Correct your carbohydrates and balance your blood sugar
Carbohydrates, which the body turns into glucose molecules, are essential fuel for our brains, without which we could not function.
Like a car, our brains need a steady supply of energy to fuel them, and glucose is one the easiest, quickest fuels it can use (fats can also provide good brain fuel, however require more work by the body to use):
- No other source of brain fuel is as easy for the brain to use Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p. 151.
- Even in an extremely sedentary day, our brain consumes up to 40% of the carbohydrate we eat Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, p. 17.
- Deficiencies in brain-fuel, caused by imbalances in blood sugar, can affect mental health, leading to low energy, brain fog, reduced ability to concentrate, low mood, and anxiety Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p. 152. Detka, J., Kurek, A., Kucharczyk, M. and Budziszewska, B. (2015). Brain glucose metabolism in an animal model of depression. [online] Neuroscience, 295, pp. 198-208. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274261333_Brain_Glucose_Metabolism_in_an_Animal_Model_of_Depression [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
Carbohydrates and mental health
Consuming carbohydrates has a calming effect on the brain:
- It triggers the release of insulin, which allows for the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter for good mood, sleep and appetite
- Serotonin in turn regulates energy balance in the brain, and helps to modulate insulin Papazoglou, I., Berthou, F., Vicaire, N., Rouch C., Markaki, E. M., Bailbe, D., Portha, B, Taouis, M. and Gerozissis, K. (2011). Hypothalamic serotonin–insulin signalling cross-talk and alterations in a type 2 diabetic model. [online] Molecular and cellular endocrinology 350 (1), pp. 136-44. Available at: http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/22209745 [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
- Consuming carbohydrates has been shown to lower cortisol Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p. 81.
- Make sure to eat complex carbohydrates at least twice a day in order to boost calming and good mood neurotransmitters in the brain
- High protein, low carbohydrate diets can cause anxiety and overactivity of the mind Gluck, M. and Edgson, V. (2010). It Must Be My Hormones. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin Group (Australia), pp. 115, 118.
However not all carbohydrates are equally valuable, and some are actually unhealthy.
Good vs bad carbohydrates
As a rule, refined carbohydrates tend to be bad, and unrefined carbohydrates are better.
Consume complex carbohydrates (beans, pulses, whole grains, starchy vegetables, etc.) instead of refined carbohydrates (processed, refined sugars and flours), because:
- Complex carbohydrates are rich in fibre, taking longer to digest and allowing for balanced blood sugar and a steady release of glucose for the brain
- Complex carbohydrates are nutrient dense, and provide the most easily accessible, sustainable and steady fuel for the brain Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p. 151. Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, p. 18.
- Refined carbohydrates are not only nutrient-poor, but also tend to cause a sudden increase of blood sugar, especially when they are consumed alone, and the organs of the body, and especially the brain, prefer a steady release of energy/glucose, which they get when blood sugar levels are stable
Sathyanarayana Rao, T., Asha, M., Ramesh, B. and Jagannatha Rao, K. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. [online] Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 50 (2), pp.77-82. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/ [accessed 24 Aug. 2017].
Blood sugar and mental health
As we have seen in blood sugar imbalances, fluctuating blood sugar levels can cause mental health issues such as anxiety, irritability, depression, and insomnia.
Balancing your blood sugar can help to balance your mood and energy levels, and make you happier, with fewer mood swings, less anxiety, and less irritability:
- Balanced blood sugar provides a steady source of fuel (glucose) to the brain
- Balanced blood sugar provides a steady supply of the neurotransmitter serotonin and beta-endorphins, feel-good chemicals DesMaisons, K. (2004). Little Sugar Addicts: End the Mood Swings, Meltdowns, Tantrums, and Low Self-Esteem in Your Child Today. New York: Three Rivers Press, pp. 19-20.
- Serotonin in turn regulates energy and glucose balance through specific receptors in the brain Papazoglou, I., Berthou, F., Vicaire, N., Rouch C., Markaki, E. M., Bailbe, D., Portha, B, Taouis, M. and Gerozissis, K. (2011). Hypothalamic serotonin–insulin signalling cross-talk and alterations in a type 2 diabetic model. [online] Molecular and cellular endocrinology 350 (1), pp. 136-44. Available at: http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/22209745 [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
- Balanced blood sugar prevents the excessive release of insulin, which can be eventually lead to insulin resistance
- Chronically high insulin levels caused by chronic spikes in blood sugar down-regulate blood-brain barrier insulin receptors, which limits insulin transport into the brain
- This can create central insulin resistance which can have a pro-inflammatory effect, leading to neuro-degeneration Calkin, Cynthia V., Ruzickova, M., Uher, R., Hajek, T., Slaney, C. M., Garnham, J. S., O’Donovan, M. C. and Alda, M. (2015). Insulin resistance and outcome in bipolar disorder. [online] The British Journal of Psychiatry 206 (1), pp. 52-7. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25323142 [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
- Higher blood sugar can cause increased damage to blood vessels in the brain which contributes to the development of dementia, and stabilising blood sugar levels is important to maintaining healthy blood vessels in the brain Crane, P. K., Walker, R., Hubbard, R. A., Li, G., Nathan, D. M., Zheng, H., Haneuse, S., Craft, S., Montine, T. J., Kahn, S. E., McCormick, W., McCurry, S. M., Bowen, J. D. and Larson, E. B. (2013). Glucose levels and risk of dementia. [online] New England Journal of Medicine, 369 (6), pp. 540-8. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23924004 [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
How to balance your blood sugar
Make sure that you are eating the right kinds of carbohydrates: Perlmutter, D. and Colman, C. (2004). The Better Brain Book. New York: Riverhead Books, p. 83. Gluck, M. and Edgson, V. (2010). It Must Be My Hormones. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin Group (Australia), pp. 74, 77.
- Highly processed carbohydrates made from refined flours and sugars (such as white fours and sugars) are stripped of their nutrients and fibre and are digested quickly leading to a rapid spike in blood sugar
- Complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly, due to their fibre content and therefore release glucose to the brain slower and more steadily Knudsen, K. E. B. (2015). Microbial degradation of whole-grain complex carbohydrates and impact on short-chain fatty acids and health. [online] Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal 6.2, pp. 206-13. Available at: http://advances.nutrition.org/content/6/2/206.abstract [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
- Complex carbohydrates contain more nutrients, as they are not stripped during processing, and their higher fibre content is better for the gut as well as detoxification of the bowel Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, p. 18.
- Avoid white sugar and white flour products such as white bread, pasta, pizza, cakes, cookies, and any high sugar products such as sodas, juices, confectionery, dried fruit, as well as prepared foods which tend to have hidden refined sugars, etc.
- 90% of the vitamins and minerals have been removed through processing Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, p. 19.
- Consuming refined sugar can cause the depletion of nutrients such as magnesium, which can be lost through the urine Gottfried, S. (2013). The Hormone Cure. New York, NY: Scribner, p. 147.
- Complex carbohydrates
- Whole grains
- Millet (particularly helpful in sustaining serotonin levels) Jideani, A. I. O., Silungwe, H., Takalani, T., Anyasi, T. A., Udeh, H. and Omolola, A. (2014). Antioxidant-Rich Natural Grain Products and Human Health. [online] In: Oguntibeju, ed., Antioxidant-Antidiabetic Agents and Human Health, 1st ed. InTech Publisher, pp. 167-187. Available at: https://www.intechopen.com/books/antioxidant-antidiabetic-agents-and-human-health/antioxidant-rich-natural-grain-products-and-human-health [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
- Brown rice
- Wild rice
- Vegetables and fruits are complex carbohydrates, and in addition contain high levels of phytochemicals and phytonutrients which are anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant
- Try to ensure that you have vegetables at every meal, and can even replace grains with vegetables to get a similar carbohydrate content
- Fruit should only be eaten before a meal or on its own to ensure better digestion
- Aim for six servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit every day (one serving of vegetables = 1/2 cup cooked, 1 cup raw)
- Whole grains
Try to eat three meals at regular intervals throughout the day, each one should contain all three macro-nutrients in the correct proportions. This enables a steady release of blood sugar. Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, p. 26.
- Complex carbohydrates
- The addition of protein slows digestion, and slows the rate at which sugar is absorbed into the blood stream
- Protein helps curb your appetite
- Protein is helpful for optimal brain function due to its high amino-acid content Hyman, M. (2008). The Ultramind Solution. New York: Scribner, p. 95.
- Eat healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado, and healthy oils such as olive oil, coconut oil, etc. Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, pp. 53-55.
- Animal fats which are organic/free range/grass fed can be very helpful in balancing blood sugar, as well as providing healthy levels of omega 3s and fat-soluble vitamins Scott, T. and Keith, L. (May 2015). Anxiety, Depression and the Vegetarian Diet. [online] The Anxiety Summit, Season 3. Available at: http://season3.theanxietysummit.com/.
- Partially replacing carbohydrates with unsaturated fats appears to improve insulin sensitivity Gadgil, M. D., Appel, L. J., Yeung, E., Anderson, C. A. M., Sacks, F. M. and Miller, E. R. (2013). The effects of carbohydrate, unsaturated fat, and protein intake on measures of insulin sensitivity: results from the OmniHeart Trial. [online] Diabetes Care 36 (5), pp. 1132-7. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3631872/ [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
- Eating too much protein without carbohydrate can lead to dehydration and bloating Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p. 151.
Low glycemic index foods release glucose into the bloodstream more slowly than high glycemic index food. High glycemic index foods can spike blood sugar, causing blood sugar imbalances.
- Low glycemic index foods are digested more slowly, and leave you feeling full for longer
- However they are not necessarily more nutritious than high glycemic foods, so do be aware of that
- For instance, instant noodles are low glycemic index (47) while potatoes (80), pumpkin (75) and parsnip (97) are high glycemic index, and yet are far more nutritious than instant noodles. (2017). High, Medium and Low GI Foods. [online] The GI Diet Guide. Available at: http://www.the-gi-diet.org/lowgifoods/ [accessed 15 Nov. 2017].
- As a general rule of thumb, for better blood sugar control, avoid high glycemic foods such as refined sugars and flours found in processed foods and beverages, starchy cooked vegetables, and concentrated fruit products such as dried fruits and fruit juices.
For a more complete list of low, medium and high GI foods, you can look here.
Caffeine can cause sugar cravings and emotional highs and lows. Caffeine also stimulates our adrenal glands to release the stress hormone adrenaline which causes glucose to be released in the blood stream. This can cause a rapid spike in blood sugar followed by a rapid drop and the need for more caffeine or sugar.
Fibre helps stabilize blood sugar and supports healthy gut function. Make sure you are getting at least 30-50mg a day from vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, pulses and whole grains. Hyman, M. (2008). The Ultramind Solution. New York: Scribner, p. 302.
Certain nutritional supplements can be helpful in balancing blood sugar.
Supplements for hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
- Chromium Amen, D. (2013). Unleash The Power Of The Female Brain. New York: Harmony Books, p. 134.
- Try 200 micrograms chromium a day
- If you have severe blood sugar swings, take an extra 200 micrograms with meals Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p. 55.
- Choline bitartrate
- Rubidium chelate
- Vanadium aspartate
- Try taking 500-1500mg of the amino acid glutamine 2-3 times a day between meals
- It will provide energy for your brain when your blood sugar is low
Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p. 55.
Supplements for hyperglycemia (high blood sugar)
- Gymnema sylvestre
- Banaba leaf extract
- Maitake mushroom
- Bitter melon
- Opuntia streptacantha Lemaire
- Guar gum
- Alpha Lipoic acid
- Vitamin E (also skin)
- Magnesium (also calming)
- 25-25mg zinc a day to help recovery from sugar sensitivity DesMaisons, K. (2004). Little Sugar Addicts: End the Mood Swings, Meltdowns, Tantrums, and Low Self-Esteem in Your Child Today. New York: Three Rivers Press, p. 102.
This will help you to monitor the effects of what you eat and when you eat it, on your moods, and help you adjust what and when you eat it to ensure more balanced moods.