Is Your Child Sugar Sensitive?
If you are reading this book, you may intuitively feel that you have a sugar sensitive child. But how can you know for sure? We have no blood test yet that will tell you. What we do have, however, is a solid list of clues that has been developed over a long time and with a lot of input from parents just like you. Sugar sensitivity affects behavior, health, and emotions. Let's go through each one and see how your child fits the profile. Whether he is a toddler or she is a teen, most of these questions will apply.
Let's look first at your child's behavior:
--Does your child ask for sweet foods all the time?
--Does your child have unexpected meltdowns that turn into tantrums or tears?
--Is your child impulsive?
--Does your child have a very short fuse?
--Is your child wildly dramatic and goofy?
--Is your child restless and in motion all the time?
--Is your child known as a motormouth?
--Does your child have a hard time paying attention?
--Does your child lock into a task for a long time and forget to do anything else?
And check your child's health:
--Does your child have lots of allergies?
--Does your child still wet the bed?
--Does your child have persistent ear infections?
--Is your child overweight?
--Does your child come home from school exhausted?
--Has your child been diagnosed with diabetes?
--Has your child been diagnosed with ADD or ODD?
Finally, and perhaps most important, are the emotional clues:
--Does your child cry at the drop of a hat?
--Does your child go from being absolutely charming to pouting and being moody?
--Does your child have low self-esteem even though he or she is smart, skilled, and capable?
--Does your child feel alone, isolated, not a part of the in-crowd at school or in the playground?
If you checked three or more boxes from all the lists combined, you are reading the right book. Your child will benefit from a change in diet. If you checked many boxes, do not be alarmed--the more you checked, the more dramatic will be the results you get by changing what and when your child eats. You may have simply assumed that you have a moody child, or a little goofball who bounces around with a motormouth turned on. You may have figured these things were just a part of your child's personality or personal style and never considered that they have a biochemical basis and are connected. The truth is, all of these symptoms can be rooted in your child's biochemistry. The degree to which your child displays them is very connected to what and when she eats. You may be stunned at the positive changes in your child's behavior as you change the food.
Perhaps you have already made the connection between sugar and hyperactivity, but the idea of creating a sugar-free household is simply beyond your imagination. And if you are sugar sensitive yourself, you may have your own issues to resolve. You may feel like an inadequate parent because your children are so moody or mouthy. Sometimes you may join your children in evening treats to help contain the pain and complexity of your feelings. Little Sugar Addicts will show you the way out. You will recover both your own joy in parenting and your child's happiness. You will learn the skills to transform your family in a kind and practical way. The mood swings and meltdowns will disappear. Self-esteem will skyrocket, and the entire family will start having fun.
My kids and I enjoy each other more. We have more fun and want to spend time together. They don't fight with each other, they are better at problem solving, and don't expect me to do everything for them. I always "knew" what wonderful, creative, intelligent, and caring kids I have. Now I "see" those traits every day.
Let's go on to learn about what sugar sensitivity is and what you can do about it. Sugar sensitivity is the term I coined in my doctoral thesis to describe a physical condition that includes three key imbalances: a volatile blood sugar response to sugar and simple carbohydrates, low serotonin, and low beta-endorphin. If you have an alcoholic, depressed, or overweight parent or grandparent, you may have inherited this biochemistry. If you are sugar sensitive, what and when you eat makes a huge difference in how you feel and act. A diet of erratic meals, high sugar, and lots of refined carbohydrates will create havoc. It will foster the behaviors that are in the diagnostic profile I just gave you.
The Biology of Sugar Sensitivity
Let's talk about the biochemistry of sugar sensitivity and how all the pieces fit together. Imagine a stool with three legs, each with its own name: blood sugar, serotonin, and beta-endorphin.
Let's look at the first leg: blood sugar. This leg is critical for sugar sensitive children, so listen carefully to the story. Normally, when you eat foods made up of carbohydrates (sugars and starches), your blood sugar rises and your body releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin helps your cells draw sugar from your bloodstream to use as fuel. This is a very well-regulated system, and normally the size of the rise in your blood sugar and amount of insulin released are in proportion to the foods you eat. If you are sugar sensitive, you can be highly sensitive to carbohydrates and your system will overreact. When you eat carbohydrates, your blood sugar rises more quickly and goes higher than normal. In response, a greater amount of insulin is released, and your cells quickly absorb the sugar in your blood. This causes your blood sugar level to plunge. These blood sugar changes make you feel really good, even high, at first, and then tired, overwhelmed, and spacey as the level drops.
So when a sugar sensitive child eats carbohydrates (especially without protein to slow down the effect), he experiences a blood sugar spike. Instead of a gentle rise and fall, he gets a spike that causes a problem. This condition is not the same as hypoglycemia. In hypoglycemia, the blood sugar drops below normal. In sugar sensitivity, the blood sugar rises and falls quickly but does not necessarily fall below normal. Your sugar sensitive child will run out of fuel more quickly than other children. If he has sugary cereal for breakfast at 7 a.m., he will be zooming around full of energy at 8 and crashing by 9:30. By 10, he will be both frantic and bouncing off the wall or will be a zombie, unable to pay attention in class. His body has already used up the sugary cereal, and he's running on empty. To his teacher, he will look like a child with ADD or he may seem depressed. It is tricky to diagnose because the same syndrome can cause different symptoms.
When he is at home and his blood sugar plunges, he will come cruising into the kitchen for a snack--a sweet snack NOW! He will drink a soda and grab a Pop-Tart or a sugar-laden energy bar or grab some candy and dash out the door. After he eats his snack, his blood sugar will spike and crash again. This pattern of spiking and crashing may happen three or four times a day. Each time it does, it creates stress in your child's body. Each time the blood sugar spikes, the body thinks it is in danger and releases adrenaline. This repeated stress depletes his system more and more. Over time this pattern takes its toll with something called adrenaline fatigue. He crashes on the weekend and sleeps till 9 or 10. During the week, he can't get up on time for school. If you even look at him the wrong way in the morning, he falls apart. He has no resilience. You may attribute his behavior to a growth spurt, or a family issue like a divorce, a move, or the arrival of a new baby. And you wouldn't think to make the connection between this behavior and the sugary cereal he had for breakfast.
Serotonin is a chemical that quiets the brain. It takes the edge off. It makes your child feel like the world is an okay place to be. It also enables her to put the brakes on emotions and behavior. Think of it as the brakes in her brain. If she has a sufficient level of serotonin in her brain, she stays out of trouble. If she doesn't, she can be impulsive, act without thinking, and talk without stopping. A child with low serotonin has a short fuse and talks back. She gets in your face, acts out, and can't control herself. She can get fixed on one subject, one issue, or one desire, and can't get off it. Or she can be depressed, overwhelmed, and unable to cope with stress.
Sugar sensitive children have lower levels of serotonin than other children. Sugar sensitive children who experience trauma or violence (even the violence of movies or video games) will have even lower serotonin and be more vulnerable to the symptoms I have described.
We can't measure exact serotonin levels in the brain, but once you understand the effects of low serotonin, you will begin to see patterns in your child's behavior. If she often manifests the behavior I have described, isn't it a whole lot more comforting to know it is because of imbalanced brain chemistry rather than her just being a bad girl? Or your being a bad parent? Isn't it a relief to know there is a solution that doesn't require expensive medication, psychotherapy, or boot camp? The plan in Little Sugar Addicts is designed to raise your child's serotonin levels by making changes in her diet.
The second brain chemical involved in sugar sensitivity is beta-endorphin. Beta-endorphin is the brain's own painkiller. It is there to protect us from big pain. When our ancestors had to run from a saber-toothed tiger, their brains flooded with beta-endorphin, which enabled them to keep running despite the pain in their lungs so they could get to safety. In modern times, most people experience that flood of beta-endorphin as a rush called runner's high.
Children who are not sugar sensitive have normal levels of beta-endorphin. They have tolerance for pain; they brush it off with a shake. But sugar sensitive children, who have low beta-endorphin, feel every hurt. They fear or hate the dentist, they cry when they scrape their knees, they cry if they find a dead bird, they cry if a friend hurts their feelings, they cry if you criticize them or even if you look at them the wrong way, they cry at everything, it seems. They are often labeled "sensitive" if they are girls or "sissies" if they are boys.
We have known about the pain-masking effect of beta-endorphin for a long time. But there is a second part of the beta-endorphin story that is even more amazing. Beta-endorphin levels are also associated with self-esteem. I learned this intriguing fact when I was reading the literature about heroin addicts. Since then, in my work with thousands and thousands of addicts and sugar sensitive people, I have become convinced that this is a crucial part of the story for all of us.
Children with high levels of beta-endorphin feel confident and able to cope with life. When they face hard things, they problem-solve and find solutions. Children with low beta-endorphin get stuck and feel helpless. They feel inadequate and unworthy, even if they are smart. Their feelings do not match the facts. Some of these children overcompensate in an effort to please. They try to be perfect. Others simply give up.
Until I discovered this link, I never imagined that self-esteem was biochemical. Like everyone else, I figured it was psychological. When I raised my own children, I was troubled that they often felt so inadequate. They were attractive, smart, and capable, but the reality didn't seem to matter. What was even more confusing was how their feelings could change. Sometimes they felt they could take on the world, other times they felt like they couldn't even tie their shoes. I often wondered what had I done wrong. It never, ever occurred to me that going for ice cream sundaes was biochemically causing their self-esteem to skyrocket right after the sundae and plummet a few hours later.
I first noticed this link between food and self-esteem in my own life. When I was growing up, I often felt the same way my children had. The inside feeling of inadequacy did not match the outside circumstances. There seemed to be no real reason I should feel so unworthy. After I changed the way I ate, my own self-esteem changed. How I felt on the inside matched the outside. I felt capable, and I was capable. And this feeling didn't suddenly go away one day only to reappear the next. I could count on it. I could count on myself.
My experience has now been mirrored in thousands of people who are talking online. Here is a note from Joanne who made a list of her "sugar feelings." Joanne is an adult and was able to articulate the profile pretty clearly. You will see these things in your sugar sensitive children even if they don't have words for them.
* feeling inadequate
* having low self-esteem
* feeling victimized
* taking things personally
* feeling that life is out of control
* feeling overwhelmed
* overreacting to criticism
* living in a "twilight zone"
There is not a sugar feeling listed here that I have not experienced. I no longer feel any of these feelings on a regular basis. I'm not saying that I no longer ever have a sugar feeling because I do when my food is off. So those are some of the "bad" feelings that I tried to live with before becoming steady on this program. How about the flip side?
* feeling confident
* loving oneself
* thinking responsively and reflectively
* being other-centered
* feeling mobilized and able to take action
* thinking clearly and being able to focus
* having hope
* feeling empowered
* staying on an even keel emotionally
Joanne has captured the essence of the change in beta-endorphin. We called untreated low beta-endorphin the "sugar feelings" phase. When I learned about the relationship of beta-endorphin to self-esteem, I was floored. I often tell the story of working on my Ph.D. research, sitting in the library, and reading a huge text on substance abuse. It must have weighed 20 pounds, and I was squinting to read the tiny text. When I came to a section that talked about the effect of heroin (a beta-endorphin drug) on self-esteem, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Literally. The text talked about heroin withdrawal and stated that there continued to be "feelings of decreased self-esteem up to 6 months after going off the drug." The implications of this sentence to me were tremendous. I had already learned that sugar activates beta-endorphin, just as heroin does. I made the connection between sugar and self-esteem. The text was suggesting that low self-esteem was a function of withdrawal. My own clinical experience told me that low self-esteem precedes drug use and is one of the primary factors in drug-seeking behavior. Reading that sentence was one of those moments I will remember forever. It literally changed the course of my life.
Excerpted from Little Sugar Addicts by Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D.. Copyright © 2004 by Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.