We throw the term “stress” around a lot, and as of late it has been used much more. What exactly does this little word entail? Is stress a bad thing? It depends on the perception of it and the length of time. Stress, in and of itself, is not bad and can help us to grow. Yet, when stress is prolonged to the point where it is debilitating, problems begin to arise. Another term for this is allostatic overload, or the cumulative wear and tear of the body systems from chronic stress and/or the body’s inability to adapt to that stress.How does this relate to blood sugar regulation? We will take a look at the link between stress and cortisol.

Cortisol is a catecholamine, or hormone, generated by the adrenal glands. Initially, it works as an anti-inflammatory and helps our body to be awake. In fact, cortisol is typically elevated in the morning to keep us alert and focused for the day.

But here is where the problem lies. When the body is exposed to this hormone for prolonged periods of time, cells become less sensitive to insulin, which can halt weight loss and create that extra tire around the middle. How is this? Glucocorticoids, such as cortisol, are responsible for halting the secretion of insulin from cells in the pancreas known as beta cells, inhibiting the uptake of glucose; it can impair the signal from insulin in the muscles.One of insulin’s roles is lipogenesis, or the creation of adipocytes, or fat cells. This can also contribute to storage of visceral fat, which is the precursor to comorbidities, particularly insulin resistance. Thus, prolonged exposure can cause weight loss resistance and, later on, blood sugar issues. Therefore, it is important for us to manage stress. One way to accomplish this is using the power of nutrition.



Just as mood can dictate what we eat in healthy or unhealthy ways, food can also have an effect on our mood and counteract the negative effects of stress. With all the hype around low-carb diets, it may be time to debunk the myth that carbs are the enemy. They are, in fact, our friends. Carbohydrates help amino acids such as tryptophan, which are responsible for the generation of our well-being compound serotonin, cross the blood brain barrier.Craving carbs when we want some joy leads to the next factor below. Carbs also decrease production of cortisol, our stress hormone.As mentioned above, exposure to cortisol over an extended amount of time can create insulin and weight loss resistance. It can also disrupt sleep patterns and eat away at muscle tissue.

When blood sugar regulation is an issue, complex carbohydrates are emphasized over simple carbohydrates. These are composed of polysaccharides, or long chains of sugar molecules, and are higher in fiber, which slow down digestion of these carbohydrates and the release of glucose into the blood stream, preventing sugar spikes. These types of foods are also labeled “low glycemic” and include unprocessed whole grains such as steel cut oats; fruits such as berries and lemons; and non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus. Their counterparts, which are void of fiber, are composed of simple sugar chains. Such foods include table sugar, white bread, white pasta and white rice. Pairing carbohydrates with a source of quality protein and/or healthy fat, such as almonds, will also slow down the release of glucose into the blood stream.


Micronutrients play quite an important role in our sense of well-being, focus and mood. Of particular importance are vitamin B6, magnesium, tryptophan and any food that can increase dopamine levels. Each is connected to neurotransmitters essential for our well-being (serotonin) and sleep (melatonin and dopamine). For a mood boost, it is important to incorporate sources of each as part of a healthy diet. Let us take a further look at what each do and what foods can provide it in our diet.

B6 isa co-factor in the generation of 5-HTP to serotonin and melatonin, our well-being and sleep neurotransmitters.

Sources: Organic sweet potatoes, potatoes, bananas, organic yogurt, brown rice, organic peanuts, wild caught fish such as salmon and tuna; pasture-raised eggs; organic, pastured chicken liver, and grass-fed beef; organic carrots, organic spinach, green peas, bananas, chickpeas, avocados

Magnesium decreases transmission of excitatory neurotransmitters and is a co-factor in the production of serotonin, which can help with mood and sleep.

Sources: Pumpkin seeds, green leafy vegetables, avocados, broccoli, asparagus, nuts (cashews, almonds), seeds, legumes, whole grains, chocolate, organic tofu, quinoa

Tryptophanis the precursor to well-being neurotransmitter serotonin and our sleep neurotransmitter melatonin.

Sources: Organic turkey (causes us to feel sleepy), wild-caught fish, pasture-raised eggs, grass-fed dairy, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, organic peanuts, tofu and whole soy

Phenylalanine/Tyrosine aredirect precursors to dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for our wake/sleep cycle, mood and focus; it is also our reward center. Low dopamine levels can contribute to anxiety, which can then decrease insulin sensitivity and dysregulate blood sugar.

Sources: Grass-fed, pasture-raised meats; wild-caught fatty fish such as salmon; oats; oregano oil; seaweed; almonds; chocolate; organic coffee; avocado; fruits such as bananas, organic berries, apples and papaya

From the lists above, be honest about which ones are appetizing and mix them in with favorite seasonal dishes. Thanksgiving is on the way! Why not add a little mashed sweet potato and cinnamon topped with pumpkin seeds to the mix with a free-range turkey, or organic tempeh and tofu? Cinnamon is also beneficial for insulin sensitivity and makes the starch in the sweet potato more digestible.Gobble up!


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Drew Mulvey, MS, CDN is a certified dietitian/nutritionist, founder of Redeeming Life Nutrition, LLC, and author of The No-Title Cookbook. She practices out of Southbury, CT. Connect at Drew.Mulvey@RedeemingLifeNutrition.com or RedeemingLifeNutrition.com.

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