November 20, 2009

Anxiety, Blood Sugar, and You

Anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic. — Anais Nin

You may not realize it yet, but you’re preparing to embark upon what many believe is the most anxiety-inducing time of the year.

Yes. The holidays.

There’s one thing that destroys my sense of well-being in the holidays more than anything else I do. No, I’m not talking about maxing out my credit cards. Well, I suppose that would do it, too, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

It’s the eating. Specifically, it’s eating sugar. I face the challenge every year because I’m sugar sensitive. That means when my wife puts out a plate of the innocently named Mexican wedding cakes, I have a tendency to devour them all if I eat even one. Those little cakes and related sweets fall into the food category I call Delightfully Dangerous Blood Sugar Bombs.

And when I eat them, I crash. Hard. Boom goes the Sugar Bomb, down goes the blood sugar, and bingo. Hello mysterious episodes of anxiety and depression.

No wonder I used to get the post-Christmas letdown. It’s not the holidays. It’s the holi-daze.

How does that work?

Anxiety, Blood Sugar, and You

Normal people — that’s not me, and certainly not you if you suffer from sugar sensitivity — can eat sweets without suffering wild swings in their blood sugar. Not so for the sugar-sensitive person. When we eat sweets, our blood sugar actually drops drastically.

There is an excellent description of the process in Kathleen DesMaisons’ wonderful book, Potatoes not Prozac, but the bottom line is this: When I eat sweets, my body overreacts by producing too much insulin. My cells open up and pull in more sugar than they should. My blood sugar drops rapidly and I turn into Mad Michael, complete with irritability, restlessness, and fatigue.

It so happens that many of us who suffer from anxiety and depression also happen to be sugar sensitive. I coach people who suffer from anxiety and for whom nothing seems to help. Sugar sensitivity is a big part of the anxiety reaction, so one of the things I do is teach people how to work with their bodies to eliminate the sugar-induced components of anxiety.

Can’t I Even Have a Little Taste of the Sweet Stuff?

A fair question. For those of us who are sugar sensitive, it’s best to eliminate all refined sugars from the diet. That includes white and brown sugars, honey, and especially high-fructose corn syrup. It includes alcoholic beverages, too – a shocker for many people.

Your mileage may vary.

I’ve learned it’s a good idea to stay away from white flour, too. Simple carbohydrates cause the same blood sugar swings. But staying away from white flour seems to be a lot easier than eliminating sugar.

If you are unwilling to forego holiday treats, there is a way to avoid most of the crazy mood swings that come with eating sugar.

You have to focus on maintaining an even blood sugar keel. The way you maintain that even keel is by understanding the glycemic index.

What is the Glycemic Index?

The glycemic index, or GI, is a measure of the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Simple carbohydrates have a high GI; complex carbohydrates have a low GI. Dr. David Jenkins developed the concept of GI in the early 80s. The health benefits of eating low GI foods are well known.

So what foods have a low GI?

  • Most fruit and vegetables
  • Grainy breads
  • Pasta
  • Legumes
  • Milk and yogurt
  • Anything foods that are extremely low in carbohydrates

Well, that’s not so bad, is it?

Your goal is to eat lots of low GI foods and avoid the rest. However, if you are bound and determined to have a little after-dinner sugar bomb, you can ameliorate the effects by eating high-fiber foods and a little extra protein. You’ll still get a blood sugar spike, but it won’t be as radical.

Still and all, the very best thing you can do is take it easy on the sugars. You will feel better if you eliminate sugar and other high GI foods.

You can download a spreadsheet of foods and their glycemic index from

Your Bottom Line

Let’s keep it simple: Eat foods with a glycemic index of 70 or lower and you’ll be amazed at how good you’ll feel physically over time. Your concentration and focus will improve, too. You’ll also be surprised at what happens to your episodes of anxiety. They’ll become less severe and much more manageable – you may even discover that the physical symptoms of anxiety will occur far less frequently.

I can tell you from personal experience that the first seven days of going without sugar were a little uncomfortable. I wanted cookies. I wanted pie. I love pie. I’ve asked that when I die I be buried in pumpkin pie

Okay, not really. But did I mention that I love pie?

Yes, seven days. For some people it’s a bit longer. But after that seven days, I woke up feeling better than I’d felt in my entire life. That’s what happens when your body is working on an even keel with good food in the system.

So this holiday season, yes, I’ll have a slice of pumpkin pie after a low GI meal. I know that my body will react to the extra sugar, so I’ll have it only after Thanksgiving dinner and perhaps on Christmas Day. I’ll stay away from the other goodies, though, because I’m unwilling to pay the price.

Need support over the holidays with your eating habits? Who doesn’t? Leave your comments here. I’ll be happy to help.

And remember: The holidays are about gratitude. Go out and do something good for someone else. Don’t let anyone know what you did – especially those you’re helping. Keep it to yourself and enjoy the best anxiety reliever in the world: Being of maximum use.

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