In part one and part two of our series, we took a look at how a real-food diet can greatly influence our mental health and how food sensitivities can trigger anxiety-based conditions. In the final piece of the series, we’ll be getting a little nerdy and learning about two of the most widely-used and abused drugs in human history and their effects on the human nervous system: Caffeine and Sugar.
Now, at first glance these might seem totally harmless, and for some people, and in small doses, they are. However, for those of us struggling with anxiety or other psychiatric disorders, they can spell catastrophe.
Both caffeine and sugar are stimulants to the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord and therefore responsible for almost every bodily function you can think of. Similar to a traffic controller, the CNS signals to every system in the body where to go and what to do to keep things organized.
Caffeine and sugar also play a starring role in the regulation of blood sugar, which we’ll discuss in more detail below. While these two seemingly innocent indulgences may be commonplace in today’s busy, fast-paced world, I want to break down the misconception around their benign effects and show why eliminating them could be the missing link in getting your anxiety managed.
First, let’s talk about America’s favorite past time: Caffeine.
In most parts of the country, people are addicted to their morning cup (or three) of joe. Whether or not we really need its stimulating effects isn’t as important to people as the emotional reward they get from a comforting, warm cup of coffee in the morning or an afternoon, iced latte pick-me-up. But, those habits may be doing more harm than good for those of us with anxiety disorders.
Caffeine stops fatigue in a couple different ways, but one of those is by stimulating the adrenals to release hormones and neurotransmitters like cortisol and adrenaline which serve to rev up our nervous system and keep us alert.
Unfortunately, these are the same chemicals released by our body during a stress response such as getting in a car accident, finding out you’re being fired or getting into an intense fight with your spouse. When we are in these type of situations, our body requires more energy to deal with them, also known as flight, fight or freeze.
From an evolutionary standpoint, stressful situations call for split decisions and keen awareness, which are all enhanced by the activity of cortisol and adrenaline. These two substances increase our heart rate and blood pressure, break down stored sugar into usable energy, dilate our pupils and get us ready for attack – which are all very useful when we are, in fact, under attack. But what about when we’re not? What about when we’re just starting our day, jumping in the shower or driving to work? Are these messengers as helpful then?
Unfortunately, not only are they unhelpful, but they’re actually harmful over the long term, especially when their effects so closely mimic the symptoms of anxiety. Coffee jitters anyone?
After we get a surge of adrenaline, what happens next is usually a crash. We mobilize lots of sugar from our stores, but now that the fun is over, we enter into a state of depletion, or low blood sugar. This is when we usually get the intense craving to reach for something sugary or another cup of caffeine to “re-dose” because we start to feel pretty terrible.
If you’ve ever experienced low blood sugar, you’ll know that not only do its symptoms closely mimic anxiety, but it can aggravate low-grade anxiety into more of a panic situation. Your body sees low blood sugar as an emergency and will treat it as such, pumping out all sorts of icky signals to get you to eat something. We call this Reactive Hypoglycemia and it’s your body’s way of reacting to the stress of caffeine.
Some of the things you might experience in a low blood sugar crash include:
- Excessive hunger or intense cravings
- Shakiness or jitters
- Lightheadedness or faintness
- Intense fatigue or low energy
- Brain fog or inability to concentrate
- Increased heart rate
- Anxiety or feelings of worry
Many of these also pop up during an anxiety or panic attack and be easily confused for heightened anxiety. Often, simply cutting out caffeine can have tremendous stabilizing effects on both blood sugar and anxiety episodes.But let’s back up a bit, back to those cravings you get after a blood sugar crash. We talked about how caffeine lowers blood sugar by first stimulating a stress response and then turning into a responsive crash.
But what about sugar’s effects?
Well, similar to caffeine, too much sugar is seen as stressful to the body. Sugar is also a nervous system stimulator and affects the blood sugar cycle in a similar way. When we eat carbohydrates, including vegetables, fruits and starches, our body breaks them down into smaller molecules of sugar and fiber. Some carbohydrates break down slowly, like vegetables and some very quickly, like starches. If you’ve ever put crackers in a glass of water, you’ve seen how fast starches tend to break down in the body. This process is sped up even further when we eat blatantly sugary foods that don’t need much breaking down to turn into immediate glucose. This causes our blood sugar to spike very rapidly, something our body doesn’t like.
In response (keep reactive hypoglycemia in mind here) our body sends out hormones to lower the amount of sugar in our blood by shoving it into our cells, but can get a little overzealous and lower blood sugar too much. As our pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, we once again experience a crash and find ourselves in a frenzy of cravings, headaches, irritability and anxiety in an effort to refuel our body. This is when we reach for a bag of M&M’s and a coffee to get through the afternoon workload, further perpetuating the cycle. Blend the effects of caffeine and sugar and you’ve got yourself a perfect storm.
So what can you do to step off this crazy train and into a more balanced, even blood sugar cycle?
While there are lots of different tools to employ, I’m going to discuss the ones most helpful for anxiety-sufferers today.
1. Start your day off with some healthy fats and protein.
Eating a breakfast with a source of fat, protein and some slow-digesting carbohydrates, such as veggies, will ensure that your blood sugar stays more even throughout the day. It can take a few days for your body to regulate if you’re used to sugary cereals, donuts and coffee for breakfast, but after a week or so, you’ll begin to notice better energy, less anxiety and less cravings.
2. Cut out the caffeine and switch to decaf or herbal teas.
This one can be tough – I know. I have so much sympathy for not only the physical withdrawal of caffeine, but the emotional void you can feel like it creates as well. But tackling caffeine can be a huge piece of the anxiety puzzle, and I’m willing to bet that a panic-free day is probably a pretty great reward for you at this point. If you’ve been drinking lots of caffeine, gently wean yourself off and give yourself plenty of TLC during your withdrawal period. Drink lots of water and take it easy until your symptoms and cravings disappear.
3. Do a sugar detox.
While this can be challenging at first, everyone reports feeling so much better after cutting out extra sugar from their diets. Start by cutting out the obvious forms like cookies, candy and ice cream, and then start to be aware of the sneaky sugars you find in a lot of processed foods. Granola bars, flavored yogurts, “healthy” cereals, and excess fruit are good examples.
To help keep it in perspective, every 5 grams of sugar is equal to 1 tsp. of white table sugar. If you wouldn’t eat 3 tsp. of white sugar in a sitting, then eating a protein bar with 15 grams of sugar listed probably isn’t a good idea.
Now that we’re done with this series, I hope you have a list of tools you can take with you to start navigating your journey back to peace of mind. Anxiety and other psychiatric disorders can be scary and overwhelming, but you’re not alone, and it CAN be done. Learning to work with your body rather than against it is a powerful mindset to adopt and can dramatically shift the way you feel for life. If at any point you feel overwhelmed by your condition, don’t hesitate to contact a practitioner or licensed professional for support as it can be key to long-term healing, and never forget to have compassion and love for yourself and your journey.
Read Part 1 of this series: How Food Affects Your Mood – Nutrition and Anxiety here.
Read Part 2 of this series: How Food Affects Your Mood – Food Intolerances and Anxiety here.