You are what you eat—sort of!

As you may recall, I have explored the subject of anger from many different perspectives—anger as it relates to the essential aspect of strength; anger arising from psychological issues; anger as a defense mechanism and a character trait. I have personally worked on my own anger many times during nature ceremonies, and I’ve told you some of those stories here. I’ve also explored anger with my spiritual teachers, therapists, and even a naturopath. I recently discovered a new key to understanding anger. It is perhaps the simplest method of all: looking at how what and when I eat affects my mood, including such impacts as irritation, frustration, a dry itchy feeling, and plain old grumpiness!

Potatoes not Prozac

Potatoes not Prozac: Simple Solutions for Sugar SensitivityMy sister Kirsten turned me on to a book called Potatoes not Prozac, by Kathleen DesMaisons. Kathleen describes how what we eat, and when, affects three biochemical systems in our bodies that affect mood: blood sugar levels, serotonin (a brain chemical), and beta-endorphin (another brain chemical). She also advances the theory that some of us are “sugar sensitive,” which means that our body chemistry responds more drastically to sugar and other refined carbohydrates. I was very interested in this theory. Years of meditating, yoga, running, and seeking of self knowledge have had very little impact on the reactivity that goes on in me. It has seemed to be totally beyond my control, no matter how hard I try or how good my intentions.

Sugar sensitivity is common for people who have addiction in their families, and as Gabor Maté and others have written, brain chemistry is a strong factor in addiction. Since brain chemistry is affected by genetics, as well as early experiences, it is not surprising that addiction and the type of brain chemistry that is sugar sensitive would run in the family. Kathleen discovered the impact of eating habits, including sugar consumption, on our feeling of well-being through her work with alcoholics. This prompted her to pursue a PhD in addictive nutrition, so she could study the subject more deeply. Over the years she has worked with thousands of people. In some studies she has done, those who follow her plan have a 92% success rate in achieving sobriety. Previously in the field of treatment for alchoholism, a 25% success rate was considered good. That’s a pretty strong testament to the effectiveness of her plan in helping people with addictions to create lasting change!

By now you may be wondering whether you are sugar sensitive. The test that Kathleen offers in her book is to imagine that you walk into your kitchen at home and find a plate of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies on the counter. Their warm chocolatey smell greets you as you enter the room. You don’t feel hungry. No one is around to defend the cookies or observe your actions. What do you do? Evidently, there are some people who would not eat a cookie! Can you believe it? This is hard for me to imagine. For me it’s a no-brainer. In real life I might wonder who had put the cookies there and whether they were poisoned. But in the imaginary exercise, I would not hesitate to eat a cookie. How about you?

Kathleen also has a checklist of ten items to determine whether one is sugar sensitive. Interestingly, one of the items is “I have a history of anger that sometimes surprises even me.” Wow, there it is in black and white. This is probably the first time I have seen an articulation of a connection between sugar and anger. The history part is true for me too, and it does surprise me.

A history of anger

When I was at Monkey Valley I looked through a box of journals, in order to select the ones that contain my record of vision quests I’ve been on. I glanced at a few other journals at random, just to see what I’d written about. There was a journal from grade ten. In it I was raging at my father, swearing in every sentence, angry and hateful. What a shock! I didn’t remember feeling that way, much less writing it down. I flipped open a journal from 1995 or so. I saw an entry in which I was raging at a friend for something she had done. Angry, reactive, hateful sentences filled the page.  I looked at a journal from 2007. Rage at another friend. The same kind of angry, hateful language. I was really shocked to discover this. Although I know I am prone to anger and reactivity, I truly did not recall writing these entries, or having those feelings towards my friends. And to see that the pattern stretched back thirty years! What a revelation. And I don’t doubt that my sugar consumption really mushroomed in junior high, once I was earning my own money and could buy sweets whenever I wanted. Add that to sugary breakfast cereals and sweet desserts every night with dinner, and there was a lot of sugar creating havoc in my body. Could early and continuous sugar consumption have had a co-relation to decades of anger?

Reading this book was like finding a life-line that maybe I could cling to and use to pull myself out of the swamp of reactivity that I have been swimming around in my whole life. Obviously I can’t reveal the contents of the entire book here, but I’m going to hit a few of the high points.

Blood sugar level

Some of the symptoms of low blood sugar:

  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Feeling tired for no reason
  • Restless, can’t keep still
  • Easily frustrated
  • Trouble concentrating
  • More irritable than usual
  • Gets angry unexpectedly

These are all things I experience most days.

Serotonin level

Some of the symptoms of low serotonin:

  • Depressed
  • Flies off the handle
  • Reactive
  • Craves sweets (some people crave bread, pasta, and cereal)

Again, I’ve selected the ones that I experience the most, including the ones related to anger.

Beta-endorphin level

Some of the symptoms of low beta-endorphin:

  • Low pain tolerance or tolerance for discomfort (jumpy)
  • Tearful, reactive
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Overwhelmed by other’s pain
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Depressed, hopeless
  • Feels “done to” by others (blaming, being a victim)
  • Craves sugar

She’s been reading my mail!

Optimal levels of these three

Sugar sensitive people have a brain chemistry that is disposed to producing low quantities of serotonin and beta-endorphin, which is why we seek to simulate the effects of these brain chemicals by using sugar. But when all the levels of blood sugar, serotonin, and beta-endorphins are optimal this is how we would feel:

  • Energetic, and tired when appropriate
  • Relaxed, clear, focused
  • Able to deal with problems effectively
  • Easy going, even-tempered
  • Hopeful, optimistic
  • Reflective, responsive
  • Able to seek help
  • Sensitive, sympathetic
  • High self-esteem
  • Compassionate
  • Connected to and in touch with others
  • Takes personal responsibility
  • Euphoric!

I was especially struck by how these three aspects of our physical chemistry can affect our self-esteem and whether we feel isolated or connected to others. For me, I have often avoided contact with others because it triggered so much reactivity, but the price I paid was feeling very isolated, alone, and that nobody cared about me. It is remarkable to learn that eating habits played a role in this dynamic!

Keeping a food journalPotatoes: the humble russet and two exotic purples

The first step towards balancing sugar sensitivity, in the first edition of Potatoes not Prozac (1998), is to keep a food journal. I’ve been doing that for two months now. The idea of the journal is just to actually see what I am doing, clearly, in black and white. Not to judge it. As many of you may know, for the past few years my breakfast has consisted of two bars of exquisite organic dark chocolate. So that is what I put down. I also noted when I ate, and how I felt both physically and emotionally. What a goldmine of information! Kathleen talks about how this journal becomes a way of listening to my body speak to me. And it has been telling me a lot!

What I was struck by, after I’d been keeping the journal for about a month, was how erratic my eating habits were. The times for the various meals fluctuated wildly, with dinner sometimes as late as 11 PM. And when I was too busy to stop for a meal, I discovered that I used sugar to keep myself going. So depending on the day, I might have a chocolate at 6:00. A toffee at 7:00. Maybe an apple at 8:00. Another snack at 9:00. And finally, a proper dinner at 10:00 PM. Now that I knew the effects on my blood sugar from eating sweets (and what the body does to try to re-establish homeostasis), I felt sad to see how much trauma I was subjecting my body to by snacking this way. I also felt sad to see how I was treating myself so badly by forcing myself to wait to eat lunch and dinner. (Accomplishing things and “doing” was more important than stopping to care for myself.) Just seeing the patterns helped me to feel compassion for my physical self, and the desire to treat my body better.

The seven steps

Kathleen’s plan is to gently and gradually shift to healthier eating habits for life. It is a seven-step plan, and I’ve followed a few of the steps now. In the new edition (2008) of her book, step one is to start eating breakfast with protein and a complex carbohydrate (for example, whole wheat toast or oatmeal), within an hour of getting up. It doesn’t even require giving up the chocolate, just adding the protein and complex carb. For me this was a huge step, to shift away from my chocolate for breakfast habit. Just contemplating eating something else first thing in the morning felt distasteful to me. So I waited for a time when my life was making very little demands on me, so I could make this big change with as little stress as possible. I did it while I was at Monkey Valley, earlier this month.

The new chocolate rationI have now had a breakfast with 1/3 of my body’s daily protein requirements, and a complex carbohydrate, within an hour of waking, 19 times! I have also been following step three, which is to eat three meals a day with protein, no more than 5-6 hours apart, and if snacking, to include a protein and a complex carbohydrate. I’ve done that for 19 days too. I also drastically reduced my sugar consumption. In this time period I’ve had not even two whole chocolate bars. If you can do math, you will realize that with my prior habits, I would have consumed 38 bars of chocolate in this same amount of time!

Beforehand (the first week I kept a food journal), my feelings were all over the place. I looked like the queen of the mood swings. Lots of highs and lows. And some anxiety.

Although I have had many of the same feelings and physical sensations since shifting my eating habits, I haven’t had the buzz or high from the sugar snacking, and overall I feel much more balanced and stable, with less anxiety. Mind you, in the “before” I was working and dealing with a lot of people and different situations, while during the “after” period I am on holiday. That could account for the lower anxiety!

Anyway, it is early days yet, but I believe that by following this food plan I am treating my body much better. I feel that eating a regular breakfast and having dinner at a normal time are huge accomplishments. I like this change in lifestyle and the feeling of stability it brings. I know that my brain chemistry will continue to adjust over time.

I am so excited about the potential for healing and balance that Kathleen offers in Potatoes not Prozac. She calls her plan “Radiant Recovery.” I bought copies of the book for my family members, and I’m sharing the news with you here, because I truly believe that for some of us, this new information about brain chemistry could solve the mystery of why we never feel quite right. For me, I hope it will be the final missing piece in the puzzle of anger.

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