sugar which leads to crashing hard. Keep reading for information on that!
Balance Your Meals + Snacks
Eating meals and snacks that spike your blood sugar can be just as harmful as eating nothing at all. Don’t let this scare you: there are tons of options out there for balanced alternatives.
To ensure you’re eating balanced meals and snacks, make sure you get a little protein and healthy fat along with complex carbohydrates. While this is ideal, I know it’s not always the most accessible. In that case, if you’re planning to have something that includes simple carbohydrates or is high sugar, balance it out with healthy fat and protein so it doesn’t spike your blood sugar like WHOA. For example, if you’re having a candy bar, have a few nuts as well. Or if you’re having a piece of white toast, cover it in almond butter.
It’s tricky with the sugar bit because high-sugar snacks and meals affect blood sugar negatively, but avoiding them altogether is triggering in different ways to those of us who have struggled with food in the past. Find a balance, do the best you can and if you’re really craving something, give yourself permission to have it. When we give ourselves permission, we take the power away from the food itself. After enough time practicing this, we get more connected with our true cravings which come from a place of Love for our bodies and minds.
This doesn’t have to be perfect. Simply working on getting closer to a choosing from that loving place is enough for today.
Mind The Coffee
Coffee is a miracle, but with great power comes great responsibility. Here’s why I only drink one cup a day (instead of four)…
When we drink coffee on an empty stomach in the morning, we start our day running on false fuel. Caffeine increases all those feel-good hormones plus adrenaline, which makes us feel on top of the world. It also acts as an appetite suppressant, so many of us who struggle with food have learned to use it instead of eating breakfast (something good to know about ourselves because this is often a subconscious choice). What we don’t realize is that there’s a host of hormonal yuck happening beneath all that surface energy.
When our body is forced to pump out all those hormones, it needs to learn how to keep up, so it starts overproducing. If we drink coffee regularly throughout the day between meals, we’re keeping our bodies in a constant state of alertness and heightened stress (adrenaline isn’t supposed to be that high all the time!). This is great for jobs that require you to be on all day, but this cycle leads to:
- intense glucose spikes and crashes
- disconnection from true hunger levels
- impaired glucose sensitivity
- overactive adrenals… which inevitable leads to adrenal fatigue when our bodies can no longer keep up with the demand caffeine places on us.
Repairing my adrenal function after years of relying on caffeine instead of food for energy is STILL a work in progress. Please, if you take one thing with you today, let it be that food is not your enemy. Eating is standing up for your body’s worth.
If you don’t want to get rid of coffee altogether (I didn’t), try what I did:
If you drink a lot of coffee a day, decrease gradually. Don’t do what I did and just cut down to 1 cup from 4! If you’re drinking 4 cups a day, start by just making that 4th one a half-caff (1/2 decaffeinated, 1/2 regular). After 2 weeks doing that, make that 4th cup a decaf. After 2 weeks on that, work on your 3rd cup being half-caff, and so on until you’re at 1 cup of caffeinated coffee a day (preferably with breakfast).
Eat Food with It
Eat along with your coffee. Drinking coffee on an empty stomach is a massive blow to the adrenals. Eating food along with it (especially with healthy fats) helps level out the blood sugar spikes. This goes for every time you drink coffee not just breakfast.
This is a goal for every client I take on who struggles with restriction. Like I said above, some of us have learned to drink coffee in place of breakfast because it suppresses the appetite. It makes us feel “powerful.” What we don’t realize is that this sets us up for increased hunger later in the day and a hormonal structure that leads to weight gain, a nightmare for many of us restrictors. Start slow and work your way to a true, balanced breakfast along with your coffee.
Consider Bulletproof-ing It
If you can’t eat breakfast with your coffee, add a teaspoon-tablespoon of coconut oil to it. My naturopath told me that this delays the hit of caffeine on your system so that it’s less of a spike (and so less of a crash). It will take some getting used to for a couple of reasons. A) It delays the hit of caffeine so it won’t give you that instant, frantic energy — it will be more gradual. B) The taste of coconut oil in coffee is… an acquired taste. If you dig it, you might even want to check out Bulletproof Coffee, which uses grass-fed butter as well. I never got into the butter thing, but my husband loves it!
While balancing blood sugar has been an enormous help for me and my depression, everyone’s experience will be different. I hope more than anything that this article has helped you if hypoglycemia is something you struggle with. Please let me know in the comments if it has!
Here’s to your healing, inside and out.
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Amy Clover is a speaker, writer and mental health advocate. This post was originally published on StrongInsideOut.com, a site devoted to helping you become stronger than your struggle through fitness, mindfulness & positive action. Join the email list to get weekly inspiration + goodies >> Click here.