Sugar and Hormones, the Sweet Crash
by Dr. Laurie Terzo, DAOM, L.Ac., FABORM
Sarah was a 37-year-old very busy professional who came to see me for help with painful, heavy cycles, poor sleep, and fatigue. We began by taking a look at her diet. For a typical day, she would have a fruit and protein smoothie in the morning. Then for a snack, she’d have a Luna bar, and lunch would be a salad (greens, candied pecans, craisins, and feta) and soda from the café by her office. For dinner, it would be gluten free pasta with marinara sauce or teriyaki chicken stir fry. Sounds somewhat healthy right?
When we delved further into her diet, she liked to also have half of a milk chocolate bar at night and an additional 1-2 glasses of wine 3-4 times a week. In her head, she thought her diet was pretty healthy. But, her body was certainly feeling the effects of the inflammation her sugar intake was having on her hormones, sleep, and energy level. Don’t worry, I didn’t tell Sarah to cut out chocolate and alcohol! But, we did work to restructure her diet to decrease her overall sugar intake significantly and swap some low sugar foods for the high sugar ones she had been eating.
We found satisfying, healthy and quick changes for her to switch to that fit within her busy schedule. After the first month, her energy and sleep improved by over 50% & after 3 months, her cycles were no longer painful or heavy. Whoot, whoot!
One of the ways Sarah satisfied her sweet cravings initially was to sub out her milk chocolate bar for my Cherry Chocolate Banana Ice Cream (recipe below).
So, What is the Issue with Sugar?
Before the advent of food processing, when sugar was mainly obtained from fruits and vegetables, people consumed about 30 grams per day of it. Today, an average American consumes 76 grams a day, which is about 19 teaspoons. That adds up to 96 pounds of sugar yearly (40 lbs. of which is high fructose corn syrup).
Sugar is labeled as an addictive substance because it stimulates the brain in a way that is similar to cocaine and alcohol, causing the release of the feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin.
When sugar is consumed in large quantities it has several effects:
It causes people to eat it, despite the negative consequences like weight gain, fatigue, and moodiness
Tolerance will develop, and more will be needed for the same effect, this equals cravings
Some people have trouble functioning without it and have a “stash” available when their energy plummets
Upon quitting sugar, withdrawal symptoms may appear
Is Sugar Wreaking Havoc with Your Hormones?
When we feel hungry, it is our body’s signal that our blood sugar has dropped and it’s time to refuel again. Refined sugar (sucrose) is a quick and easy go-to for many of us as it gets into the bloodstream quickly, providing us with an energy and mood boost. This quick and easy surge of energy from refined sugar is followed by the tell-tale sugar crash, where we plummet into feeling tired again and looking for another quick source of energy to make us feel better. And on and on this cycle goes throughout a typical day. There is, however, a real problem with how this affects our hormones. With that quick spike and then crash of eating processed sugar, the adrenal glands are signaled to kick in and go into fight-or-flight mode. Remember the adrenal glands? These are the glands that help us make hormones (like cortisol) to handle stress, like fleeing-from-a-saber-tooth-tiger type of stress.
Ideally, this system would not be activated unless it is an emergency because it shuts down many important different bodily systems. Like digestion, detoxification, immune function….and hormones. Yes, that’s right, blood flow to the ovaries is curbed when you are in a fight-or-fight mode. The adrenals normally try to pick up any slack with making reproductive hormones, but they are unable to if they are being taxed from being in a constant stressed out state.
Additionally, a process called the pregnenolone steal happens. This process is literally a steal! Pregnenolone is called the mother hormone in the body as it is a precursor to many other hormones, including reproductive and stress hormones. In times of perceived stress (like sugar spikes and crashes, the body diverts a lot of the pregnenolone to go toward stress hormone production (like cortisol) and steals it away from sex hormone production. So, the body gears up its output of cortisol, but inhibits the production of just about everything else.
Because who needs smooth running hormones, or even the ability to get pregnant, when you are running from a saber tooth tiger? This is basically what our body is thinking.
Is Cutting Out Refined Sugar the Answer to Your Hormone Woes?
I don’t know for sure if cutting out refined sugar is the answer for you, but I can tell you the changes I have seen both in myself and with the clients I work with have been profound. Cutting out the processed foods and getting back to basics with a whole foods diet is key. When a client I am working with begins looking at the different places in their diet where they can replace refined sugar (like grinding their own almond butter at the store from pure almonds or choosing a whole foods energy bar instead of the high sugar Luna bar in Sarah’s case), they feel so much better. Energy is sustained, sleep is deep and restful, cravings disappear, and hormones even out.
Chocolate Cherry Banana Ice Cream Recipe
Time: 5 minutes
1 Ripe Bananas, sliced and frozen
5-10 Frozen Cherries or Strawberries
1TB Organic Unsweetened Cacao (you can omit this if you don’t want a chocolate taste)
¼ cup of Unsweetened Almond or Hemp Milk (can use more or less milk as needed, pouring in liquid a little at a time to get desired consistency)
Add all ingredients to a food processor or Vitamix and blend.
Occasionally scrape down the sides and continue to blend until smooth (on low for Vitamix), approximately 3-5 minutes.
Scoop out and enjoy immediately! For firmer ice cream, place in an airtight freezer-safe container and freeze for at least 1 hour.
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