Have you ever noticed that some of your students react more strongly to sugar than others? That they seem to want it more often, crave it frequently, and want more even after they”™ve eaten some? The reasons are genetic. I love that because it takes all the “blame” off the person and de-personalizes the reaction by making it chemical. We can”™t be blamed for something we can”™t control, right?
As an indoor cycling instructor, you may hear all about students”™ problems with sugar. You”™re also in a unique position to help them. Your students know you, trust you, and follow your recommendations.
So what is this genetic, chemical thing that goes on in people who are susceptible to sugar addiction? It”™s in two parts — carbohydrate sensitivity and sugar sensitivity.
Carb sensitivity simply means exaggerated insulin secretion to sugar and some other carbs. The extra insulin can cause glucose to drop, causing cravings. The cravings are typically for foods that will raise glucose quickly. Sugar is an obvious culprit in that regard. The glucose drop can also trigger hunger, so it”™s likely that the carb-sensitive person will crave sugar, eat it, and eat quite a bit of it.
Who”™s likely to be carb sensitive? Typically people with a family history of one or more of these: alcoholism, diabetes (including mature-onset), hypoglycemia, hypertension, or obesity. Another factor is central adiposity (apple-shaped body). That apple shape is the typical characteristic of men, but women with that body type are more likely to be carb-sensitive.
The other aspect — sugar sensitivity — is about neurochemistry. People who are sugar-sensitive seem to have low baseline levels of several brain chemicals — beta-endorphin (or endorphins), dopamine, and serotonin. To simplify (oversimplify!), the fact that those 3 chemicals are lower than normal makes these people feel crummier than normal.
Who is likely to be sugar-sensitive? People with a family history of alcoholism, other addictions, depression or other mood disorders, or a personal history of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Let”™s return to sugar. When we eat sugar, we get a brain release of beta-endorphin. That triggers a dopamine response because the two tend to go together. But when a sugar-sensitive person eats sugar, the beta-endorphin response is greater than normal — and so is the dopamine release.
Their serotonin will be exaggerated, too — because of carb sensitivity and the high insulin release. The more insulin we secrete, the more tryptophan (the amino acid used to make serotonin) travels to the brain, and the more serotonin we produce. It”™s pretty linear. So carb-sensitives — who release extra insulin when they eat sugar — end up making a lot more serotonin.
And what does all of this have to do with addiction?
Dopamine and beta-endorphin are involved in the good-feeling, reward part of addiction (including sugar addiction). That means people who are sugar-sensitive may feel rotten without sugar, but hugely better than normal when they eat it. Obviously, that”™s pretty reinforcing. It encourages repeat behavior, both in animals and in humans.
Then there”™s serotonin. Serotonin is involved in seeking behavior — how much trouble we”™re willing to go through to get the addictive substance we want. Once again, the exaggerated response comes in here. Extra insulin leads to extra serotonin, and that leads to stronger seeking.
To recap, it kinda works like this for a carb-sensitive, sugar-sensitive person: She/he may feel crummy without sugar. The giant-sized reward caused by extra-high dopamine and beta-endorphin makes Ben & Jerry”™s seem pretty appealing in the middle of the night. Reinforcement from eating it may provoke that desire on many nights, while the extra serotonin is what makes someone drive to the store in a bathrobe at 2:00 am to get it.
What I love about this hormonal and neurochemical viewpoint is that it takes all judgment off the person, who can”™t fight those genetics any more than we can fight our eye color. There”™s nothing wrong with feeling compassion, rather than judgment, for someone”™s compulsions. Judgment never helps anyone, although compassion certainly can.
What besides compassion can help your students? Changes in nutrition are most important, but if you”™re not comfortable tackling addiction, you can still help. Don”™t underestimate the organized, structured workouts you offer in your classes.
You may already know that workouts increase brain levels of beta-endorphin, dopamine and serotonin. (More on serotonin and training in a future post.) Encourage consistent participation from your sugar-addicted students, especially any who are in recovery from alcohol or other substances.
Even if they don”™t want to work out some days, your class will help them that day AND in the long run — and make you feel great that what you do so well can be so beneficial for them.
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