Hyman On Hormones: Four Key Components to Balancing Blood Sugar, Boosting Energy and Shedding Pounds
When I heard recently that Dr. Mark Hyman was giving a presentation here in Park City called “Expand Your Brain, Shrink Your Belly,” my ears perked way up. I’m a longtime admirer of his work (he wrote the New York Times bestseller UltraMetabolism), and I knew he was going to cover several topics I’ve been focused on in my own work (in particular, the power of balancing blood sugar), subjects that would be interesting to me, and to all of you. And boy, were they ever.
You may have heard me talk about the importance of regulating blood sugar, and the vital role that various hormones play in controlling your appetite. Well, Mark addressed these issues with his signature tone: Bold, compelling, and very direct. He talked at length about four specific hormones, the behaviors that can increase or decrease the presence of those hormones in our bodies, and the various effects of controlling them, from stress to sleep to managing bodyfat. Needless to say, the audience was taking notes furiously…and here’s some of what I walked away with:
Most of us have a vague idea about insulin. We know it’s got something to do with how our bodies process sugar, and that’s of particular concern to people living with diabetes. But it’s vital for all of us, regardless of our age or fitness levels, to have a deeper understanding of the insulin process. Here’s an intro to insulin:
When we eat carbohydrates (grains, cereals, pastas, fruit and, yes, anything containing sugar), our digestive systems start to break them down into glucose (the simple sugar found in our body’s tissue). Glucose rushes through the bloodstream, which signals insulin (the hormone produces in the pancreas) to kick in. Insulin’s job is to sweep in and distribute that glucose to various cells in our organs, muscles and brains. Those cells, in turn, turn the glucose into energy.
This process varies depending on our own genetic makeup (which is why people with diabetes often have to manage their insulin levels through medication), but it also depends on the makeup of our meals. The type of food we eat determines whether our insulin levels stay nice and balanced, or whether they skyrocket too quickly, creating that infamous blood sugar “spike” we should try and avoid. (That spike leads to a crash in energy quickly afterward, leaving us groggy and often craving more sugar). Hyman offered five solid steps to ensure that your insulin stays in check:
Have protein for breakfast. You set your metabolism into motion the moment you wake up. Chugging orange juice alone first thing in the morning, while delicious, is likely to set up your body for a day’s worth of dreaded blood sugar spikes. Protein helps counteract this process by slowing down the rate or carbohydrate absorption. So start the day by scrambling some egg whites or blending up a tasty protein shake.
Avoid refined sugar. It’s a generalization, but white foods (white bread, flour, table sugar, pasta, and many cereals) are usually a source of refined sugar, which is the quickest way to spike your blood sugar. (But refined sugar comes in all colors, shapes and sizes: Soda is one of the worst offenders. A 12-ounce can of Coke contains a whopping 39 grams of sugar. And not just sugar, but high-fructose corn syrup, the most refined – and reviled – form of sugar there is! And if you think diet soda is the solution, keep reading.) Swap out your “white carbs” for the darker, denser, whole grain versions of your favorite foods. Those are generally a good source of fiber. Which brings us to our next point…
Eat fiber. Similar to protein, fiber helps slow the absorption of carbohydrates into our system. But there’s more: Insoluble fiber (the kind found in whole grains, fruits, veggies and bran cereals) aids in digestion by adding “bulk” to our diets, sweeping through our system and helping to eliminate waste. And there’s a reason I’ve been calling fiber “a dieter’s best friend” for years. It acts like a sponge in your digestive tract, filling your belly and helping you avoid hunger pangs. The International Journal of Obesity determined that there are two dominant factors when it comes to body fat: physical activity and – you guessed it – dietary fiber.
Ready to start filling up on fiber? The best sources are often the most colorful: Kale, spinach, broccoli, fresh berries, black beans, and steel cut oats are all gold star fiber-filled foods. And if you’re looking for a more convenient fiber source, try PGX. Available as capsules or in granular form, this natural plant fiber (proven safe and completely stimulant-free) helps balance blood sugar, reduces appetite and can be a powerful tool for weight loss. Taking PGX before meals doesn’t just boost your fiber intake – it helps you feel full and satisfied, so it’s easier to make healthier choices at every meal.
Avoid artificial sweeteners. Sorry, Diet Coke addicts. Even though your beverage of choice is void of both calories and sugar, studies suggest that your body still reacts to artificial sweeteners similarly to the way it reacts to sugary foods, kicking your sugar response into gear, which may lead to more sugar cravings and weight gain – so in the end, you could potentially offset the calories you tried to save by drinking diet soda. Water, of course, is a wonderful substitute. But if you crave a bubbly refresher, try club soda with a dash of lemon.
Have protein throughout the day. Continue that balanced blood sugar that started your day when you incorporated protein into your breakfast, and keep it going all day long with a steady stream of healthy protein intake. Even your between-meal snacks should have a small protein source. So add some peanut or almond butter to that mid-morning apple, and crunch your cravings away!
And insulin was just the tip of the iceberg at Mark’s exciting workshop. He discussed three other key components to balancing blood sugar, and the importance of managing them:
Research indicates that not skipping breakfast and eating smaller meals throughout the day play an important role in helping control ghrelin.
Here’s an easy way to remember this one: Sounds like “Gremlin.” And for good reason; ghrelin is the appetite hormone. The higher levels of it we have, the more likely we are to crave high-calorie foods. So, like a Gremlin, this insidious peptide just wants to munch away all our good intentions! It starts in the stomach: We naturally have a high level of ghrelin in the bloodstream when we’re hungry, and then after a meal, those levels dissipate. When our ghrelin levels are high, it activates the anterior orbital frontal cortex of the brain, the area that recognizes the reward value of food – hence the cravings for high-calorie items. Research indicates that not skipping breakfast and eating smaller meals throughout the day play an important role in helping control ghrelin.
This is the hormone that floods our system as part of our bodies’ response to stress. And that surge of cortisol can lead to weight gain. When cortisol floods our system, it’s meant to replace our fuel stores, and leaves us craving sweet, salty and fatty foods. And when we experience that cortisol rush repeatedly, it triggers out bodies to start storing fat. That’s a good thing if you just outran a wolf and have to live off the land for a while. But if you’re sitting at your desk, up against a deadline and trying to resist an afternoon craving, of course, that’s another story.
This is another appetite-regulating hormone located in the gut. But unlike ghrelin (where the more of it we have, the hungrier we are), PYY works the opposite way: The lower our levels, the lower our appetite. Studies suggest that when PYY is present in our systems, we are 30% less likely to overeat. And here’s another reason to make sure you’re getting adequate protein: Consuming protein also boosts your PYY levels.
The power of our bodies, and the hidden processes going on inside, are endlessly intriguing. There’s just so much going on behind the curtain! But even more intriguing for those of us who are interested in balancing blood sugar and managing weight is how much our behaviors influence these processes. Stay tuned for future articles covering these fascinating hormones!