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    Blood Sugar 101: Insulin, Glucagon, and Stress Hormones

    January 20, 2018


    “Most people, regardless of their condition, will respond well to an anti-inflammatory, blood-sugar stabilizing diet.”


    ~ Dr. Jennifer Curtiss, Naturopathic Physician


    A diet focused on blood-sugar regulation helps with energy optimization, weight loss, stress reduction, sleep, mental health, and even addiction recovery – just to name a few. Without making super-specific diet suggestions, a basic understanding of insulin, glucagon, and cortisol can do wonders for your food choices.


    The hormone insulin probably gets the most attention of the few we’ll discuss. Insulin does many things beyond blood-sugar, but one of its’ key functions is to bring our blood-sugar down after we eat. After consuming a meal, insulin signals our muscles to take-in glucose for later physical energy demands. It also triggers cells to take-in amino acids (protein) for tissue repair.


    While our body is regulating blood-sugar via insulin, glycogen and amino acids are also being stored in our liver for later blood-sugar support. This is where glucagon comes into play. Protein consumption is one of the main triggers for glucagon release. Glucagon signals our liver to convert stored glycogen and amino acids into glucose. While carbohydrates provide a rapid blood-sugar boost, glucagon can support stable blood-sugar for hours following a meal.


    The low-blood-sugar-experience can involve mood swings, low energy, and nasty cravings. Utilizing insulin and glucagon together are the lowest-impact way to maintain stable blood-sugar. Carbohydrates work best when consumed in moderate amounts with protein, fat, and fiber – picture a large serving of vegetables, and a moderate amount of carbohydrates and protein, and added fat to taste.


    Our body can utilize several forms of energy, including fat, but our brain is relatively picky – strongly prefering glucose. When our blood sugar gets low and our brain gets picky, cortisol production often kicks in. Cortisol triggers secretion of glucose into our bloodstream to provide muscular energy, but also triggers a flood of adrenaline and noradrenaline. At this point we are no longer simply regulating blood-sugar, we are mounting a full-scale stress response. This type of response is more useful for rescuing babies from burning buildings than answering afternoon emails or sitting in traffic. Caffeine also triggers a release of cortisol, providing short-term energy and an initial spike in glucose. Excess glucose gets converted to triglycerides and stored as fat. Habitually elevating cortisol may cause anxiety, sleep difficulties, and leave us feeling tired and wired. Additionally, chronically elevated cortisol convinces our body that we don’t have reliable access to food - It will start preparing for hard times by storing fat around the midsection.


    ~A note about dairy and insulin sensitivity ~

    Many dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, and milk trigger a greater insulin release than carbohydrates or protein (Dairy products often include both).  Insulin sensitivity is important to blood-sugar regulation. Chronically elevated insulin reduces our insulin sensitivity. In terms of blood-sugar regulation, the less insulin required to convince our cells to open up, the better. Additionally, dairy triggers our body to release insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). This hormone is what helps baby calves gain about a pound of body-weight per day in their first six weeks of life. There’s a lot more to be said about dairy in terms of aging and inflammation, but for now  you can imagine what affects it likely has on our waistline and blood-sugar.


    Here are a few blood-sugar support guidelines.

    • Eat breakfast

    • Avoid sugar

    • Avoid dairy

    • Limit caffeine intake

    • Eat every 3-4 hours

    • Snacks don’t bu



      y you as much time as you may think.

    • Eat a large serving of vegetables, and a moderate amount of carbohydrates, protein, and fat with each meal.

    Where do I start?

    Building a bodily awareness of blood-sugar is a great place to start. When do you experience sugar cravings, irritability, or tiredness? How about anxiety or depressed thoughts? An easy way to bring awareness to your mind and body is to keep a food journal. Also note mood changes, cravings, or a spike/crash in energy. When we bring awareness to our habits and experience, our unconscious mind works double-time to improve things. You’ll be amazed at how your habits change without having to rely heavily on willpower. While giving your blood-sugar regulation tune-up, you may find yourself requiring small meals every 2 hours. As your blood-sugar regulation improves, you may be able to experience stable blood-sugar for 4-5 hours between meals.







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