Caffeine, Sugar & The Inevitable Crash

After a particularly rough night of wake ups, feedings and crack-of-dawn play time, I find myself craving a stack of peanut butter cookies dunked in a vat of coffee. During afternoon nap time, when my eyes are drifting shut but I know there’s laundry to be done, I reach for a can of Coke or a handful of chocolate chips. There’s just something about the combination of sugar and caffeine that makes a sleep-deprived mama feel good.

DSC00621But what if I told you that grabbing that third cup of coffee or eating that leftover brownie for lunch could do more harm than good?

Caffeine is any parent’s best friend. As a nursing mom, its best to stick to about 300mg of caffeine throughout the day (roughly a 16oz cup of coffee). Studies show that less than 1% of your caffeine intake winds up in breast milk, and after 3 months of age, it becomes easier for baby to break down caffeine. You might have a sensitive kiddo though, so if you’re noticing an effect, you might need to cut down.

When you down that cup of coffee, or swig your iced tea straight from the bottle, the energy-boosting effects are felt most strongly for the first hour. Caffeine stimulates your body to produce more dopamine and adrenaline – the feel-good and wake-up hormones. However, when the dopamine and adrenaline begin to drop again, you start to crash. You’re sleepier than before, and your mood plummets.

This is where sugar comes in. Its two o’clock in the afternoon, you’ve got a few hours before dinner, and your energy is fading. That caffeine boost is fading fast, and while you’d love to sit down and close your eyes, there’s a to-do list staring at you. So you grab a cookie, or a cupcake; hell, even a muffin would do it at this point. And as you’re eating, you’re feeling good. Eating refined carbohydrates (sugar, white flour, etc) rapidly raises your blood sugar. You get a rush of energy, a surge of enjoyment, and for a moment, everything is right in the world. Then, just like earlier, you crash.

A sugar crash is the result of your blood sugar levels doing some crazy things. When you consume sugar, your blood sugar spikes (obviously). Then your pancreas gets going and pumps out a bunch of insulin to cope with this sugar. The sugar is then rapidly processed by your body (hellooo, energy!). Finally, as all of this sugar is used up, your blood sugar crashes, giving you that telltale fatigue, irritability and craving for something else to perk you up.

If you’re anything like me, this turns into a vicious cycle. Caffeine, crash. Sugar, crash. More caffeine to deal with the sugar crash. More sugar to deal with the caffeine crash. Heck, just grab a can of Coke and funnel in sugar and caffeine at the same time. And, when you’re cruising through your day, this solution works…at least for the time being.

But all of these ups-and-downs are causing problems for your body. The constant swings in emotion, energy levels and blood sugar slow down your metabolism and make you feel sluggish and irritable. I’m going to propose that you try something a little different next time you want to reach for the cookies.

You’re laughing, I’m sure, because if you’ve taken a look at my blog, you realize that the recipes I publish are usually full of sugar, white flour and butter. Four cupcakes chased with a pot of coffee is my ideal pick-me-up.

When you’re running on four hours of sleep (not consecutively), stuffing Oreos in your mouth while the kids are distracted makes you feel better. But I promise you, if you take an additional thirty seconds to grab a complex carb and some protein, or chase that cup of coffee with a glass or two of water, you’ll have more energy for longer (and less swings in the mean time).

Complex carbohydrates still provide the blood sugar increase that you’re looking for, but not as dramatically. Because your body takes longer to break down these carbs, the energy is released more slowly, sustaining your boost for more time. Protein does the same; it gives your body the necessary fuel to keep going, without the telltale crash and burn after an hour or so.

So the next time you’re exhausted and looking for a pick-me-up, try one of these snacks instead. You’ll feel much better in the long run…and since it’s a healthy choice, you won’t have to hide from the kids while you stuff your face.

1 tbsp natural peanut butter + a handful of whole grain crackers
1/4 cup almonds and an apple
2 slices deli turkey wrapped with cheddar cheese and apple slices
1/2 cup greek yogurt and 1 cup strawberries
1 small flour tortilla and 1/4 cup refried beans with salsa

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