Tag Archives: blood sugar

Natural Approaches for Insomnia

One of the most common problems my patients report is difficulty with sleep. Whether they have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, or waking frequently, not getting the rest our bodies need is frustrating and significantly impacts the severity of other ailments. Poor sleep or insufficient is linked to weight gain, cardiovascular disease, decreased immunity and poor healing. The reasons for insomnia are varied, so natural treatments need to address whatever it is that is out of balance. When thinking about insomnia, we have to make sure that three different systems are ready for sleep; the hormones, the nervous system, and the muscles. Having good bedtime habits such as stopping screen time one hour before bed, stretching, yoga, or meditation before bed, and a cup of herbal tea are all great first steps, but if sleep remains a problem, the primary places I look to regain balance are Hormones, Neurotransmitters, Blood sugar, Muscle tension, and pain. Here is how I approach this issue:
In my practice, the most common reason I see for persistent insomnia is an imbalance in the hormones. There are several hormones that can be out of balance that will contribute to poor sleep. Often we will have to test to see which of these is the culprit:
Estrogen/Progesterone: Especially after childbirth and during menopause, when these reproductive hormones are not produced in balance with each other, sleep can be effected. Most commonly, this imbalance is accompanied by hot flashes and night sweats.
Thyroid: When thyroid function gets too low or too high it can impact the sleep. If thyroid levels are too high, often there are heart palpitations or agitation along with the insomnia. When thyroid is too low, people often will wake feeling insufficiently rested no matter how long they have slept.
Cortisol: This is our primary hormone that tells us we are awake. It is a stress hormone that helps the body to mobilize blood sugar for fight or flight situations (aka, so we can run from a bear). If we have too much stress over a prolonged period of time, though, the body will sometimes start making cortisol in the middle of the night–when this is the culprit people often will wake at 3-4am and won’t be able to go back to sleep.
Neurotransmitters are amino-acid based chemicals produced by our nervous system that tell our brain and nerves how we feel–sleepy, awake, excited,happy, sad, etc. The three neurotransmitters that are most associated with deep, relaxing sleep are melatonin, serotonin, and GABA. GABA is derived from the amino acids glutamine or glutamate, and serotonin and melatonin are made from tryptophan. For people who are experiencing persistent or severe sleep difficulties, we can test to see what your levels are and if the more excitatory neurotransmitters are too high to allow your brain to calm down. Many of our best natural sleep aids are made from these neurotransmitters or contain precursors to them.

Blood Sugar
This category is directly related to the discussion on cortisol, above. For people who have difficulty keeping their blood sugar stable (either from hypoglycemia, metabolic syndrome, or diabetes), and especially for people who do not eat regularly, eat dinner very early, or eat sweets after dinner, this can impact sleep. For instance, if you eat dinner at 6pm, by 3am it has been 9 hours since you last ate. Although cortisol is primarily a stress hormone, its other function is to mobilize glucose from storage when the blood sugar gets too low. When cortisol spikes at 3am, then the brain wakes up and it becomes difficult to go back to sleep. In this case, a light protein snack right before bed such as an apple with peanut butter will greatly improve sleep.

Muscle tension and Pain
For people with chronic pain, it isn’t sleep itself that is the problem, but the pain that keeps them up. If there is chronic pain we have to get to the root of it and fix this issue. Often, however, there can be muscle tension that causes pain or headaches and leads to poor sleep. Tight muscles also may just keep the body so tense that sleep is difficult regardless of pain. The simplest options for helping the muscles relax before bed are stretching, deep breathing, hot baths and hydrating during the day (not so it keeps you up having to use the restroom). Other very effective options are taking some minerals such as Calcium or magnesium or drinking coconut water which is high in potassium before bed.

Insomnia can be a brief, transitory concern that is related to a specific event or a problem that can last many years. Persistent insomnia can lead to or exacerbate a host of other health concerns. By narrowing down the causes, we can individualize a plan to help put you back to sleep!

Inspiration to Cook Seasonally in January?

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What’s for dinner? Now that January is here, it’s getting a little less exciting figuring out what to eat.  We are firmly sandwiched between the festive excesses of December and the first exciting green things to emerge in March.  Additionally, many of us (myself included) are starting to long for a bit of “spring cleaning” after all the heavy foods of the holiday season.  However, despite our crazy see-saw we call Colorado weather, when it comes down to it, January is just a cold month.  With this in mind, true detoxification must be put off until our bodies are warmed enough from the outside world to feel good with the cooling action of cleansing foods (aka, you gotta wait a couple of months).

So, we have to find a way to feed ourselves in a way that is consistent with the season but respects our need for simpler, more wholesome foods.  If you take a look at my article from last year about the basic principles of supporting the body through food for the winter, there are three primary goals: Keep blood sugar balanced, support the endocrine system, and eat foods with bountiful stored energy.  Keeping this in mind, we can easily cut back on rich, refined foods while honoring the body’s need for nutrient density.  Here’s a few tips for jazzing things up a bit in the kitchen during the January lull:

Try Something New
This, of course, is a handy state of mind no matter what time of the year you’re cooking.  However, there are many ways to add variety by experimenting with different members of familiar families of foods.  For example, try out kabocha squash instead of butternut, mung beans instead of black beans, or a new kind of leafy green instead of spinach again.  Last week, my local grocery had a giant pile of a leafy green they called chicory.  Despite the checkers’ inability to even locate a PLU code for it, I brought it home and found some amazing italian recipes (thanks to Mario Batali) for this nutty, escarole-like green. It can also be exciting to discover a new way of preparing basic foods by exploring other culinary traditions.

Make a Kitchen Garden
There’s not many fresh fruits and veggies coming out the garden these days, but you can bring a little excitement to the table by growing something small in your kitchen window.  Herbs will do well in a pot in a window with good light, or you can use something like an aerogarden to grow vigorous greens, herbs, and even tomatoes.  My father gave me a grow-your-own oyster mushroom kit this year for my birthday, the picture above shows the unexpected and delicious meal that came of it.

Use Your Kitchen Tools
For the time-limited, cooking winter foods can be challenging because often they require extensive cooking times.  A good pressure cooker can cook beets in 10-12 minutes, a pot of dry beans in 20 minutes, or chicken soup from scratch in 25 minutes.  On the opposite end, a crock pot is a super handy way to spend just a few minutes in the morning and come home to a wonderful, rich and warming dinner.  A rice cooker is also a handy way to produce a side dish with minimal thought or effort.

Keep it Simple
Remember the basics:  vegetable, protein, starch.  In the winter it is important to focus on blood sugar supporting foods, so for starches stick to sweet potatoes, winter squash, beans, and whole grains such as quinoa, buckwheat and brown rice.  Choose veggies that are in season and look good in the store; deep green veggies such as broccoli, sea vegetables, or leafy greens are going to be high in minerals that support the endocrine system.  Make sure protein sources are high quality and responsibly raised. Generally, if you can get something from each category on the table you will be doing well to nourish yourself and your family without a lot of fuss.


Cortisol, Blood Sugar, and Adrenal Health

One of the primary goals for our seasonal eating during the winter is to keep the blood sugar balanced. Especially during the winter months, it is crucial to work on preserving and increasing the health of the adrenals; controlling blood sugar is one very important way to do this.
During this time of the year, because we are not getting much energy from the sun and fresh foods, we must rely more heavily on our body’s own methods of energy production from the hormone, or endocrine system. One of the primary organs we want to support during this time are the adrenal glands, as they are responsible for producing many of the hormones that help us feel energetic.

The hormone we associate most with our ability to feel “awake” is cortisol. Cortisol is a sugar-mobilizing hormone we produce for two primary reasons: as a response to stress and when our blood sugar drops too low. Historically, stress for humans has meant “fight or flight” or as I like to put it “I have to run from the bear.” During stress, our body makes adrenaline which helps prepare us for running: our heart pumps faster and lungs open wide to help provide more blood to our brain and muscles. At the same time we are producing adrenaline, we also produce cortisol, which mobilizes sugar from storage so the brain and muscles can work extra hard, run fast, and climb that tree.

When blood sugar drops low and we start to feel fatigued and foggy, our body will also make cortisol so we can boost the blood sugar and feel clear and awake again. A diet high in refined starch and sugars has the tendency to spike blood sugar. When the blood sugar spikes, the pancreas will produce a lot of insulin which will put that sugar into our cells very quickly, which in turn will drop the blood sugar very low. Some of us know this feeling of hypoglycemia which can produce groggyness, crankiness, headache, and a desire to nap. When the body becomes hypoglycemic, the adrenals will produce cortisol to try to manage the low blood sugar.

The problem with this pattern is that, over time, the adrenals can become accustomed to producing more cortisol than is healthy for them. The combination of a stressful lifestyle and chronic hypoglycemia can fatigue the adrenals which compromises their ability to function properly. This can lead to insomnia, weight gain, extreme fatigue, and can even contribute to heart disease.

The wintertime is the ideal time to replenish our adrenals. The dark, cold weather helps us to bring our focus inward and take the time to rejuvenate our own sources of energy production. The simplest ways to do this are adequate sleep, managing stress properly, and keeping the blood sugar well regulated. The rules of keeping the blood sugar stable are:regular meals, avoiding refined starches and sugars, and focusing more on eating proteins, high fiber, and fats.

Balancing Blood Sugar to Feel Your Best

It’s a common story: “I wake up early for work feeling tired so I have a cup (or three) of coffee with milk and sugar to wake up, and a bagel or a donut for breakfast. Work is busy so I don’t stop for a break until 1pm, and then I have some chinese takeout or a piece of pizza for lunch. At 3pm I’m falling asleep at my desk so I have a diet soda and grab a couple pieces of candy out of the jar at work. I go home and make something quick for dinner and watch some TV, then go to bed. By 2am I wake up and can’t fall back to sleep until 4am so I wake up exhausted the next day and start over…”
For many of us, this cycle of stress, fatigue, and compensation for the two with marginal food choices becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. When we’re tired, we often go for caffeine, sugar, and refined carbohydrates (like those in bagels, pizza, and noodles) to boost our blood sugar for a temporary feeling of increased energy. The down side is that when we spike our blood sugar quickly, it will not be maintained and will crash again a few hours later, resulting in greater fatigue. Also, when we eat infrequently the blood sugar will crash and again we will feel exhausted. Additionally, when we eat early in the evening, by the middle of the night many people will wake because they are hungry and not be aware of it, which can keep us up for a couple of hours and make us more fatigued the next day.
The simplest way to combat this cycle and improve energy throughout the day and stay asleep at night are to follow a few easy rules:
1. Eat protein and fiber with every meal. This slows the rate at which food enters the bloodstream which prevents the blood sugar from getting too high or too low.
2. Eat Frequently, preferably every 2 to 3 hours throughout the day. You do not need to increase overall caloric consumption, sometimes breaking up a meal in to two separate snacks works great.
3. Limit sugars and refined carbohydrates, stick to complex carbohydrate sources such as whole grains and beans and high fiber fruits such as apples and pears.
4. Eat a protein snack at bedtime. Easy to digest proteins such as yogurt, hummus, or peanut butter are best.
Good luck and happy eating!