We don’t need a clock to know when it’s 3 p.m. (Please tell us we’re not the only ones!) Energy slumps and stress runs high. With the workday crawling along, a pick-me-up suddenly seems like the right idea. But turning to the office candy bowl for a quick fix? Here’s why you—and your hormones—should say “no thank you” to that.
Some facts about sugar
Sugar’s everywhere, and it goes by a lot of different names: glucose, sucrose, corn syrup, fructose, maltose, and fruit-juice concentrate. (The list goes on.) Almost all processed foods have at least one form of sugar—even savory eats, like crackers and peanut butter. In small doses, that’s okay. Nutritional guidelines give a thumbs-up to about six (6) to nine (9) teaspoons of added sugar daily in a 2,000-calorie diet. However, most of us are getting more than our fair share—almost 22 teaspoons a day.
Why we crave sugar when stressed
There’s no shortage of jokes about how stress has us reaching for the sweet stuff. But it’s true, and there’s a biological reason for it. In a flight-or-fight situation, the body puts out adrenaline. Adrenaline reduces hunger, freeing up resources for survival. However, when stress becomes chronic, the adrenal gland increases cortisol. High cortisol revs up your appetite and makes fatty and sugary treats look extra delicious.
But here’s what really gets us in trouble: our decision to indulge gets temporarily rewarded. A recent study shows sugar helps with the stress response short-term. Because we feel a rush from it, our bodies categorize the experience as positive and cravings are reinforced.
The insulin, cortisol, and sugar connection
Even though it helps in the moment, sugar (that includes all refined carbs) doesn’t do you any favors long term. Because it’s broken down so easily by the body, blood sugar levels spike very quickly. Your pancreas detects the surge and releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin rushes glucose into cells for storage and energy, while keeping your blood sugar from getting too far out of control. Sounds good, right?
Except, over time, excessive sugar intake creates a negative feedback loop. High insulin causes the cells to become less sensitive to receiving the hormone, so the pancreas pushes out even more insulin. That gets ignored, too. Because our cells can’t access the glucose they need, they send us a message: find and eat sugar. We do, and the entire cycle continues. Instead of being able to utilize energy, the body begins to store calories as fat right where no one wants it: in the tummy area.
Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end with insulin. Remember elevated cortisol? Along with adding to cravings, it makes glucose. This causes blood sugar levels to rise even further, compounding the issue of cellular insulin resistance, lowering testosterone, and leading to even more weight gain.
Sugar’s effects on hunger hormones
Sugar, insulin overload, and associated weight gain cause the body to send out more of another hormone, leptin. Leptin is made by fat cells and gauges whether we have enough adipose (fat) tissue, as well as about how many calories we should consume to maintain it. Theoretically, if leptin levels are high, the body should know it’s not starving and reduce food intake.
But, in some instances, the brain ignores elevated leptin and thinks levels are low. As a result, we have a strong physiologic desire to eat, the scale continues to go up, and the process gets put on repeat.
Reducing leptin means controlling insulin, which includes avoiding high-sugar choices. Focus on low-inflammation options, like fish and other whole foods, and have protein and fiber at every meal to improve satiety.
Ghrelin is also affected by sugar and can lead to weight gain. Produced in the stomach, this hormone increases when we’re hungry or our bellies are empty. After a good meal, it decreases since the body doesn’t need any more food. We no longer feel the desire to snack or keep eating.
Sugar, though, can cause levels to stay elevated. Even though we’ve had plenty to eat, the increased ghrelin tells us the opposite and leads to excess calorie intake. To balance ghrelin, limit super sweet foods and juices to treats and get plenty of quality protein.
How sugar impacts sex hormones
Estrogen is not the enemy; it has a lot of positive effects on the body. However, too much of it comes with a long list of negative symptoms, like bloating, mood swings, headaches, low sex drive, irregular periods, and sore, tender breasts. It can even raise your risk of certain cancers.
Because the excess calories in sugar can cause weight gain, it also affects estrogen. Here’s why: estrogen can be made and stored in fat. The more tissue you have, the more of this hormone you’ll make. Studies confirm that higher body fat percentages correlate to increased estrogen.
For women with PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome, elevated insulin tells the ovaries to up production of testosterone. High levels can cause unwanted symptoms, like excess hair, missed cycles, infertility, and more.
With PCOS, it’s important to avoid high-sugar foods and refined carbohydrates. Eating mostly whole foods reduces blood sugar, and that means insulin (and testosterone) can rebalance, too.
Are natural sweeteners any better?
Earlier, we mentioned that sugar breaks down quickly and causes a spike of blood glucose. Natural sweeteners, though a little different, are still sugar to your body. For reference, table sugar is 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. Honey has about 40 percent fructose and 30 percent glucose, plus some other types of sugars.
While honey will raise insulin, it may do so more slowly than refined sugars. One reason? It has dextrin, a starchy fiber that takes longer to break down. For a quick dessert fix, natural sweetener in moderation is a-okay. However, overdoing it can bring about the same effects as other forms of sugar.
Avoid the domino effect
Hormones don’t exist in a silo. Because they affect each other, changes in one can start widespread, serious imbalances. Talk with your provider about if a low-glycemic diet is right for you and how it can keep insulin, cortisol, and other hormones in check. Bonus: it just might go a long way toward boosting your energy level and getting you past that late-afternoon slump, too.