The necessary treatment for anxiety, insomnia & fatigue – Balancing blood sugars

15 April, 2016

One necessary treatment for anxiety, insomnia and fatigue – Balancing blood sugar levels

One of the most common complaints I see in my practice would have to be fatigue of all types, depression like symptoms, insomnia (especially waking and not being able to get back to sleep) and a “bubbling under the surface” constant anxiety.  One very necessary first step to take when recovering from any of these symptoms is to balance blood sugar levels.

Blood sugar imbalances can be subtle or extreme, and are a very overlooked cause of many health complaints, in particular mental health complaints.  Blood sugar ups and downs can range of just feeling a bit nauseous or vague if you miss a meal or snack – or that common feeling of “hangry” (hungry and angry).  Or you may recognise it in yourself as it descends upon you post lunch in a mental and physical fatigue haze.  The common things we reach for are a sugary snack or a coffee to get us through the afternoon.  But those choices can make things worse.

Blood sugar problems can also become chronic and more serious as they progress.  They can become chronic – and progressively more serious to our health.  Insulin resistance and reactive hypoglycaemia are the precursors to full blown diabetes and I notice they are becoming more common in younger & younger people – especially if levels of stress are also high (excess levels of the stress hormone cortisol being one cause of pre-diabetes).

fatigue as a blood sugar problem

There are many types of fatigue. Some range from “I can’t get started in the morning without a coffee” or “I can’t get through the afternoon without a sugar hit” kind of fatigue. Or the relentless kind of fatigue that still hangs around after a “restful” weekend or a long sleep.  Or maybe there is an inability to get good sleep?

This kind of fatigue can be easily mis-diagnosed unfortunately as several medical conditions. Depression is a common one.  In my experience there is always a reason WHY and it is important to seek further investigations to rule out adrenal fatigue, low (but within range) ferritin/iron stores or absorption, gut problems (leaky gut), food allergies, thyroid disorders, general systemic inflammation and methylation problems.  Usually all these possible causes are linked and the whole body needs to be rebalanced nutritionally.  One major contributing factor or cause – is irregular blood sugar levels.  Ask a tired or chronically fatigued person how they keep “showing up” to get through their day or evening?  The answer is almost always sugar, chocolate, coffee, caffeine drinks, alcohol, refined white carbs (especially toast and packaged cereal snacks/bars).  This causes a constant up and down of hormonal release in the body and eventually even more of a downward spiral of fatigue – and usually anxiety and insomnia joining in.  They usually have little energy to make a balanced meal.

insomnia as a blood sugar problem

There are many reason WHY we go through bouts of insomnia. Some are emotional reasons, some environmental and some are even nutritional reasons.  However, when it becomes relentless and affecting your life negatively, it is important to do an inventory. It is very common for those who have imbalanced blood sugar levels (even slightly) to have difficulty getting to sleep  if they stay up past 10.30pm or they wake around midnight or in the early to mid morning hours.  This waking in the early hours can be accompanied by all or any of these symptoms…

  • feeling hungry (one of my mentors refers to these people as “night grazers”, where these people can’t get back to sleep until they eat something)
  • anxious
  • thinking or busy head
  • racing heart
  • sweaty or clammy
  • generally feeling hot

anxiety as a blood sugar problem

Anxiety has many parts to it in my experience.  Of course our early life experiences can shape our brain and nervous system to become more sensitive and highly attuned in the “reptilian survival” part of our brains – the “fight, flight, flee or freeze” area.  However, as Dr Rick Hanson neuroscientist and psychologist says, it is a normal condition for us humans to be “wired” in our neural pathways within our brains for a negativity bias.  In other words, being attuned to focus on the negative and miss the positive.  Or as he says “we are Teflon for the good and Velcro for the bad”.  We are “wired” 95% for the negative, and 5% for the positive experiences! That’s what helped us historically to survive from early predators.  Today however, with our constant stressors and being overly switched on 24/7, it is becoming more difficult to down turn our nervous system from being on full blast.  There are many ways to do this through looking at daily habits, therapy, mindfulness and nutrition – but the subject of this blog and in my opinion the first one to address – is through balancing blood sugar levels.

First things first…

A simple experiment which is well within your power to do at home is to check out if your symptoms are caused by blood sugar imbalances. You will need 3-4 weeks cutting out all the possible offenders to really give yourself a proper go at this experiment. If there is ANY stress involved in your life with one or more of these symptoms – I guarantee there will be an element of blood sugar involvement.

Depending on how extreme your symptoms are and how long you have had them, you may need the support of naturopath to oversee this experiment.  The longer and the more extreme the symptoms, then the longer the experiment needs to be.  To speed the process up, I give my patients blood sugar and adrenal gland balancing nutrients and herbs plus individual dietary advice.

When our blood sugar crashes even slightly – as a result of eating or drinking the wrong things or at the wrong times for our body type, or due to prolonged stress – our body eventually responds with the stress hormones cortisol & adrenaline.  Insulin is a hormone responsible for helping us move sugars and carbohydrates from our food into our cells so we can use it as energy.  Normally healthy cells have no problem responding to this insulin and utilising this sugar or carbohydrate for energy.  However, if our cells are relentlessly exposed to too much sugar or refined carbohydrates, our body becomes resistant to the insulin due to the persistent spikes in sugar.  The pancreas then pumps out more insulin to try to get the excess sugar into the cell.  But the higher levels of insulin also plummet blood sugar levels further, resulting in what Dr Kelly Brogan Holistic Psychiatrist calls “brain-based panic and bodily discomfort”.  As she says, many of the words used to describe the sensation for blood sugar hitting rock bottom are synonymous with depression or panic attacks.  I would also add to that, anxiety.

As we have reached for the coffee or sugary snack to give us that burst of energy at the sleepy mid afternoon phase in the day or to get going in the morning, this hormonal stress response feels identical to energy – but it in fact false energy.  What goes up, must come down.

Over time this “upper and downer” way of living, taxes our adrenal glands of their precious coping hormones and potentially drains them over time.  Leaving us at risk of feeling chronically adrenally fatigued or feeling “tired and wired”.  The adrenals and thyroid are also closely connected – so thyroid hormones can also be imbalanced.  By stabilising your blood sugar levels, you can avoid this and tap into your real core energy rather than this false quick energy.

Tips to get blood sugar back on track.  You will need 4 weeks to get your body back to baseline:

  • Eat more animal protein and healthy fats (e.g., olive oil, flaxseed oil, coconut oil, coconut cream, butter and ghee from pasture-raised animals)
  • Avoid refined sugar and refined carbohydrates (the white stuff and store bought cakes, pastries, biscuits, sweets)
  • Have a complete break from alcohol & caffeine – both disturb blood sugar levels by pushing the stress hormones.  Alcohol is a big cause of blood sugar imbalances.
  • Eat 3 meals and 2 snacks daily; don’t skip meals.  Aim for a protein with each meal or snack.  Eventually you will be able to go longer without eating and will not need to eat the snacks as you balance.
  • Eat within an hour of waking up so you don’t get a draining cortisol surge and then crash
  • STOP the low fat mentality! Add a healthy fat to each meal or take a spoonful of coconut oil upon waking, in the afternoon and right before bed; this will serve as a blood sugar safety net throughout the day.  We’ve all been conned with the old 1970’s nutrition advice which is long out of date.  FAT IS ACTUALLY GOOD.  The only fat that is bad is hydrogenated vegetable fats and refined vegetable oils (sunflower, canola etc).  Good fats are necessary for hundreds of important actions in our body.  Healthy hormones, blood sugar stabilisation, brain health and reduction of inflammation.  Fat with every meal in the form of olive oil, flaxseed oil (don’t cook with this oil though), coconut oil, and oils in the form of nuts and organic butter.  And don’t be afraid of saturated fats from organic grass fed meats as they contain more of the beneficial anti-inflammatory omega 3 oils.
  • If you have insomnia or early morning waking.  Get to bed and asleep before 10pm ideally.  Eat a fat, protein and complex carbohydrate snack before bed or try my golden milk drink, to balance your blood sugars for longer, until they can do it themselves.
  • If you wake hungry or for “night grazers”- get up and eat a small handful of nuts or have 1-2 teaspoons of nut butter (like ABC spread).
  • Check out my sleep tips to look at other factors, plus my environmental house toxins blog
  • Be prepared – have a snack handy in your desk or bag (e.g., nuts, hard-boiled egg, almond butter)

Anxiety, depression or chronic fatigue are all multifactorial conditions.  Food allergies like gluten and dairy can play a big part also. Try and focus on blood sugar levels to start with – and then see what is left over to work on if needed – with more nutritional intervention, mindfulness support or counselling.

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