I grew up baking—I loved it! I would find the most challenging recipe in the Joy of Cooking and take it on as a weekend project. On a typical Friday night when I was in my middle school years, my parents would be out at a concert, my brother would be out with his friends, and I would be home baking up a storm, making pastry cream for poppy-seed cake, baking oodles of cookies or pies while Beatles tunes blared on the stereo. I was filled with joy as I placed my creations on the table to share with my family when they returned home.
I knew sugar had calories, and that it probably supported the healthy amount of adipose tissue I had! But I had no idea how else it affected my body, nor did I know about any alternatives to baking with sugar.
Sugar can work wonders in baked goods, and it certainly tastes delicious, but it also greatly decreases your white blood cells’ ability to destroy bacteria, viruses, or anything else. If you consume a half cup of sugar (100 grams, your macrophages (a kind of white blood cell will be reduced by 40 percent for five to six hours. Sugar also lessens your body’s ability to destroy cancerous cells.
Sugar also feels really, really good in our brains. It gives us a shot of serotonin—it can make us feel energized, loved, and loving for at least a minute! And some of us are genetically programmed to be more addicted to sugar than others. In fact, some people cannot leave it alone once they get started.
What I didn’t know as a kid—but I do know now—is that when I’m upset and want to eat something like a chocolate bar, it’s my body needing its “neurotransmitter blankie.” In other words, I’m engaging in self-soothing behavior.
As a kid, I had no idea that I was filling my own satiety center. This is a center in your brain’s hypothalamus that’s a little like a multi-car garage. It prefers to be filled, and when it is, it emits a nice neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, etc. These make us feel upbeat, loved, and energized. Sugar does this for a moment, but then we crash and want more. Thus the addictive cycle.
This center in the hypothalamus can be filled by food: sugar, fat, and salt being the most desired. These are the foods that we’ve needed to survive, so we are wired to love them!
The satiety center can also be filled by drugs, sex, shopping, music, meditation, creative expression… You get the idea.
As a young child, I created a food-to-soothe pathway in my brain. It is such a short and well-worn path by now that I can use it without even thinking about it. We all have something we use to make us feel better. After a difficult phone call with your ex, your boss, your kid, etc., you may find yourself grabbing a drink, a smoke, a snack—or whatever your thing is—before you even realize you are upset.
Alcohol and sugar have similar attributes. As Julia Ross discusses in her book The Mood Cure, sugar addiction and alcohol addiction can run in families, and one member of the family may be addicted to sugar but not alcohol, while another member may be addicted to alcohol but not sugar. However, both of them can benefit from the same types of therapies and supplements!
Another thing I know now is that we can rewire our brains and begin to shift habits and patterns, even the deep-seated ones.
The more I choose to fill my own satiety center with what I know nourishes me, the less I operate from an unconscious state. Meditation, exercise, good food… all of this helps.
The pandemic and resulting economic and social instability have all taken their toll on us. How are you responding?
Many of us, self included, have been using old soothing pathways to suppress the angst or boredom.
These short term fixes do not serve us… especially when it is mission critical we boost our physical and emotional health to optimize our immune systems in the middle of the pandemic.
If sugar, ETOH, or other less healthy things are issues for you, check out the list below of ways to take care of yourself this holiday season. And if unhealthy substances are a really big issue for you, please don’t hesitate to get professional help! Some of us do well with moderation. We can have some sugar or alcohol now and then and really enjoy it when we do, then say, “No thanks,” when we know it’s in our best interest not to indulge. Others of us need to do the “Bright Line” thing and just say, “No, thank you.” If this describes you, and if you’re struggling at all, please get the compassionate, professional help you need! I’ve included resources below.
Here are some great ways to have a better relationship with sugar this holiday season:
• THE most important for us all is to build JOY into your day. Literally schedule in at least ten minutes of pure fun each day. Fill those satiety centers consciously throughout your day!
• Begin your day with a dose of light: step outside for ten minutes or use your full spectrum light.
• Maintain your blood sugar throughout the day. This will lessen the urge to grab the sugary or high carb snacks to keep you going.
• Eat veggies and protein throughout the day. Consume regular meals and snacks if needed.
• Eat before you login for the drinks-and-appetizers Zoom party.
• Be creative and drink non-ETOH drinks. I love adding my ginger essential oil to sparkling water and adding a twist of lime!
• Glutamine powder (about 5 grams) can reduce cravings for both ETOH and sugar. Take this a few hours before your cravings usually hit. BONUS: Glutamine can help heal your intestines from leaky gut syndrome.
• Stay hydrated! We often snack when we’re thirsty.
• Both B vitamins and vitamin C can help your body bounce back after eating a lot of sugar. I used to give these to my kids on Halloween!
• Exercise! It boosts your self-esteem and mood!
I get the holidays are about fun treats and traditions. I believe you can be more conscious of your choices and choose what you really want this holiday season. This gift to yourself will be the one you treasure the most.
And when you do have a treat: ENJOY IT!!! Completely—100 percent!! Guilt-free is way healthier.
And in good health,
~ Dr Jenny Tufenkian ND
Resources and References
ETOH and glutamine:
Effect of glutamine on ghrelin:
Sugar’s effects on the immune system:
The Mood Cure, Julia Ross, MA:
For “Bright Line Eating,” check out Susan Peirce Thompson’s work:
Great resource for getting to your root trigger for emotional eating: The Tapping Solution for Weight Loss and Body Confidence, Jessica Ortner
photo credit: Madison Kaminski/Unsplash
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