Calories Aren’t the Culprit

Have you noticed that when you’re under stress, pounds seem to pack on more easily… whereas when you’re relaxed and life is going well, it’s just less of an issue? I sure have, and in fact I find that I often lose a few pounds while on vacation even though I eat as much, if not more than normal. I recently joked about this with Daily Health News contributing medical editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, who confirmed my hypothesis that stress alters the metabolism.

Cortisol is the culprit, he told me. The fight or flight syndrome that is the basis of our physiological response to stress causes the adrenal glands to produce this hormone, whose job it is to modulate the effects of insulin on blood sugar. Ongoing stress can tax the system beyond its normal abilities… especially when coupled with poor dietary choices.

The body “prepares” to fight or flee by packing away energy stores it thinks it will need. Cortisol irregularities also affect blood sugar balance. Mostly these are due to aging, ongoing stress, insufficient cholesterol reserves and dietary imbalances. Cortisol levels normally rise in the morning (peaking around 7 am) and fall in the evening. If you regularly awaken in the middle of the night for no other reason than to worry — about your teenager, your social calendar, your bank account — you should pay attention. “This may be your adrenal gland saying ‘wake up,’ there is something wrong with your insulin-cortisol-blood sugar balance,” says Dr. Rubman.


Signs that your body is not properly managing blood sugar levels swing to both extremes:

  • Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia: Common symptoms of hypoglycemia include anxiety, sweating, hunger, trembling, headache, clamminess and heart palpitations. When severe, these can progress to confusion, seizures, loss of consciousness, coma and even death.
  • High blood sugar or hyperglycemia: Common symptoms of hyperglycemia include hunger, thirst, frequent urination, fatigue or extreme tiredness, blurred vision and unexplained weight loss.

If you see yourself in either of these categories — particularly if you have several symptoms — ask your doctor for blood and urine tests that can determine whether you are entering a danger zone. Fortunately this is the stage where you can still prevent serious disease — insulin resistance is often fully reversible. To control blood sugar, Dr. Rubman individually prescribes a supplemental regimen that may include the following measures, adding the caveat that supplements should always be used under a physician’s supervision, so consult your doctor for an individualized prescription.

Make sure you take in sufficient chromium. This essential trace mineral is necessary for efficient insulin function and carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism. Chromium helps keep insulin and cortisol in balance, says Dr. Rubman. Brewer’s yeast is one of the best sources, but it can cause bloating and nausea so it is better to rely on dietary sources, including beef, liver, eggs, chicken, oysters, wheat germ, green peppers, apples, bananas and spinach. If diet alone proves insufficient, chromium polynicotinate supplements can be taken.

Love your liver. Maintaining optimal liver function helps keep blood sugar in balance by providing a reserve to supply glucose to the bloodstream when there’s a temporary shortfall. In addition to the helpful strategies listed above, consider supportive supplements such as glucomannan, a fiber supplement that is particularly effective at removing wastes from the liver via bile. Dr. Rubman often prescribes this fiber supplement for his patients to take 30 minutes before lunch and dinner with a large glass of water.

Bulk up on vitamin B. According to Dr. Rubman, the “minimum daily requirement” for vitamin B is not sufficient for optimal digestive performance so he often prescribes a high-potency B vitamin twice daily for his patients. Also, many people are what he calls “functionally deficient” in vitamin B-12, which can impair other B vitamin functions and a myriad of physiological processes, so it’s a good idea to ask your physician to assess your B-12 level. Bright yellow urine is a good sign that you’re getting an adequate supply from your multi-B supplement (the color is produced by trace amounts of Riboflavin, or B-2, spilling over into the urine). Dr. Rubman prefers B-12 sublingual (dissolved under the tongue) pills that come in the form of hydroxycobalamin or methylcobalamin, which should only be prescribed by a doctor.

Fill up on fiber. Fiber helps everything move smoothly and efficiently through the digestive tract. Fiber promotes healthy flora in the gut and binds and transports excess bile acids out of the body. Fiber-rich meals help contribute to a steady and sustained contribution to blood sugar. All that’s widely recognized, yet in this country our average fiber intake is 10 grams daily, while 25 to 30 grams are required for good health. Good high fiber foods include steamed vegetables, ripe fruits, lentils, black beans, barley, chickpeas, bulgur, brown rice, oatmeal and whole-grain breads and cereals. Avoid refined and processed items such as white bread, pasta, cornflakes, cookies, candy and other sweets. Another benefit of fiber-rich foods? They have the advantage of satisfying hunger more effectively, since they are broken down slowly in the digestive system. In contrast, simple and refined sugars (for example, from processed foods and sweets) quickly cause blood sugar spikes… then a crash in energy that leaves you craving something sweet.

As always, the goal is to prevent big problems like diabetes and heart disease from developing by identifying them at an earlier and more controllable stage. Blood sugar is one indicator to pay close attention to… the payoff will be better health.