Every year around the holidays I work with people who are convinced that they are fattened food fornicators, binging like anonymously addicted, gluttonous versions of their summer selves. They aggressively berate themselves with the staunch belief that they’re broken. All of this personally inflicted psychological and emotional torment because of some food? What’s up with that?
What characterizes the holidays for a lot of people? Awkward parties, forced “family time”, bad traffic, crowded malls, too-much-to-do-lists, working more, resting less, and spending more…much more. What do all of these have in common? They all reek of distress.
“Don we now our gay apparel.” More like, “Now we drown in holiday peril!”
The holidays can be a wonderful time of year, but they are too often overwhelmingly distressful. And distress isn’t just a feeling. Distress is a very real physiologic episode, with very real physiologic consequences.
Physiologically, there is A LOT that occurs during exposure to distress. To name just a few, heart rate and blood pressure go up. Blood is shunted from our middle section’s organs and out to our extremities’ working muscles. We hyperventilate. We’re antsy, anxious, nearly frantic. Peripheral vision narrows. Our mouth gets dry and our digestion readily slows or nearly suspends. Our immune system is over-activated. Our experience of physical pain is blunted. And in conjunction with other organ system adaptations, we are all set for “fight or flight”. Is this a state you want to spend a lot of time in?
If that’s not enough, even more happens biochemically each time we experience distress. But for brevity’s sake, we’ll concentrate on the biochemical actions that are most associated with our food and feeding. To fight or flee, you must have energy. One the of the best biochemical adaptations of our body is the access of stored energy for immediate action. Enter glucocoritcoids (Gluco- because the goal is glucose, aka sugar, aka carbohydrate, aka energy).
Glucocorticoids have 2 major roles in your experience of fiendish feeding: first, as we have mentioned, they mobilize stored glycogen to be free, accessible, cell energizing glucose. This is the immediate glucocorticoid response to distress.
The second response is even more ingestibly interesting. After the distress is resolved, glucocorticoids are still circulating in the blood stream (the more chronically you are distressed, the longer the circulating time). This post distress circulation is where their influence changes from mobilizing stored energy to acquiring new energy. With the momentary distress behind us, glucocorticoids increase our appetite. And glucocorticoid appetite is more than just a request for food. It’s specifically seeking sugar (remember GLUCOse in glucocorticoid?) Their appetite activating action is turned off by carbohydrate.
Distress literally asks you to eat more, specifically more carbs. Your physiology doesn’t consider carbs to be wrong…wrong is to deny your body what it requests. Denial will compound the distress. And two distressors don’t make a right.
If there is going to be a place for distress in your life, leave a space for carbs on your plate. Being the Holiday season, its probably no coincidence that you can choose from all kinds of delicious (carbohydrate based) Holiday treats. If you want a healthy holiday, heal thy holiday…with the help of carbs.