Addicted To Sugar or Just Super Stressed?

Sugar? Who doesn't like sugar? I'll get to that in a minute, but first I have a question for you:

Have you ever woke up in the morning, wiped the drool from the corner of your mouth, gave your alarm clock the death stare and then begrudgingly rolled out of bed dreading the rest of your day because of your never-ending to-do list?

Yeah, me too. And the rest of the day snowballs from there. Work deadlines, endless phone calls, commitments and obligations keep piling up.

I'll admit it. I'm stressed.

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And so are most people. Especially if you live in a big city like Boston, have a demanding career and a family to take care of. Sometimes it feels like it just keeps piling on and there's no way to take the lid off the teakettle.

Stress isn't all bad but it's cumulative and can really add up. It's important to understand it can be both physical (what you feel when you are public speaking or going for an interview) and psychological (challenge to your body, such as a hard workout, extreme temperatures, or illness) and effect you in many different ways.

Does your body know the difference between physical and psychological stress?

There are some camps that will say stress is stress and your body reacts the same way to both physical and psychological stress...

But there are studies that say you can have physical stressors such as going for a run, that will be stressful for some, but have a calming effect for others.  Therefor physical stress doesn't always cause the same reactions that you’d have to psychological stress such as going for job interview.

For most animals, stress reactions are all the same. Wither you are the prey being chased or the predator doing the chasing due to hunger.

For humans, we have evolved to not only have a stress response to physical and psychological stressors but we have the brain capacity to anticipate stressful events. 

We may not have lions chancing us down for dinner anymore, but we have seemingly less meaningful events such as mortgage payments, our children’s’ safety and ability to be successful, marriage and other relationships, and work deadlines.  These seem less stressful when compared to a lion chasing you, but they still cause a chemical reaction in the brain. 

Here is a fantastic 3 min video from the author of why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky, to explain this idea further:

Are Sugar Cravings Caused By Stress?

Remember, stress effects everyone differently.

But when most of us are stressed, a hormone called cortisol elevates which can suppress immunity, cause hypertension and high blood pressure.

When we eat sugar a hormone called serotonin elevates which is calming and relaxing. Elevated serotonin will light up all the feel-good, reward centers of the brain so it makes sense why we would reach for sugary items when our stress levels elevate.  We want to feel better!

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It's important to note that popular the belief is that any amount of sugar will make you hyper AF. Actually, numerous studies have shown that sugar does not cause hyperactivity and a low dose will cause a calming effect.

The danger is in the does, as they say, and high doses will cause rapid changes in blood sugar levels and cause a 'sugar high'.

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Can I Be Addicted To Sugar?

Robert Lustig, a leading US obesity expert says that sugar is the “canary in the cole mine”.  It points to other underlying problems such as:

1. Imbalance of good vs bad bacteria within the digestive track

Your microbiome is SUPER important and often vastly under-appreciated. An imbalance in good vs bad bacteria can be caused by poor diet, result of stress or use of antibiotics that kill both types of bacteria.

2. Adrenaline Overload

Stress hormones are pumping on a constant basis because of a lack of ability to relax and de-stress.  This causes the body to be sluggish and we look for the quickest burst of energy and good feelings we can find…. sugar.

TRAINER SIDE NOTE: This is why we include breathing drills in the warmup and cooldown at AMP!

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3. Hormonal changes in Menopause or Menstrual Cycle

Hormones fluctuate and can leave you feeling tired, irritable, “not yourself”, and the body craves the feel-good hormones (serotonin) which is released when we eat sugar.

Do you notice something in all three examples?

All three can be caused by physical OR physiological stressors to the body. So, in short STRESS can cause us to reach for SUGAR. 

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Do I Have A Sugar Problem Or A Stress Problem?

Back to the “canary in the cole mine” idea.  Over consumption of sugar isn’t ideal for our body, but you can’t fix a problem by attacking the outcome rather than the source. Sugar being the canary and stress being the toxic death fumes you'd want to get rid of.

In other words, try looking at lowering distress in your life by learning how to manage it better. Curious about to use your fitness program as a way to destress, curb sugar cravings, and get into incredible shape? Let's talk.

In the meantime, here are a few other ideas...

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  • Yoga
  • Walking
  • Getting out in nature
  • Meditation
  • Bath
  • More Sleep
  • Vacation
  • Getting those difficult conversations over with!  Brief spike in stress for a huge relief after!
  • Hugging a loved one
  • Time with family (not always the case)
  • Deep breaths
  • Staying hydrated
  • Plan ahead for your day
  • Good nutrition
  • Do more shit you LOVE
  • Less social media

You might just find that your sugar 'cravings' start to subside and you're making better choices towards your longterm health and happiness. #LifeGainz

Sugar-Free Wrap-Up

  1. Stop looking at your sugar intake as the problem and start to dig into what stressors in your life might be causing your excessive sugar intake.
  2. Sugar gives us a momentary feel good feeling. So it makes sense we reach for it when we aren’t feeling our best.
  3. We deal with a multitude of physical and psychological stressors every day.  Learning to balance these with good stress management techniques can help with our sugar cravings. 
  4. Sugar is not the problem.  In-fact sugar can be downright glorious. But sugar in huge quantities used as a band-aid to your stress levels is a problem.

Looking for help and guidance on all things fitness and nutrition? Find out if AMP is the best next step on your fitness journey!


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Lindsay is the co-founder and First Lady of AMP Fitness. She's the head nutrition coach in our AMPed Nutrition coaching program and implements a body-positive strategy to help our members NAIL their health and nutrition goals. She's also soon-to-be mom (yay!) and is a pre- and post-natal coach for all things fitness.