When we are stressed and anxious the amygdala in the brain activates what is commonly referred to as the stress response. This results in the hypothalamus in the brain activating the sympathetic nervous system and also, via the pituitary gland, stimulating the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands.
The activation of the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS for short, leads to physiological changes like dilation of the pupils of the eyes, dilation of the lung bronchi and an increase in heart rate. This is because when we are faced with an acute threat we need to be able to respond; we need to be able to see clearly, run away or fight the threat – for which we need more oxygen, hence the bronchi dilation and accelerated heartbeat. We instigate our ‘Fight or Flight’ response. During those moments of threat, we don’t need to digest and so the digestive system begins to shut down.
What we do need though is energy to deal with the stressor. So where do we find that sudden burst of energy? The liver stores glycogen. This is a storage form of glucose. Glycogen is able to be converted quickly to glucose when needed, so, when faced with a stressor, glucose will be made from glycogen and released from the liver into the bloodstream. This is a vital mechanism when we really are faced with an acute threat. The problem arises when we are chronically stressed – and with our modern-day lifestyles that has become commonplace.
Chronic stress results in the constant activation of the stress response.
The Sympathetic nervous system is constantly stimulated, we become wired and tired. We suffer from poor digestion and the liver continues to be stimulated to release glucose into the bloodstream. When blood glucose levels rise the body transports the glucose into the cells to use as energy, resulting in levels in the blood falling. We are still stressed and our SNS activated so the fall in levels sends us reaching for a quick energy fix, normally of sugary foods.
We need to replace the glycogen levels in the liver and need more energy to deal with the stress. The constant roller coaster of blood sugar levels not only negatively impacts our mood but also eventually results in poor health and the development of diabetes. So managing stress is a vital part of managing blood sugar levels. When we manage our stress we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, and our liver, instead of releasing glucose, able to release bile aiding in digestion.
There are many lifestyle strategies for management including, meditation, mindfulness, laughter yoga, journaling, being in nature, spending time with pets and positive thinking.
Take time to bring some of these strategies into your life and reap the benefits.
Cravings for sugary foods will be reduced, your mood and memory will be better, and your thoughts clearer.