Do you experience regular anxiety?
If yes… do you pay attention to your blood sugar levels?
If the answer to the second question is no, or that you’re unsure, now is a great time to consider taking a deeper look!
And the good news is, you’re in the right place because in this blog post we’re diving into all the foundations of blood sugar and it’s connection to anxiety!
Large scale studies of up to 70,000 women have demonstrated that a high-glycemic diet (one that spikes blood sugar) significantly increases the risk of depression and other mood disorders, like anxiety (1).
A diet high in refined sugars/processed foods can lead to blood sugar dysregulation and thus, insulin resistance – when our body no longer responds to insulin the way it should.
You may be surprised to learn that you don’t have to be diabetic to experience insulin resistance. In fact, evidence shows that insulin resistance typically presents itself long before any diagnosis, which is why it’s the leading risk factor of pre-diabetes.
While there are many reasons we want to prevent this from happening (aside from becoming diabetic), one of the many important ones has to do with the fact that; the effect of poorly regulated blood sugar can be detrimental to the brain!
Studies show that people with insulin resistance or blood sugar dysregulation, are at a significantly greater risk of mental health conditions (2).
All this to say, if you’re experiencing anxiety, this can be an early sign that it’s time to pay greater attention to your blood sugar levels.
Let’s First Unpack Insulin:
Insulin is one of the leading hormones responsible for regulating our blood sugar. It’s produced by the pancreas, the small but mighty organ hidden behind the stomach.
Our pancreas doesn’t just make insulin though, it also produces glucagon, another hormone that works in conjunction with insulin to regulate our blood sugars (3).
Anytime we eat, our blood sugar naturally rises. But the amount it rises can vary significantly, with the type of food we eat, and how we eat it (alone vs w/ other nutrient-dense whole foods).
How does blood sugar work exactly?
Say you just ate a sweet, decadent chocolate cake covered in a layer of melted icing. First, YUM. Second, hello blood sugar rise! The sugar and refined flour (along with other ingredients depending on the quality) are going to send your blood sugar sky-high – especially if you ate it on an empty stomach.
Do you ever feel jittery after eating a sugary snack? That’s your body responding to a blood sugar spike.
When this happens, insulin reacts by telling your cells to soak up glucose so it can be used as energy. As cells absorb the sugar, blood glucose begins to drop. If there is too much glucose in the blood, the body can store the rest as glycogen (fuel for later) or fat.
When blood sugar falls too low, the pancreas will secrete glucagon to increase glucose levels in the bloodstream, stabilizing blood sugars. This can happen when we go long periods without eating and/or not eating enough carbohydrates.
Another sneaky contributor to low blood sugar is a spike! You heard that right. After a blood sugar spike, levels often fall back down below baseline, triggering those same anxious symptoms, sending your body on a never-ending rollercoaster ride.
Factors that Impact Blood Sugar (4):
- Eating too many high-glycemic foods like sugary snacks/drinks, fried foods, white flour
- Eating high-glycemic foods without fats, protein, and/or fibre
- Skipping meals/fasting
- Family history of insulin resistance/diabetes
- Lack of sleep
Just as it’s important to prevent our blood sugar from rising too high, it’s equally important that it doesn’t drop too low.
The balance of insulin and glucagon is truly critical in supporting your body’s anxiety levels and long term health.
What’s the Insulin – Anxiety Connection?
If we were to look into the brain, we’d find insulin receptors all throughout! This is because our brain naturally relies on glucose for fuel.
However, if we looked closer, we’d find these receptors in areas responsible for regulating our emotions and mood. If they’re damaged, as a result of blood sugar dysregulation/insulin resistance, we may notice mood imbalances, anxiousness and/or depressive thoughts (5).
Studies also show mitochondrial dysfunction can occur as a result of insulin resistance. This is the part of the cell responsible for producing energy, so when it’s not functioning right, our ability to produce new brain cells may be impacted (1).
Research has also recorded disturbances in the HPA axis with individuals who are insulin resistant. The HPA axis is responsible for mediating our innate stress response, so if we become insulin resistant, it may not function as well – hindering our body’s ability to manage stress. If left unsupported, the HPA axis can get burnt out, putting us at risk of anxiety, depression, and dis-ease (6).
Unfortunately, there’s more… Insulin resistance has also been shown to increase both inflammation and cytokine production within the brain (definitely not things we want!). Cytokine proteins can disrupt the blood-brain barrier, allowing unwanted particles into the brain and further stressing the HPA axis (1).
Essentially, when our blood sugar is dysregulated and/or we become insulin resistant, we begin to break down our brain’s defense mechanisms, leaving it vulnerable to damage.
Signs of Dysregulated Blood Sugar (too high/low) (4):
- Cravings for sugars/carbs
- Fatigue/low energy
- Weight fluctuations
- Mood swings
- Nervousness/feeling jittery/agitation
- Delayed wound healing
- Excessive thirst
- Blurred vision
- Frequent urination
- Low libido
At first, the body may react with subtle changes like starting to feel anxious or not handling stress quite as well. If left unmanaged, cognitive decline can worsen, leading to more threatening conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
How to Support Insulin / Blood Sugar Regulation:
Research has uncovered one very important connection with insulin resistance, inflammation, and mental health symptoms… any guesses what it is?
If you guessed the gut microbiome, you’re correct!
Evidence continues to show that if we feed the microorganisms living within our digestive tract a diet high in sugary/processed foods, symptoms of anxiety and depression rise. But if we eat in a way that is supportive of blood sugar regulation, these symptoms reduce or go away completely (1-6)!
This speaks to how diet and lifestyle are easily the most important drivers in regulating glucose and preventing insulin resistance.
Diet & Lifestyle Tips for Regulating Blood Sugar:
Eat 3 balanced meals a day to ensure your body is getting all the macro & micronutrients it needs to support your cognitive function and physical activities – helping you to feel calm, grounded, and your best self!
Eat a blood sugar balancing plate consisting of vegetables, healthy fats, a high quality protein, and complex carbs. These macronutrients buffer the blood sugar hit on the body!
Eat roughly every 3-4 hours to avoid blood sugar dips (hypoglycaemia). If you’re eating for anxiety, I don’t recommend intermittent fasting! It’s best to avoid skipping meals as this can be a trigger for anxiety. Listen to your body and eat as you get hungry.
Eat within an hour of waking up to prevent blood sugars from dipping too low. This doesn’t have to be a full meal either! I like to eat a few brazil nuts in the morning to avoid this dip while getting my daily dose of selenium or simply a scoop of almond butter.
Prioritize sleep! Sleep deprivation has been linked to higher fasting blood sugar levels, with chronic sleep deprivation increasing the risk of insulin resistance.
Apple cider vinegar has been shown to reduce a blood sugar spike. Drink 1 Tbsp. diluted in 1 cup of water before a carb/sugar heavy meal.
Move your body as exercise has been shown to significantly increase insulin sensitivity (this is a good thing)! As little as 20-30min a day can make a big difference, especially if done shortly after a meal (like walking).
The truth of the matter is this – when your blood sugars are balanced, you’re helping to set yourself up to feel more calm, grounded, and energized throughout the day!
However, on the other hand, if blood sugars are chronically dysregulated – you can actually end up putting A LOT of stress on your brain – contributing to anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
Blood sugar balance is one of the very best tools we have at our finger tips when it comes to our nutrition – so do your best to tap into it as much as you can, and watch the many benefits unfold!
Where to Next? If you’d like additional support:
- Check out my Eat to Ease Anxiety Course for more blood-sugar balancing tools, printable grocery lists, recipes, and trouble-shooting tips!
- Join us on Sunday, Dec, 11 @ 2pm for my “All Things Blood Sugar Balance” Online Workshop!
And a huge thanks to McKenna Garrison on all her amazing work on this blog post!