My #ouraring Is telling me to quit sugar!

Dr. Jen Kerns

Dr. Jen Kerns

I know, I know. I’m sure you’ve got whiplash by now, with all the quick changes in direction I seem to make. Last week I wrote about how my scarcity mindset and attempts at restriction seemed to be counterproductive in that I was choosing to eat sugary treats ever more frequently (and with some binges). I reasoned that giving my primitive brain the comfort of knowing that I could have some — planned in  advance as a “joy eat” — every week would make it easier for me to stick to my no-sugar plan the other 6 days. I doubt that a single week could be reasonably called enough time for accurate data gathering, but if it were, I’d say this past week was a profound failure: I found myself completely off the rails, eating sugar (mostly ice cream, but sometimes brownies or Oreos or some other highly rewarding combination of sugar plus fat) daily. It was like a free for all. It didn’t help that I was on vacation for the latter part of the week, with time on my hands to read recipes and make delicious homemade ice creams (Savannah Buttermint, anyone?). The more time I spent thinking about sugar and reading about sugar, the more my brain wanted the sugar NOW, not at the end of the week. It felt out of control, that true addicted feeling. I’ve been feeling like crap physically due to the dietary change. My exercise has remained constant for years: 30-35 min on the elliptical and ~15 min of core strengthening every morning. But my sleep quality and quantity have plummeted. Despite feeling totally mentally relaxed and being on vacation, I have been tossing and turning, feeling hot, feeling the sensation of my heart pounding. Yesterday morning I slept restlessly and awoke at 3:30am, unable to get back to sleep. All because of sugar.

I took a peek at the trends in my Oura ring data, and it’s pretty clear that sugar’s poisonous effects on me are not just in my head. I’ve mentioned this little piece of technology before: the Oura ring claims to be able to distinguish your sleep stages (awake, deep, light, and REM), which in my experience I’ve found it to be inaccurate at (it often says I’m sleeping if I’m lying still meditating, for example), but I do have more faith in its ability to measure my temperature and heart rate as I sleep. It also measures heart rate variability (HRV), or the variation in time from beat to beat: low HRV suggests that your sympathetic, or fight-or flight, nervous system is in charge, whereas higher HRV suggests that your relaxed parasympathetic nervous system is in charge. Low HRV suggests lack of resilience and has even been shown to be associated with an increased risk of death.

Here is a graph tracking my average HRV from week to week. I went cold turkey off of sugar starting on April 30: note how my HRV rose in the weeks following:

As you know, I eventually gave in to an urge and started eating sugar again, culminating in frequent excessive sugar intake (and a few binges) over the past week. My HRV simultaneously plummeted:

An example of a single night will show you one of my most desirable HRV graphs:

…vs. my HRV graph from last night after having two glasses of sparkling wine before and with dinner, plus a good amount of ice cream in the minutes before I went to bed:

See how dramatically it was affected by sugar and alcohol, and by eating too close to bedtime? My HRV was a mere half of what it can be – a clear sign that my body is distressed.

At the same time, my weekly average resting heart rate during sleep rose from an incredibly-low 45 beats per minute to a still low but higher 49 beats per minute (brought up by the first several hours in the 60s as my body metabolized whatever crap I’d fed it before bed during the first half of the night).

Here’s an example of a night in June, when I was at my “best:”

Whereas last night (after alcohol and late-night sugar), you can see how high my heart rate was to begin with and how it took the entire night to recover (and still never got as low as I have been in the past):

My total sleep time has taken a similar hit, dropping from an average of over 7 hours every night to about 6 hours a night. The first week of Sugary September has been even worse than my sleep was back in March when I was dealing the stress of moving my mom out of our home and big changes at work (and high perceived risk for me as a hospitalist) as the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up:

If these graphs weren’t enough to show me that what I’m doing right now isn’t good for my body or my brain, I also feel a lot of emotional distress about my perceived lack of control and overuse of sugar despite negative consequences — the very definition of addiction. I am feeling more and more driven to Eat All The Sugar, and think about it constantly. And I feel physically bloated, to boot. My pants are fitting tighter and I feel the weight gain every time I sit down and my muffin top bulges a bit farther over my tight waistline than it did a month ago.

So.

My mind and my body are clearly telling me to stop the madness. For me, in the throes of full-blown sugar binges, taking a break is the “easiest” solution, if there is an easy solution. I have had great success in dampening my desire by eliminating sugar entirely for a period, so I am going back to 100% no sugar (specifically, no added sugar — fresh fruit is allowed on this protocol of mine) for at LEAST 3 weeks straight, maybe longer. I know I said that restriction was setting me up to binge, but lack of restriction seemed to allow me to have a complete free-for-all. So my hope is that I can get my brain’s dopamine receptors reset again, go through a tough few days of cold turkey sugar withdrawal, and then get to a place where I actually CAN have a sweet treat once a week as a planned “joy eat,“ to see whether I can do it in an intentional way (Rather than eating it baked on in-the-moment cravings or urges) and avoid the rekindling of the fire of overdesire. The experiment continues. Thank you for joining me on this journey of self discovery!

Project 135 stats:

Starting weight: 159.6
Week 1: 157.2
Week 2: 155.6
Week 3: 155.4
Week 4: 153.8
Week 5: 151.0
Week 6: 152.8
Week 7: ? (Dad’s death)
Week 8: 150.8
Week 9: 152.6
Week 10: 154.2
Week 11: 152.6
Week 12: 150.8
Week 13: 150.6
Week 14: 151.6
Week 15: 152.4
Week 16: 152.4
Week 17: 155.2 (sugar binges)

Total weight loss: 4.4 pounds (2.8%)

 

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