Stress and Blood Sugar

I wrote about testing blood sugar levels as a way of gauging how your body deals with carbohydrate (CHO) a few weeks ago and I plan on posting a complete breakdown of my results soon. But I have to come to a realization that warrants a preemptive post, “Bread and Butter” calls might be jacking your blood sugar…

We all have heard of and or experienced the “fight or flight” response that dumps hormones and revs up our adrenal glands when we are hit with an acute stressor. This is the response that enables us to jump out of bed at 0400 and perform mental and physical gymnastics on demand. We rely pretty heavily on this ancient mechanism of survival in our day to day lives at the fire house with only a nagging recognition of the dangers. I probably pay more attention to this stuff than the average person and the initial results of my n=1 experiment with blood sugar really opened my eyes.

It all started off pretty normal, I got my glucometer and started logging my glucose levels as recommended with no real deviation from normal. I had a fasting blood glucose (FBG) of around 85 and my pre-meal number was around 60-70 which is pretty common in the low carb paleo crowd. A standard meal of 6 eggs, 1 cup of Brussels sprouts, .5 sweet potato (1tbs butter). 1 plantain (fried in coconut oil) would get me around 105mg/dl at 1 hour and back down in the 90s at 2 hours, an indication that I am pretty insulin sensitive and everything seems to be in order. One morning toward the end of my experiment, after 4 calls between midnight and 0500, my FBG was 100mg/dl… Whoops! Turns out the sleep depravation threw me off a little so I kept it super low carb < 50grams all day and did an abbreviated strength session to help get my insulin sensitivity back. By dinner my post meal glucose numbers were only slightly above MY normal and I was looking forward to a good nights sleep and a new day. The sleep I got which was awesome but my FBG was still a little elevated at 97mg/dl… I decided to train fasted that morning so I had some coffee and started to get my PT on but was interrupted by a vegetation fire on the other side of the battalion. That early in morning I wasn’t really too worried about the fire and took my time getting changed and hitting the road, about the same speed you would if it was a ringer at your local Kmart. I got about 10 minutes down the road and was cancelled by units at scene so I returned to my workout. I realized though that I had a unique opportunity to get some data on how my body reacts to stress so I took another reading as soon as I got in quarters and, to my dismay, it 123mg/dl… 15-20mg higher than I had been able to get post meal… On a “nothing”, no stress call for which I was already awake… The other thing that I noticed is that my blood sugar stayed elevated much longer in the post stress testing than it did post meal. So even though I have a healthy glucose metabolism it is still thrown way off track by this job; which is a bummer because no matter how clean I eat or fine tuned my strength and conditioning program is I still spend a ton of time with elevated blood sugar (>110) which is a huge risk factor for heart disease.

I would have expected a result like this from a significant call, something out of the ordinary, or if I had even felt stressed during the response. But it wasn’t, and I didn’t, and yet the result was a cascade of chemical reactions lining up fuel for the eminent battle which never occurred. When I think about it I realize that there are many things in my life, at work and home, that are more stressful than that call was. If my body is reacting similarly to each of these stressors then I think its time for me to put some serious effort into reducing my stress response in general. After-all, it would appear that the person who lives their lives with the lowest average blood sugar/insulin wins.

9 Responses to Stress and Blood Sugar

  1. Ryan says:

    This is really interesting considering all the statistics out there on firefighter deaths related to heart attack. Could it be possible that we are focusing too much of our efforts on diet and fitness and not enough on the everyday stresses of the job?

    • Adam says:

      I think the priority is 1) Nutrition because it helps with every other aspect of life. 2) Strength and Conditioning 3) Stress reduction. But its kind of like the 3 laws from iRobot because they are all interconnected:
      1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
      2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
      3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

      There is also the question of what your job description is. If you are a tailboard firefighter you aren’t going to get away from the physical stressors but maybe you can significantly reduce the mental aspect to compensate. And of course the opposite for a chief officer, not saying that we don’t need to maintain some physicality its just a change of priority. When my brain is smoked at 11:30 pm I would probably be better served by some progressive relaxation than a heavy set of dead lifts before bed. One thing is for sure, no matter what your position, less chronic stress is better and it is important to remember that chronic stress becomes “normal” quite quickly. Its like having to pee, you don’t really know how bad you had to go until your done.

  2. Drew says:

    Huh…you are human.
    Nice experiment Adam. Good info. Unfortunately, it is what it is. We have reduced life spans no matter what we do. It would be interesting to do this on medics, cops, and military personnel to see their response. What I found amazing was that with a relatively strict paleo diet, you still had elevated blood glucose levels. Even though you perceived the incident as non-stressful, you body went the other way. Must be too much Crossfit :)
    What about doing a study in your battalion with several different personnel and their individual diets / fitness programs. That would be pretty interesting to see.

    • Adam says:

      Is what it is for sure… But there are a few things that I started recently which seem to be helping and you hit the nail on the head with CrossFit. Since I have started to focus on managing adrenal response I have started yoga and/or jiu jitsu twice a week, practicing some progressive relaxation before bed, reduced high intensity training to once a week, and have been taking a supplement called Primal Calm (phosphatidyl serine, magnesium, rhodiola rosea, etc.). The other thing to note is that my current job has a very low conditioning requirement so I have been able to tinker extensively with my carbohydrate intake without worrying about bonking. I will make a post with some recommendations soon…

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