Yesterday I got to speak about “Sugar, Stress and the Spectrum” at the Autism South West conference. Specifically I was building on Dr. Luke Beardon’s excellent equation:
Autism + Environment = Outcome
to explain how internal stressors (internal environment,) such as high or erratic cortisol levels, change the outcome for any autistic person.
Let me explain. Now it’s pretty well known that being in a supermarket (an external environment stressor) is highly stressful for autistic people (maybe for you too, but definitely if you are autistic.) When somebody is stressed their adrenals ramp up production of the hormone cortisol which raises blood sugar levels in order to deal with threats. (If you have to run away from a lion – you need glucose in your bloodstream to fuel that race for your life.) But unfortunately your body doesn’t distinguish between real or perceived threats. It just acts without question.
What else happens when your cortisol is raised? Here’s one of my slides:
Now, think how difficult navigating a simple supermarket shop might be when your brain is affected like that… (This is why my shopping gets done online!) Imagine living in a world where a great deal of your environment causes the outcome of reduced abilities to remember, to regulate your mood and behaviour, to organise yourself and make good judgements?
Next in my talk we discussed how consuming excess carbohydrates quickly raises blood sugar levels, causing the body to employ insulin in order to reduce potentially dangerous levels. And then, because your body likes balance, it fires up our friend cortisol again, because low blood sugar is also a threat! The low blood sugar is an internal environment stressor.
As far as autistic anxiety is concerned: being hunted by a lion = going to the supermarket = low blood sugar!
Anyway, we covered some other useful stuff too but, in the interest of brevity, that’s probably enough for you to understand my shameful behaviour yesterday evening. Shameful because I am a nutrition and health coach. Please don’t judge…
So the conference was fab! Well organised and with brilliant key-note speeches (Sarah Hendrickx and Dean Beadle) that made me both laugh and cry. But, you know, a conference is still a difficult environment for an autistic to navigate. And so my cortisol levels were pretty high…
Now I knew I had a fridge full of delicious and nutritious organic veg and meat at home. I could have rustled something nourishing up in 30 minutes flat. But my memory and good judgement failed me and I demanded we stop off at tesco for ready made pizza (the shame.) And I looked at those huge, insipid, crappy pizzas and could not for the life of me work out how many we’d need and which types we, as a family, would like. My husband found me crying in the chilled aisle and took over. At which point I wandered off and filled the basket with packets of biscuits. I had acted out my own talk perfectly! My high cortisol response had perfectly reflected my slide’s bulletpoints! Oh the irony…
A few things:
- If you’d like me to come and talk about diet and autism please contact me here. (Rest assured that I will prepare my evening meal in advance for future talks.)
- I didn’t actually eat the biscuits. I was asleep soon after the pizza!
- I’m not really ashamed of my choices yesterday. I’ve learned not to blame myself in those situations and am taking care to rest my adrenals today.