Have you ever found yourself concentrating on a presentation at work for a long period of time and then suddenly you are eating chocolate after chocolate or heading out to smoke a cigarette? Ever wondered why it is so hard to keep yourself under control after a few drinks? Ever gone through a lot of stress and then snapped at your spouse at the end of the day? These behaviors seem very different but they all have a common link. They are failures in self-regulation.
We often do things that take attention, concentration, and mental effort. When we do these things we eat up some of the mental resources that we use to keep ourselves from doing enticing but harmful things. This requires us to self-regulate. A lot of research has shown that greater amounts of mental effort led to all sorts of self-regulation failures. In a relationship that means that when you are tired, stressed, or distracted you are more likely to snap at your partner, or say something that you didn’t mean. This can lead to conflict……or worse.
In a paper by Matthew Gailliot and Roy Baumeister this line of research was taken in a fascinating new direction. They argue that levels of blood glucose are the key to self-regulation and willpower. They show that glucose is the main food for your brain, which uses a huge chunk of the daily energy our bodies need (about 20%). Mental effort can use up glucose quickly and lessen our ability to self-regulate. So after a hard exam or long meeting our glucose levels are lower and we are suddenly stuffing our faces. They link low glucose levels to a huge number of behaviors; overeating, controlling our attention, regulating our emotions, crime, aggression, violence, socially unacceptable behavior, and smoking. One of the most fascinating ideas is that drinking alcohol reduces your glucose metabolism. So the reason people do crazy things when they drink may be because of lower levels of blood glucose.
What can you do to keep your glucose levels from dipping to low? Well eating breakfast is one of the most important. When you wake up in the morning your blood glucose levels are at their lowest and in need of replenishment. Eat the right things during the day (low carbs, high protein). And make sure to do demanding tasks in the morning or early afternoon rather than in the evening (when your glucose levels are naturally the lowest). Oh yes, and don’t think a candy bar will give you a surge of attention, once you have enough glucose in your system more won’t increase your willpower.
This has some big potential implications for your relationship. You need to be extra careful when you are tired, distracted, or hungry. Remember the old saying, “Never go to sleep angry”. Well this work argues that you would be much better off going to sleep angry and working out your differences when you are well rested and full. If not, the fight might get a whole lot worse than you expect. If you can remember to call a time out, get some food, and a bit of rest, you just might avoid a big fight.
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Gailliot, M., & Baumeister, R. (2007). The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11 (4), 303-327 DOI: 10.1177/1088868307303030
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