Do you regularly hit an energy wall in your workday…maybe around 11am or 3pm? A time when you can’t think straight, get irritated with your colleagues and basically stop functioning? If that sounds familiar, then you are probably riding a blood sugar rollercoaster.
I know exactly how that feels. Up until my mid-40s, I was up and down throughout the day and regularly felt famished, even though I was constantly eating. I’d suddenly turn white as a sheet, get very shaky and go from mild-mannered and helpful to cranky and irritable. When that crash hit, even though I was being asked to deal with all sorts of pressing issues by my staff and clients, the only thought in my head was: “I need food. Now.”
What I failed to understand throughout all those years was that it was actually my food choices that were creating this havoc in the first place.
When our blood sugar crashes, our pre-fontal cortex (the executive bit of our brain which is responsible for making wise decisions) can’t work properly, so we get brain-freeze. Plus, our mood is strongly affected. So, instead of feeling emotionally resilient and speaking calmly and constructively to our colleagues and clients, we get “hangry” and end up saying things we later regret.
The more time I spend in boardrooms as a health coach (rather than the PR boss I used to be), the more I see rampant blood sugar crashes sabotage the effectiveness of even the most competent professionals.
At my corporate wellness workshops, people tell me how they’re hit by brain fog at regular points every day. Yes, they may be physically present, sitting at their desk and ostensibly at work…but the lights aren’t on. If they are managing to slowly squeeze out some work, it’s more than likely to be below par (and let’s not forget that today’s mistakes are tomorrow’s extra workload). Others get a headache or feel short-tempered. Most say that, by the time they get to this stage, they grab whatever is most available to get some energy down them: a bar of chocolate or an energy drink.
No matter what the sector, how big the company is or what position people hold, the same story plays out day after day. Productivity is being eaten away by dietary choices.
So, what’s happening here? The refined carb breakfasts that we’ve been brought up on – whether that’s cereal (even the healthy-looking ones!) or toast – cause a spike in our blood sugar, which is shortly followed by a crash. That crash shrinks our mental faculties and has us craving another sugar hit. That won’t generally be too hard to find, given that workplaces are awash with cakes, biscuits and crisps (and it’s the same story if we’re working from home, just a short hop away from our kitchen cupboards).
Here’s what’s going on inside our head. Although the brain only makes up around 2% of our body weight, it’s pretty insatiable as organs go, gobbling up a whopping 20 – 30% of our energy intake. Our prefrontal cortex, the “executive” bit of the brain, needs stable blood sugar for us to plan and function effectively – and to behave reasonably. A blood sugar crash can transform even the most mild-mannered employee into an irritable ogre.
I didn’t realise that my food was causing me problems at work because I ate a typical British diet, with refined carbs as the mainstay of my meals. My typical workday eating would go something like this:
7.30am: A slice of toast, bagel or cereal for breakfast.
9.30am: Starving. Start eating lots of toast to tide me over till lunchtime.
Lunch at 12.30pm (veggie soup and a whopping great baguette).
3.00pm: Starving again. Reach for a chocolate fix to get me through until home time.
Rather belatedly in my working life, I’ve finally learned to keep my blood sugar stable. With just a little bit of tweaking to your schedule, you can do the same. Here are five easy ways to ensure you’re at your sharpest throughout the day:
- Whatever time you eat your first meal of the day, make sure it includes a high-quality protein and some good fats: these are what will keep you feeling full and your blood sugar stable. When I switched to eggs for breakfast (or full-fat Greek yoghurt loaded with nuts and seeds), I was suddenly able to concentrate all morning for the first time in my life.
- Ditch breakfast cereals and all the other ultra-processed junk that’s pitched as a “healthy start to the day” (breakfast bars, I’m looking at you!).
- Don’t fall into the trap of having a plain veggie salad for lunch. Top it with some chicken, fish, eggs or whatever protein you like – and throw in some avocado and pumpkin or sunflower seeds for an extra hit of healthy fats.
- Stay hydrated. It’s all too easy to get through six cups of coffee a day when there’s constantly someone offering to put the kettle on. Keep a glass of water on your desk and make sure you drain it several times a day. Research has shown that even the mildest dehydration of only 1-2% can affect your ability to concentrate, your alertness levels and short-term memory function. Beware of fruit juices and fruit smoothies – they look healthy but they’ll spike your blood sugar.
- Keep a bag of nuts, such as walnuts, in your bag to head off that 3pm danger zone. They’re a great source of brain-friendly good fats.