Why sugar matters for your cycles and your sex drive.
Have you ever wondered why you still have room for dessert even when you’re bursting after a five-course meal?
I’ve never really understood my sugar cravings, and I didn’t always have a sweet tooth. In fact, when I was a kid, I was so averse to sugar that I would always pass on my own birthday cake. The amount of sugar in the icing made me cringe even before I had a bite. This changed somewhere along the line, and my sweet tooth took over. Today, I’d have a decadent fudgy brownie over a hamburger any day.
Not so coincidentally, I was also diagnosed with poly-cystic ovaries last year when I went off the pills. I had low libido and an absent period for the next 7 months. I never really thought about the connection between my sugar cravings and my reproductive health, and no doctor ever asked about my cravings. As it turns out, your food cravings are the first warning that your entire endocrine system is in crisis.
I read Alisa Vitti’s book ‘Women Code’ three months ago and have since been on a ride to understand the mysteries of my endocrine system. She’s done what every gynecologist has failed to do for me: explain the interrelations between each organ in my endocrine system and how they communicate with one another. In short, Alisa explains that blood sugar levels are at the root of endocrine disruptors that can lead to low libido, infertility, missed periods, PMS, and breakouts. The equation is simple: low blood sugar + chronic stress = hormonal trouble.
Your endocrine system’s main function is blood sugar control.
Your endocrine system performs all kinds of complex feats via the language of hormones. One of its main functions is transforming carbohydrates into glucose which fuels your brain and muscle tissue to keep you going. If something with that process goes awry, you’re going to have mismanaged blood sugar levels first; then, the rest of the endocrine chain will start collapsing like a set of dominoes.
As you consume those carbs your brain is working to get the glucose it needs, and your body is in overdrive trying to flush away the reserved glucose out of your cells. All of this triggers stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Long term, the excessive amount of cortisol produced from this vicious cycle has dampening effects on the production of DHEA, which is a key hormone to support your sex drive — Alissa Vitti, Woman Code, p. 82
The Myth of Will Power
From a physical standpoint, what your body has to do to wade through the sugar crashes and spikes is so draining that it causes your body to do things that aren’t healthy. For example, it tells you to eat chocolate even though you’ve already had a bowl of pasta alfredo.
In truth, there’s no such thing as willpower. When it comes to turning away from the dessert table, you’re entirely at the mercy of ghrelin and leptin.
Ghrelin is a hormone produced in your stomach and pancreas to trigger your hunger response. It spikes just before meals and decreases again right after. Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells, and it causes a sense of satiety, telling you that you no longer need to eat. It follows the same pattern as ghrelin, increasing right before meals and decreasing after.
Blood sugar balancing
We like to believe that we’re in control of what we eat, but actually, your body craves the foods that will keep it in equilibrium. When your hormonal response is out of whack, you might find yourself bouncing back and forth from greasy foods to sweets.
Ever wonder why nuts are so popular at bars?
Alcohol has high sugar content. When you consume tons of margaritas late at night, you’ll crave high sodium foods to balance out your sugar levels. Alcohol is at one end of the spectrum, and salt is at the other.
However, consuming on opposite ends of the scale takes a big toll on your body. Since your entire endocrine system relies on your glucose levels hugging the balance point as closely as possible, your body perceives mismanaged blood sugar levels as a stressor. According to Vitti, this sends your adrenals into overdrive, and they begin to pump out cortisol and adrenaline — the cascade of off-kilter hormones ensues.
After just one mindless meal, your pancreas is churning out insulin to double-time to offset the high blood sugar levels, and your adrenals are releasing stress hormones as if a lion was chasing you. Add a series of happy meals to that, and it’s easy to see how deeply interconnected your diet is with how your hormones perform.
The first step towards blood sugar management is to observe what your blood sugar is doing from one hour to the next and how your body responds.
The Breakfast Experiment
I did a three-day-long breakfast experiment to pinpoint the physical differences between a balanced diet sugar-wise and an unbalanced one. As a result, I’ve noticed a few differences in my energy levels, mood, and cravings.
Day 1 What I ate: Oatmeal with milk, fruits, and peanut butter. Oatmeal has always been one of my favorite breakfasts. I never get tired of it. But when I actually paid attention to my physical responses, I noticed that my stomach was churning and I
felt weighed down. As it turns out, oatmeal itself wasn’t the problem; milk was. I had never noticed that I have a slight milk intolerance.
However, whole-grain oats are a complex carb, and they are sure to keep you energetic until lunchtime. Be mindful not to overuse sweeteners which can cause an unnecessary blood sugar spike and then crash, triggering your hunger hormone, leptin.
What I ate: Fruit smoothie with blueberries, apple, papaya, and pea protein powder. Shortly after having the smoothie, I felt energetic, but only two hours later, I felt hungry and was craving fatty foods. Fruits are high in sugar content. In response to this, according to Alisa, your pancreas pumps out a flood of insulin to bring your blood sugar back down by escorting the sugar — in the form of glucose — to the cells that are its end users. What often happens is that your pancreas miscalculates the amount of insulin needed and releases too much, so instead of bringing your sugars back to baseline, it gobbles up too much glucose leaving you with low blood sugar levels. This triggers your pancreas to produce ghrelin, which tells you you are hungry again even though you’ve just had a meal.
What I ate: Sunny-side-up eggs and sweet potato. I’m not usually into savory breakfasts, so I was surprised that I really enjoyed this. Right after the meal, I felt stable, and two hours later, my hunger was still under control, and I had no cravings. Sweet potatoes are complex carbohydrates which means it takes your body a long time to break the carbs down into sugar. This is a good thing because you can maintain a steady energy level for a longer time.
What I ate: Rhye bread with Ghee and a bowl of berries with flax and chia seeds. This breakfast was also delightful! Rhye bread has this amazing nutty taste that’s incredibly satisfying. Right after the meal, I felt energetic, and two hours later, my energy levels were still high, and I wasn’t experiencing any cravings.
Rhye is a whole grain that makes you feel satisfied longer because it takes longer for your body to break down the complex carbohydrates into sugars. In turn, berries are usually lower in sugar than other fruits and won’t cause your blood sugar levels.
Managing your own blood sugar levels
Blood sugar can cause hormonal chaos in your entire body. Most people never really think about managing their blood sugar levels throughout the day. This is at the root of symptoms like fatigue, binge eating, hormonal acne, and low libido. The good news is that when you work to restore blood sugar balance, you can feel more energetic and focused, sync with your cycle, and restore your libido.
Here are a few guidelines to start with:
Be aware of your physical response to meals.
Stabilizing your blood sugar levels starts with paying attention to your individual response to your eating foods. After each meal, please take a moment to breathe and sense how your body reacts to it. How do you feel? Tire? Gassy? Warm? Try to use simple descriptive words that children often use when we ask them how they feel. This will help you develop an intuitive relationship with your body. With time, you’ll be able to understand the foods that are right for you.
Gauge your blood sugar levels.
This step is about avoiding hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) throughout the day. If you choke down a hamburger between meetings, or if you skip a meal, your body will react to the change in blood sugar levels as a stressor, triggering adrenaline and cortisol. Choose a balanced meal with complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, leafy greens, and healthy proteins like fish or lentils, which will help you stay within balance. Staying close to the balance point will help you avoid cravings and keep your energy levels stable throughout the day.
The 80 percent rule.
Alisa Vitti emphasizes the “every meal, everyday strategy” for staying healthy. Every meal should be about how many nutrients you give your body—a little love letter to your hormones and gut. However, staying in balance doesn’t mean you have to give up eating cake at your cousins' wedding or taking three shots of tequila on a crazy girl's night out. As long as you keep in balance 80% of the time, you’ll be well on your way towards healthy cycles.
Hormonal health is a delicate matter, and all it takes is one misstep for the entire edifice to come tumbling down. Reading the signals your body sends is vital to avoid more severe problems down the road. At some point before the age of five, you were in perfect communication with your body. Your internal life was no different than the external one. When you were happy, you laughed, and when you were sad, you yelled and kicked and screamed. Then after the age of five, you sat down in a classroom and absorbed the values of the neck-up society. To have a healthy relationship with your body, you need to be willing to be a beginner. You’ve developed too many habits around a communication void that need to be unlearned. Restoring your body’s normal cycles requires a willingness to listen and take guidance from the small signals that come your way.