How can changes in my breathing cause a sugar craving?
You may know of someone who is a big fan of chocolate. You may have even noticed this person eats chocolate at the same time every day or during certain stressful situations.
Confession: I’m one of those people. When the going gets tough, I turn to chocolate.
I seem to crave chocolate every day at work around 10am. I never gave much attention to the things going on around at that time, I just knew I wanted the chocolate and I wanted it now.
For years, I hid chocolate in my pockets and in drawers. So, when the urge came, I’d pop that chocolate in my mouth and blindly move on about my day.
To my ignorance, I didn't pay a thought to what was actually going on at work around 10 am. Typically, at that time I would be setting up to treat my third dental hygiene patient of the day. By then I would usually be running late. You may not know this about me, but I am a timely person and running late really irritates me. Understandably, I felt stressed.
Stress. This vague explanation most of us use for feeling unwell. For some reason, chocolate seemed to soothe that stress for me. Or so it seemed. Why? Let’s break it down.
How do I experience stress in my body? I feel a little dizzy, I clench my teeth, my heart seems to race faster, my stomach is usually bloated and painful. I usually get a headache and feel intense sugar cravings. Most of us, like me, would call these symptoms “stress.” My solution to stress: Pop that chocolate, maybe drink some water, take an Advil and keep plugging away with my day.
After two decades of this approach, I was exhausted and drained. I became concerned because the Advil no longer seemed to help the headaches. I wasn’t keen on taking pain relievers everyday, especially as I started to need higher doses to find relief. My free time quickly became filled with many visits to the doctor to try and get answers about my “heart palpitations,” and symptoms of fatigue, pain and GI upset. No tests could seem to provide definitive answers. At one point, I was spending upwards of $200 per month in supplements to support my body.
My labs were consistently within normal limits and my stress test showed that my heart was healthy. I was given a diagnosis of IBS and sent to a psychologist to manage my stress. My dentist could not find any reason why my teeth hurt and he advised I wear a night guard to protect my teeth from the pressures of clenching. To top it off, I’m a dental hygienist who is eating large amounts of sugar everyday - What a hypocrite!
"This breathing pattern, I learned under the trigger of stress, was now programmed into my body and my physiology. Like computer software is programmed, my physiology, my body, became programmed to breathe dysfunctionally when I felt stressed."
Let’s rewind back to the part about what stress means for me. There was something I didn’t tell you that happens when I’m rushing and running late at work. I change my breathing pattern. I open my mouth, breathe with my chest, I start taking deeper breaths in and letting only small breaths out, then I actively take the next inhale before allowing my breath to go out fully. So what? Isn’t it normal to breathe erratically when you’re rushing and feeling stressed? In short, no. This breathing pattern, I learned under the trigger of stress, was now programmed into my body and my physiology. Like computer software is programmed, my physiology, my body, became programmed to breathe dysfunctionally when I felt stressed. You may ask, well what now? And how does that way of breathing relate to those symptoms? The way in which we breathe should directly meet our body’s chemical and pH needs. Breathing is dynamic. Breathing should be automatic. It happens all on its own without our conscious control. If we were in a coma, our body would breathe itself. If this is true, then why do we take over our breathing?
As you also know, you have the great ability to step in and override automatic breathing. You have the ability to consciously take a breath. Habitually intervening and actively taking the next breath can become programed. Habits become unconscious ways of living, and habits usually have triggers. Mine was running late at work. I bet you can remember a time when you seemed to do something without conscious thought - for example, popping a chocolate in your mouth every day?
"By actively taking breaths, I was hijacking my body’s automatic controls. My breathing was no longer meeting my body's chemical needs, my breathing was soothing my psychological needs."
Now, this is where it gets interesting... By actively taking breaths, I was hijacking my body’s automatic controls. My breathing was no longer meeting my body's chemical needs, my breathing was soothing my psychological needs. I was actively controlling my breathing which gave me a sense of control around a stressful situation at work. This may have helped me feel better in the short term, but it does not serve my health in the long-term.
Automatic breathing regulates oxygen, carbon Dioxide, pH balance, and electrolytes. What happens when these factors are imbalanced? Within one minute of breathing dysfunctionally, you lose up to 60% of oxygen and glucose to your brain. Can you consider how this may present as a symptom?
- Sugar cravings
Electrolyte imbalances cause muscle tension and contractions. This presents in different parts of the body depending on the individual.
- Chewing muscles may contract leading to clenching and grinding.
- Smooth muscle contractions in the digestive tract leading to abdominal or pelvic pain.
Where you breathe matters as well. When you breathe into your chest vs. your diaphragm, you may notice your shoulders and neck tense up. Accessory muscle contraction in your neck may cause pain. This is a phenomena called dysponesis. Jaw and chewing muscles are activated during upper chest breathing. Simply shifting into the diaphragm may reduce this effect.
When the body is imbalanced and it's chemical needs are not met, or air hunger is perceived, the body naturally has a stress response often referred to as a “Fight or Flight” response. With increased cortisol levels, the heart races, digestion slows down and the body pumps blood to the limbs in preparation to flee.
Back to the question: What to do now? I have good news for you - habits are programmable! In the very same way we learned these dysfunctional habits, we can learn new ones to replace them. All it takes is a little detective work and dedication.
There are a multitude of factors which influence our breathing habits, including the way we perceive stress, hormonal cycles, medications, injury, airway constriction, and traumatic experiences to name a few.
With the use of state of the art biofeedback technology and supportive coaching, together we embark on an explorative process to finding out your personal triggers and replace dysfunctional habits with habits that promote health. We will utilize negative practice exercises to desensitize your fears and help you become the expert of your dysfunctional breathing habit. You will learn how to move yourself in and out of poor chemistry with ease. My goal is to align your breathing mechanics with good breathing chemistry through the use of tools that empower you to allow your breathe to happen all on it's own.
Breathe effortlessly. Be well.
Laura Barlow, CBBA, CSOM, INHC