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Dear Mark: Sugar for Stress Relief, and Weight Loss Releasing Toxins

For today’s edition of Dear Mark [1], I’m answering two questions. First, a new study out is one of the first (and maybe only) to show that acute sugar consumption can reduce the normal cortisol increase we experience in times of stress. Interesting stuff, eh? Find out whether I think this is a good thing, a potentially useful “hack”, or, given our collective tendency to overthink things and embroil ourselves in stress stews, a recipe for disaster. Next, we’ve all heard that weight loss releases stored toxins and environmental pollutants into our bodies, but is there any science that actually shows this is happening in people losing weight? And if we are releasing toxins by losing body fat, does that mean keeping the weight on is actually healthier? Find out down below.

Let’s go:

Hi Mark,

I’ve just seen this –

This Is Why Sugar Is So Damn Addictive [2]

– and wondered what your opinion on it is. As someone who struggles with stress (though don’t we all?) and still sometimes craves sugar after 20 months of Primal living, I’m wondering if there’s a connection there!

Thanks for all you do,

Cate

Yeah, absolutely there’s a connection. Sugar cravings [3] are among the most commonly reported symptoms of high stress, and the study discussed in the article suggests a mechanism. For everyone else, the Vice article discusses a study [4] showing that sugar consumption acutely reduces the cortisol [5] response to a stress test in women. The control arm used aspartame-sweetened beverages, which did not lower cortisol.

This may surprise you all, but it’s conceivable that using sugar intelligently as a stop gap solution can help in certain situations. Say your wife’s in labor. It’s been a long night that’s slowly turning into a long morning. You haven’t slept. You haven’t eaten. There’s a chance she might go into surgery. Any semblance of a birth plan has been scattered to the wind. Your mind, body, and entire being are beset by stressors on all sides, and the resultant stress is building. Is it possible that a Haagen Dazs ice cream bar from the vending machine down the hall could help balance your endocrine system long enough for you to make it through your wife’s ordeal without a mental breakdown and hopefully welcome your child into the world with tears of joy, not frustration? I think so, yes.

The problem is that we don’t just use sugar to counteract the acute stress we occasionally encounter. We also tend to use it for chronic stress. The truly serious stressors — the deaths in the family, the breakups, the lay offs, the all nighters — are few and far between. Using something sweet to help us through those situations isn’t a big deal, like taking prescribed opioids to manage post-surgical pain. It may even be advised. It’s the chronic stress we encounter every day — the traffic, the annoying boss, the minor sleep deprivation from staying up late to watch TV or surf the web every night — that opens us up to excessive sugar abuse because, well, we’re almost always stressed about something. And if our response to stress is to make it worse by stressing out over it even more [6], that’s another layer of sugar cravings we’ve got to overcome (or submit to).

The real trick isn’t eating gummi bears or drinking Mexican coke when stress hits, even though that might work in the short term. The key is to target the stress that’s compelling us to eat the sugar. Embrace the acute stressors (because those are usually unavoidable and unpredictable — the injuries, the family tragedies, the spilt coconut milk [7] — and what else can you do but deal with them?) and figure out how to rethink, reframe, avoid, or overcome the chronic stressors.

Of course, there’s something about the paper that limits its scope: the study only looked at sugar versus non-caloric sweeteners. What if you tested the cortisol-reducing effect of a slice of cheesecake, which provides a big dose of both fat and sugar, against that of soda, which provides only sugar? Other studies indicate that people eat more processed junk food (which is high in both fat and sugar) when under stress, so it may be that more palatable foods, whether it’s soda or cake, can reduce cortisol in the short term. Or what if it’s an energy thing; would pure glucose work by providing calories?

We need more research, but clearly there’s something about comfort foods that we’re drawn to [8]. It’s right there in the name, after all. We need comforting, from time to time, and that’s totally normal. Life isn’t a picnic. But if we figure out how to eliminate or at least really limit the stress we create out of nothing, we can probably indulge our stress-induced cravings when real stressors emerge without things getting out of hand, eating so much sugar so often that we develop fatty liver and metabolic dysfunction, or developing a full blown sugar habit.

So if those sugar cravings truly are a “sometimes” kinda thing, try indulging them next time you stress out. Keep things as healthy as possible. Fruit instead of candy. Honey and yogurt instead of ice cream. That sort of thing. You might find this nips the stress in the bud, and it will definitely keep you from stressing about the sugar cravings you’re experiencing and the guilt you might feel. Ah, humans and our big brains with the unique capacity for thinking about thinking about thinking: we really get ourselves into trouble, don’t we?

Hi Mark,

I’m 48 and I’ve been living primal for a few months now. I still have quite a bit of weight to lose but I am feeling better and better every week and the really cool part is that my family can see the difference and are starting to jump on board with me.

I’ve been very active my whole life and fairly lean for the first part of it but after I got out of the Army at age 31 I kept getting heavier and heavier no matter what I did or how hard I worked out. I could have been the the SAD poster child with all the garbage I ate in the name of good health.

Now that I’m eating and living primal, losing weight and burning all that stored fat I’m wondering how much of the bad stuff got stored with that fat. Do we have to burn through “bad” stored fat to get down to the lean groksters we were meant to be, and will there be times when we may feel the effects of the old diet as we burn through stored fat?

Thanks,

Mike

There’s something to that. Several lines of evidence indicate that people undergoing active weight loss may be releasing stored environmental pollutants into their blood:

Organic pollutants readily accumulate in the adipose tissue of the obese — those with the most adipose tissue from which to draw samples. So if nothing else, we know that we’re storing these environmental toxins in our body fat. They’re there.

In one study [9], subjects 40 years or older were separated into five weight categories: stable weight, moderate increase, moderate decrease, large increase, or large decrease. Researchers took blood samples and measured organic pollutant levels, finding correlations between weight loss and elevated levels of five of six studied pollutants. Among those reporting significant weight loss in the past 10 years, the blood levels were highest. Those who’d gained significant weight in the same time frame had the lowest pollutant levels. This isn’t proof that the weight loss is causing the greater serum pollutants, but it’s suggestive.

Another study [10] found that weight loss increased serum levels of five common pollutants in obese subjects. Some of the pollutants were reabsorbed into the remaining subcutaneous body fat. After an 18-week diet and exercise followup period, the levels were still elevated, suggesting that continual weight loss steadily leaks stored pollutants. Pollutant levels increase whether weight loss occurs via low calorie dieting or through bariatric surgery [11].

Assuming weight loss does release stored toxins into the blood (and it probably does), is weight loss unhealthy? No. In study after study, weight loss leads to improved quality of life, health outcomes, and resolution of metabolic disease states [12]. The burden of obesity cannot be overstated. Furthermore, accumulation of pollutants in adipose tissue is usually linked to adverse metabolic conditions. In the study of obese Portuguese patients, those with the greatest levels of pollutant accumulation were most likely to have hypertension, glucose intolerance, and other components of the metabolic syndrome. Other research [13] confirms the connection between organic pollutants and metabolic dysfunction, so this stuff isn’t benign. It’s not “locked away” in the body fat, rendered inert through safe storage.

That said, will some people experience transiently negative effects from losing weight mediated by the release of organic pollutants? I’m sure they will, and there are anecdotes aplenty that attest to the phenomenon. There’s another possibility that might explain some of the increased pollutant levels after weight loss: the loss of toxin storage depots means any additional environmental pollutant exposure manifests as increased serum levels. With fewer places to store it, anything coming in sticks around. And since we’re constantly exposed to pollutants in our modern environments, it’s always coming in.

Don’t let the prospect of toxin release prevent you from losing weight. As you say yourself, you feel better than you have in years. That’s no accident. It’s the best way I’m aware of to know that you’re doing something right.

That’s it for this week, folks.

Anyone experience “toxin-related” symptoms during weight loss? It’s my understanding that most people feel great when they lose weight (must be all that animal fat they’re consuming), but I’d be curious to hear from people with different experiences.

Have you ever used sugar to counteract a stressful experience? Were you able to keep it acute and occasional, or did you find yourself lapsing into regular, chronic use?

Thanks for reading, everyone!