Avoiding Self Sabotage (Part 2)

This April, I will be leading a 3-day Stress Proof Retreat in the North Carolina mountains, focused on the biology and psychology of stress, and how to build immunity to its powerful (and undesirable) effects.

As we discussed in the previous post, these methods offer relief from most forms of stress and anxiety, and a lasting solution to all forms of stress-related illness, ranging from joint pains and digestive disorders to high blood pressure and panic attacks. Yet for all the power inherent in methods like these, people can (and do) still find ways to sabotage their own development - trying hard for a short time, then burning out and lapsing back into self-destructive habits.

Last time, we looked at four common pitfalls associated with resilience training - or for that matter, any kind of lifestyle / behavior change. These are:

1) Too much time awake
2) Too much artificial light
3) Too much sugar
4) Too much sitting

For a full description of pitfalls #1 and #2, see the previous post. Here, we will be looking at the nature of #3 - the problem, the solution, and why so many of us fall prey to this on a daily basis.


3) Too much sugar

Problem: Yeah, yeah - I know. Too much sugar is bad for you. Your mum probably told you this when you were a toddler. Your dentist tells you at every appointment. And newspapers, websites, and health magazines have all but declared sugar a poison in recent years. Too much sugar rots your teeth, makes you fat, and increases your risk of developing late-onset diabetes. Overdosing on carb-laden snacks leaves us buzzing one minute, tired and listless the next. It sabotages any attempt at weight loss, makes us less alert and effective at work, and leaves us feeling bad about ourselves in the long term.

Do we know this? Yes. 

Do we care? Kind of.

Do we act on it when we’re truly stressed out - shunning the lure of carb-laden sandwiches and cookies, perhaps reaching for a nice broccoli snack instead?  No. We do not.

So why would we consistently act to sabotage our health this way? Shouldn’t our bodies and brains know that sugar is “bad”, and make us crave better things instead? If we are already fat, sick, or under pressure, why would they conspire to make us feel even worse?

Unfortunately, that’s not how your brain sees it at all.

Sugar - glucose in particular - is the first and most important fuel source for your body, and your brain literally can’t use anything else. Carried throughout the body in the bloodstream, glucose is pulled into power-hungry cells, combined with oxygen, and chemically “burned” (or metabolized) to release the energy stored within.  Any energy not used immediately by your body has to be stored for later use. Like the unused AAA batteries in your kitchen drawer, they have to pile up somewhere. In this case, unused glucose is broken down and shunted into bloated, watery adipose (fat) cells.

Later, when you enters a fasting (or hunger) state, your body responds to a drop in blood sugar levels by pulling sugars out of storage and dumping them back into the bloodstream - making more fuel available to your muscles, brain, and internal organs. This exquisite system, controlled by the hormones insulin and glucagon, developed to help us cope with alternating periods of feast and famine - as our ancestors experienced for thousands of years (and in many parts of the world, people still do).

But here’s the thing: in the rich, plentiful Western world, few of us ever really go hungry. Instead, we keep topping up our bloodstream with sugary foods, making our bodies work overtime to try to cope. Worse yet, modern “food products” like white bread, pasta, cookies, and ice cream are hyperconcentrated “sugar bombs”, containing more carbohydrates per pound than we could ever hope to extract from whole fruits, vegetables and grains.

While our brains and bodies really should shun these, instead they have become a superstimulus. “SUGAR GOOD,” says your prehistoric brain. “More sugar, even better. No famine for me, ever. Hahahaha. Me so clever.”  (Or words to that effect).

And here’s the real kicker: when you’re feeling calm, relaxed, and satisfied with life, your higher brain can reason with your body (or rather, the older part of the brain that controls it) and prevail. “No thanks,” you can say. “I really don’t need that sandwich / donut / creme brûlée right now.”

But when you under stress and your nervous system is on high alert, your survival instincts override your capacity for reason. At that point, it is almost impossible to resist the primal logic of your prehistoric brain.  “EAT,” it says. “WE UNDER ATTACK - WHO KNOWS WHEN WE GET ANOTHER CHANCE”.

Solution: The point is, we need a certain amount of carbohydrate to live. But none of us really need the quantity of it contained in white bread, chocolate, cookies or ice cream. Keep your stress awareness and sugar levels in check, and you can enjoy these things in moderation without ill effect. But if you find yourself in the grip of sugar addiction (and if you’re using sugary foods to make yourself feel better, then technically that’s what it is), you need to crack it. Otherwise, it will undermine everything else you try to do to stay healthy - be that exercise, meditation, or resilience training.

Here’s how to tackle it:

  1. Commit to eating whole foods - fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, and fish (if you’re a vegan/vegetarian, just skip the last two). Shun highly processed food products, which typically contain enough high fructose corn syrup to drop an elephant.
  2. For one month, keep a basic food diary in order to better understand your food habits. You don’t need to log calories, carb content, or anything like that. Just write down the type of food you ate at each meal (plus snacks in between) before the end of each day. The simple act of doing this will make you more aware of out-of-control snacking habits and addictions to specific foods
  3. Consider intermittent fasting as a means of restoring your satiety reflex and increasing your insulin sensitivity. Relentless feasting (eating throughout the day, every day, for weeks or months on end) decreases your sense of taste, your sense of fullness (or satiety), and the efficiency with which your body stores and uses energy. Performing a short fast once per week - or at the very least, once per month -  is clinically proven to reset these mechanisms, making you less prone to overeating in general, and less likely to crave sugary things in particular.

An easy way to do this is by starting and ending a 24-hour fast with an evening meal. Simply eat a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner - making sure you’re done eating by 6 or 7pm. Then nothing (except water) passes your lips until 6 or 7pm the next day. The beauty of this is that you spend a good portion of the fast unconscious. You may get a hunger pang around 10 or 12 the next day. But ignore it, and it soon passes.

Clinical tests have proven that provided that you are otherwise healthy (no diabetes, hypoglycemia, anemia, etc), there is no negative effect to fasting, even up to 36 hours. Every healthy person should be able to fast for 24 hours once in a while. If you find that you can’t, it’s a psychological issue, rather than a physiological one. So give it a try - you may surprise yourself. (But don’t overdo it, and never fast on consecutive days - there’s a point of diminishing returns on this).

Feel free to share your experiences in the comment thread below. And don’t forget, if you haven’t already done so, you can still register for the Stress Proof Retreat (Apr 28-May 01) by following this link:

Until next time - be calm, and carry on...