Let’s imagine I set two piles of money in front of you. One pile has $120 in it. If you want it, you can have it tomorrow. The other has $450 in it. You can have that pile instead, but you have to wait a month for it. Which would you choose?
If the answer seems obvious—the $450 is a better deal—it’s probably because you’ve just eaten a meal or had a nice snack. Strange, but true.
Researchers at The University of South Dakota found exactly this when they tested the blood sugar levels of 65 healthy college students after drinking soda. After controlling for different variables, they learned you’re more likely to exercise strong willpower and make smart decisions when your blood sugar isn’t low.
I can relate. I was struggling to get myself to sit down and write this very article before I realized I’d just exercised (that lowers your blood sugar), and had eaten very little for breakfast. I kept getting up to do chores or check my email and Facebook.
When I realized what was happening, I went to the pantry, got a spoonful of honey, and sat right down to work.
If you’ve ever failed at a diet, struggled to keep yourself on task, or been disappointed with yourself for not following through with something important to you, there’s an important lesson here.
The Secret: Low Blood Sugar = Low Willpower
My fiancé, Jess, works for a small non-profit, and each year they hold an event to raise money to fund their operations for the next year.
This year, they did a luncheon at a hotel with a few riveting speakers and big names who urged the donors to dig deep so the organization could keep doing its important work. And the audience was full of philanthropic people—folks who hold charity and generosity in high regard. The event was a success—lots of money was raised—but when the final count was in, they were short of the fundraising goal.
At home, we chatted about what happened, and what might not have gone according to plan. One of Jess’ biggest complaints was the meal that was served by the hotel was smaller than what she’d seen at their sample tasting. She was worried donors might have left still hungry.
After reading up on blood sugar and its connection to willpower, I think it’s a valid concern. Another study in 2006 found people with a full belly pulled out their wallets for charity much more often than those with an empty one. And I vividly remember once walking past a homeless woman asking for change before going into a restaurant to eat dinner. When I left, she was still there and I—filled with guilt—went back in and ordered her some food.
Turns out, the desire for money (or other ideals you hold), at the end of the day, comes down to a desire for food. When you’re full, and your blood sugar is stable, you can stop worrying about immediate concerns and think more about the future—or even other people’s futures.
This also explains why us Americans, crazed about the latest fad diets, also can’t stick to them. If you’re trying to lose weight, restricting calories might be the worst thing you can do. As you take in less and less food, your blood sugar drops further and further. Once it’s too low, you can forget about making smart decisions for your future—you’ll scarf down almost anything.
When your stomach is full, you can afford to think long-term. When it isn’t, you have to think about making it full again. That permeates to other parts of your life and you start to think short-term about them, too.
How to Spot Low Blood Sugar
How do you know when you’re low? Technically, it’s when your blood glucose level drops below 70mg/dL. But, when you’re scrolling through Facebook wishing you were working on a massive task due tomorrow, you’re probably not going to self-perform a blood test!
Fear not. There are a few easy ways to tell when your blood sugar is low and you’re on the brink of making poor decisions:
- Extreme hunger. This, of course, is the obvious sign. If you’re hungry, eat something, dammit! Know you’re going to face a situation that will test your willpower soon? Don’t do it on an empty stomach. When you’re full, you’ll be thinking of the future, happy you instead of the present, hungry you.
- Sweating. If your blood sugar is low, you’ll almost certainly be sweating. A quick check is to wiper your finger across the back of your neck at the hairline. This alone won’t tell you you’re low, but if it pairs with other symptoms, it’s a strong sign.
- Nervousness/anxiety. If you’ve ever felt nervous and/or anxious for no clear reason, you might have experienced low blood sugar. Try eating something to see if it goes away.
- Headache. When the glucose in your body dips too low, you can often experience headaches. If you bring your blood sugar up and the headache goes away, that’s probably what you were experiencing.
How to Raise Your Blood Sugar
If your blood sugar is low and you have important work to do, you can probably forget about having much success concentrating on it. You need to get your body back in check for the best results. Turns out, that’s surprisingly easy to do.
When I’m having a hard time concentrating and getting frustrated with myself (thanks to low blood sugar), I can fix the problem almost instantly with just a spoonful of honey. The simple carbohydrates are quickly absorbed into my bloodstream. It gets me right back on track, and holds me over until my next meal.
As a bonus, it keeps me from becoming hangry, which can result in the desire to karate chop my desk in half, leading to expensive hospital bills.
Honey isn’t the only thing that will do the trick, though. Any small snack with a high glucose content will work. That means most fruits, fruit juices, or even a simple glucose tablet.
Do This In The Next 10 Minutes
Get some glucose in your stomach, and be amazed by your new-found focus.
I used a simple teaspoon of honey to keep myself focused writing this article, but that’s only the beginning of what a little shot glucose can do to make your day better.
Sticking to my publishing schedule is the best way I know to keep myself happy with my work and moving toward the future I know I want. Staying on top of this small task is like lining up the dominoes to fall exactly how I want them to.
What do you struggle with on a daily basis despite knowing how important it is to you? Your health? Your work? Your family? Other big plans?
If there’s an important decision in front of you—even a small one—that could change your future, but you just can’t seem to get yourself to make the right call, try a teaspoon of honey, wait a few minutes, and try again.
Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor.
Sweet Future: Fluctuating Blood Glucose Levels Affect Future Discounting
Low blood sugar? You may opt for instant gratification
Symptoms of Low Blood Sugar
Treating Low Blood Sugar