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Ever wonder why you can seemingly go all day at the DZ or tunnel on pretty much sports drinks and protein bars and as soon as you slow down your stomach feels like it’s eating a hole in itself, so you plunge your head into the nearest junk food? Ever thought there might be a reason you binge at the end of the day?
Adrenaline effects on appetite and food choices, and what to do about it.
Adrenaline, oh how we love that rush!
With a drop of mindful breath, fear turns to excitement and we’re off!
As action sports athletes we know the feeling of adrenaline well, that perfect moment when skill and challenge are at the climax and if you’re able to relax into the stress response, magic can happen - rapid learning, motivation, acute focus & decision making, greater sense of connection- it’s all there in the flow and it feels awesome! An appetite for adrenaline is born and the baseline for what it means to feel good is raised and sought after. We become accustomed to this feeling, so much so that after time we don’t even feel “the rush” with the same intensity unless the perceived challenge is great enough. The effect on the body’s stress response systems however are the same and without attention can eventually become a major limitation to an athlete's performance and health.
Let's look under the hood…
Adrenaline is a hormone neurotransmitter that makes you feel speedy and alert and is released from the adrenal glands and some neurons in response to stress. Whether you’re looking over the edge of the exit point, have crappy eating habits, worrying about money or stuck in a traffic jam, these are all stressors. You’ve probably heard of the Fight or Flight response, our survival mechanism which in the face of stress or danger tells us to run for the hills or stay and fight (Thank you goes to Dr. Walter Bradford Cannon who discovered this). Adrenaline is one of the hormones involved in this response along with Cortisol aka “the stress hormone”. As action sports athletes we activate the Fight or Flight response regularly which takes a toll on the body and mind, making managing it a top priority! How? With food and relaxation practices.
Food is the foundation…
The Stress Response directly affects appetite and blood sugar regulation via the sympathetic nervous system, the stress hormones, and insulin. Maintaining adequate blood sugar levels is vital to life and any extremes can trigger the Stress Response. High sugars have you bouncing off the walls and if chronic can lead to a myriad of health issues, including diabetes. Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can go from Hangry-ness to fatal if unattended. You feel low blood sugar as fatigue, increased frustrations, difficulty concentrating, decreased motivation and trouble communicating. Deciding something as simple as what to eat gets difficult, brain fog or spaciness sets in, you keep hitting the walls (literally), visual changes happen and there is an increased risk of target fixation when your blood sugar is dropping.
The biggest problems I hear from action sports athletes are managing energy levels, focus, and balancing extreme behaviors in down time. **_Two major culprits are dysfunctional eating habits (insufficient or poor food choices) and an unmanaged stress response (riding the wave of adrenaline).**_
Ever tried to eat when you’re all jacked up on adrenaline?
Ever tried to eat when you’re all jacked up on adrenaline? It’s not nice rolling that dry mass around your mouth is it!? Your body can literally have a repulsion reaction to putting food in your mouth during Fight or Flight. If you can actually get food down, you’ll likely end up with stomach cramps and a headache. Adrenaline suppresses appetite, slows or even halts digestion and causes a cascading hormonal and metabolic effect to mobilize glucose and fatty acids into the blood, making all energy available for Fight or Flight. You use this available energy when you fly and cortisol signals to rapidly replenish lost stores, which you experience as cravings for sugar and salt.
Your body is desperate for glucose and you associate that with sugar and refined carbohydrates like bagels, pasta, pizza and convenience foods that are dripping in inflammation! Sugar, like adrenaline, also has a powerful effect on the reward chemicals of the brain giving us that racing high feeling. Starting to see why you go directly to sugar drinks as a quick fix between loads?
Do this all day or for an entire tunnel camp and by the end your cells are starved for energy, your ability to concentrate and make a clear decision goes down and injury rates go up which is not a good combination for high consequence sports. By the end you're wiped out, cracked lipped, red-eyed and starting to get a head cold. It's not because your willpower sucks, it's because the activities you love, that thing that gets you going, happens to run riot on your body’s chemistry, strongly influencing your choices. This goes on for a while and you’ve got yourself some major digestion and metabolism issues starting with indigestion, gas, bloating, IBS, weight gain or loss, stubborn belly fat, and skin eruptions to name a few symptoms.
You’re at a tunnel camp on 5 hours of sleep, you ate whatever was available at 1 a.m. when you arrived. You’re up, pounded 2 coffees and ready to go. Super excited to be learning some mad skills with your favorite coach, flown for 30 minutes, and kinda hungry but your next round is too soon to eat, it will make you sick. So, you have a sports drink, a shot of water, and munch on a protein bar or some fruit. Ciggie perhaps? A few hours have past, your concentration is waning, making mistakes on stuff you know you can do, frustrations are rising and you keep hitting the walls. Coach calls the break. You’re hank-marvin starving. Do you eat junk, junkier or the junkiest, as that’s what's on offer around the tunnel. It’s a 3 hour break so you mack on a burger, fries, and soda and start buzzing around being social and smashing out Intsta-book posts. In about an hour or so you’re falling asleep on the bean bags… just a quick nap! Briefing time again, feeling a bit out of it, have another coffee, ciggie or sports drink, gearing up, eyes are bright and you’re ready to roll! By the end of day your tendonitis has kicked up, muscles are tightening and you're buggered! Time for beer, pizza-binge, sleep, repeat.
beer, pizza-binge, sleep, repeat
Do this with any regularity, plus all the other stressors of life and you create a cycle of chronic stress and disordered eating fueled by adrenaline.
The perfect storm of adrenaline, lack of quality calories and stimulant use like coffee & the addictive white powders (sugar and white flour products) equals no appetite and then zero control as you demolish an entire pack of biscuits! Refined carbohydrates spike your blood sugar signaling insulin to rapidly remove the sugars from circulation to regulate the blood, which equals a nose dive in energy. You are officially on the energy roller coaster! You might be gearing up for your next flight before you plummet and adrenaline will save the day, but not your health.
Poor nutrition amplifies the damaging effects of the Stress Response and prolonged activation can cause brain chemistry changes that mess with your happiness and contribute to anxiety, depression, addictions and adrenal fatigue - a condition where the adrenal glands are literally fatigued and no longer produce enough stress hormone cortisol which plays havoc on your entire life, not just your energy levels.
Managing blood sugar levels and the Stress Response with food and relaxation practices is essential to an action sports athlete to counter the damaging effects of living our passions. We are not about to stop doing what we love, that would be crazy! Thankfully the fix is quite simple, the catch is doing it!
_**Thankfully the fix is quite simple, the catch is doing it!**_
1) Prioritize- eat enough quality foods so your body is not stressed from lack of calories.
2) Use quality energy sources- whole plants, calorie dense nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, whole grains
3) Use plant protein & fiber combos to help stabilizes blood sugar (i.e. hummus & carrots).
4) Carry a snack-bag with homemade energy balls, nut butters and veggies.
5) Avoid stimulants for breakfast (i.e. coffee & sugar products) - eat before you have your coffee.
6) Eat a mixed meal of plant proteins, fats and quality carbohydrates for breakfast.
7) Use mindfulness and breathing practices to calm the nervous system & the Stress Response.
Adrenaline is a reward chemical; when given the right environment it can lead to a flush of other reward chemistry and pleasurable feelings that can become highly addicting. Without awareness around it, it’s quite normal to unconsciously seek out other ways to get the same rush feelings of adrenaline in daily life so we use coffee, addictive white powders and other stimulants to get the rush. Active awareness and making better choices around foods and lifestyle practices that fulfill these needs can dramatically improve your performance in and out of the air flow.
making better choices around foods and lifestyle practices can dramatically improve your performance in and out of the air flow
Taking actions to help stabilize your blood sugar can rapidly improve energy levels, focus, and extreme behaviors in down time. At the same time reducing the need for other stimulants to replace adrenaline. The Stress Response is a magnificent survival system than can literally save your life, but if unmanaged can break you down and even kill you.
Stress Response is a magnificent survival system than can literally save your life, but if unmanaged can even kill you
Interestingly, it is the same system that when managed with one of our other inbuilt systems, the Relaxation Response, can set the stage for peak performance in all areas of life!
This is the first of 3 articles on Appetite for Adrenaline,
By Lucie Charping, Peak Performance Health Coach, Fusion Flow Retreats, San Diego, CA www.Fusionflow.co