Waking up and moving through the day with the zen calmness of a Buddhist monk sure sounds idyllic, but, for most people, certainly doesn’t seem all that realistic—especially given the extremely uncertain, stressful state of the world we live in right now.
There are a lot of factors that can contribute to feeling stressed, from looming work deadlines to health worries and existential climate anxiety. Some of these things are in our control, some of them are not. But according to functional medicine doctor and Food Fix author Mark Hyman, MD there’s definitely something surprising that could be causing unnecessary stress: your breakfast.
No, I’m not talking about the stress of making breakfast, I mean the actual ingredients in your breakfast itself could be increasing your stress levels. “Did you know when we eat things like flour, sugar, and fried foods we actually increase inflammation and stress hormone production?” Dr. Hyman recently shared on Instagram. “Sugar in [a] muffin increases cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones. Yes, sugar literally jacks up your stress hormones, even if you are not stressed.”
Feeling betrayed by your granola right now? Here’s what to know about how a sugary breakfast can affect your stress levels.
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The sugar and stress loop
According to women’s hormonal health expert, Aviva Romm, MD, the relationship between sugar and stress is a chicken-and-egg sort of situation. Basically, sugar increases your stress hormones, but also stress hormones make you crave more sugar. (Fun, right?)
“Most people crave sugar or refined carbs when they’re stressed, and the reason for that is because when you’re under chronic stress or even a short burst of intense stress, your body uses up a lot of sugar,” Dr. Romm says. That’s because the brain needs glucose (a simple sugar) to function, she says; stress puts the brain in a hyper-vigilant, fight-or-flight state that makes it use more glucose in order to function. This then signals an alarm in the body when you need more.
So if you wake up in the morning feeling stressed (morning anxiety is real for sure), Dr. Romm says you’re already hard-wired to reach for something sugary or carby. “Carbs help buffer the stress response by replacing molecules that the body is burning up,” she says. “Eating carbs actually creates neurotransmitters in the brain, sending the signal to calm down.” (BTW this is why carb-loaded meals like mac-and-cheese and lasagna are classic comfort foods.)
But here’s where Dr. Hyman’s original point comes in: “Eating sugar and refined carbs raises cortisol levels, but then that same molecule calms the body down,” Dr. Romm explains. This causes blood sugar levels to continuously raise and drop, and every time they drop, get ready for those sugar cravings to hit. “It’s a vicious cycle and it goes both ways,” she says.
How to break out of the sugar and stress cycle
Okay, so now you know how eating sugar and refined carbs can up cortisol levels, leading to feelings of stress—which can kickstart a pattern of continuously craving sugar and refined carbs every time blood sugar levels drop. Both Dr. Hyman and Dr. Romm give a clear solution on breaking the cycle: changing your eating habits to emphasize healthy foods that are low glycemic, and will keep blood sugar levels balanced.
Here’s what this means in terms of your breakfast: Dr. Romm says foods like oatmeal with nut butter or avocado on whole grain toast are both great choices because of the high fiber and healthy fat content, which both work to keep blood sugar levels balanced.
“In American culture, our breakfasts tend to be almost like desserts, but savory breakfasts full of vegetables are also a great way to keep blood sugar levels balanced,” Dr. Romm says. Veggies with eggs or savory oatmeal can help prevent keep cortisol (and blood sugar levels) even and stable.
You may not be able to control the number of emails you wake up to in the morning, the amount of things you hope to get done, and the perilous state of the world. But eating a breakfast that works in your favor by keeping cortisol levels even will help you be better able to manage them.
Hey, there’s a reason why breakfast earned a rep as the most important meal of the day.
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