Sugar, Part 2 – Blood sugar disorders explained
The human body was never made to run on carbohydrates. It needs a balance of healthy fats, proteins and unrefined carbohydrates. Did you know our body can make carbohydrate but it can’t make fats? Yet the modern diet emphasises eating carbohydrates, and too often empty refined ones.
In Sugar Part 1, I defined sugar as all forms of sweeteners and refined carbohydrates, emphasising that our bodies respond differently to certain sugars, especially fructose. In this post I discuss how eating too much sugar and refined carbohydrates can cause disease.
What is blood sugar?
Blood sugar, or glucose, is the main sugar found in our blood. The food we eat is how our body gets glucose to feed our brain and other organs, muscles and nervous system.
How blood sugar works
Blood sugar is a delicate balancing act. At first, our body pumps out the hormone insulin to break down and send sugar to our cells for energy. Hormones are messengers that tell our cells what to do.
When our blood sugar gets low between meals, it pumps out a hormone called glucagon, telling the liver to release stored glucose (glycogen) and create new glucose from amino acids in the blood. Both the hormones glucagon and insulin are put out by the pancreas.
Overeating sugar and refined carbs
When we eat sugar and refined carbohydrates too often, they disrupt our blood sugar. By this I mean they take our blood sugar levels out of a healthy or optimal range causing our body to react. Our blood sugar levels peak and then crash until, over time, they crash below healthy levels. This is called hypoglycaemia. This crash often causes us to seek out a quick source of energy, which is often more sugar or caffeine, and this is how we get caught in a vicious sugar-eating cycle.
The problem is that when our blood sugar crashes too low, glucagon alone isn’t enough to normalise our blood sugar level. Yet it’s critical our body has a source of energy to function, so it releases an emergency hormone, only this time from the adrenals. This hormone is called cortisol.
Cortisol immediately inhibits glucose storage into the liver, tells the liver to release stored glucose (glucagon), increases muscle protein breakdown for new glucose production, tells the liver to release stored glucose (glucagon) and increases fat breakdown and mobilisation from fat tissue. Sounds fine, you think.
Except that sufferers will soon develop unpleasant symptoms. This might include feeling irritable and/or light headed if a meal is missed (hangry), relying on coffee or nicotine to keep going, feeling fatigued, getting jittery or the shakes, having memory problems, experiencing fuzzy thinking and even blurred vision. Eventually, people with hypoglycemia may develop insomnia, depression, infertility, a slow metabolism, weight gain and other hormone issues.
After a while, when cortisol is no longer enough to raise our blood sugar quickly, our adrenals are forced to release the more powerful hormone epinephrine or adrenalin to rapidly raise blood glucose levels long enough for us to consume more sugar.
Over time, if we continue with our high sugar and refined carb eating habits, our pancreas, liver and adrenals become tired of this never-ending process of pumping out hormones in what the body perceives as blood sugar emergencies.
Eventually, the pancreas wears out, producing insufficient quantities or quality of insulin, the adrenals go into a state of exhaustion and the liver can have difficulty converting glycogen and proteins/fats into glucose. Our blood sugar peaks and troughs worsen until we become hyperglycemic.
Hyperglycaemia is where our blood sugar is too high. In addition we will likely suffer from hyperinsulinemia where our pancreas secretes too much insulin in a desperate attempt to get energy to our cells. Whereas before our blood sugar crashed to abnormally low levels, it now also peaks at abnormally high levels.
By this time we are also on our way to being insulin resistant. Insulin resistance is a serious conditions where the insulin receptor sites in our cells become unresponsive to the binding of insulin. They ignore the message that our hormones are trying to send and refuse to take in any more insulin. This is because our cells are full to the brim of glucose and simply can’t take any more in.
Signs of insulin resistance can include feeling tired, gaining weight easily while not being able to lose it, having joint problems, experiencing mood disorders, developing dark patches on the skin, having thyroid and fertility problems, being slow to heal, ageing prematurely, experiencing failing memory, and having high blood pressure and triglycerides (sugars that have been converted into fats). Not pleasant.
People with worsening insulin resistance now depend on sugar for energy because their cells can’t get it from food so they must get it in the form of readily available glucose. For this reason, they often crave sugar and refined carbs after a meal and their sugar need grows even more. Such people are pre-diabetic.
What happens to all that insulin? It continues to circulate in the blood stream in high levels, stimulating the formation of new fatty tissue called adipose fat. Some adipose fat is normal and healthy, but this kind of adipose tissue tends to settle around the organs and belly. This can be dangerous because it accelerates weight gain and causes high triglyceride levels or fat in the blood. Adipose fat drives the metabolism, and produces a large number of hormones and cytokines or inflammation, predisposing the body to a large number of diseases.
As mentioned above, high triglyceride blood levels are another sign of insulin resistance. Triglycerides are a type of fat found that have been stored as energy for later use. Later, hormones release them for energy between meals. High triglyceride levels indicate that the body’s system for turning food into energy isn't functioning properly.
Excess sugar also wreaks other damage. It can result in AGEs (advanced glycation end products), which are proteins damaged by sugar. This happens through a process called glycation, where sugar sticks to the proteins of the cell membrane affecting its ability to receive signals from insulin. Such proteins can no longer be used by the cells for structure or communication within the cell or between other cells. Eventually, these cells become cross-linked and turn hard. The surface of arteries, organ’s tissue, joints and cell membranes can all become hardened by glycated sugar‐proteins and the health implications are far reaching.
Type 2 diabetes & metabolic syndrome
Finally if we don’t change our eating habits, we may develop Type 2 diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome.
Diabetes is catastrophic insulin failure, either because the body cannot utilise, or later make, this hormone. It’s a very serious condition that has a significant impact on quality of life and can reduce life expectancy. Abnormal blood sugar regulation is believed to precede Type 2 diabetes by at least 20 years. While insulin injections push excess blood sugar into the cells, some doctors such as Dr Mercola believe this therapy may do more harm than good.
Metabolic Syndrome is a cluster of at least 3 symptoms of high blood sugar, raised blood pressure, excess body fat around the waist and low HDL cholesterol or triglyceride levels, which puts people at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
Type 3 or brain diabetes?
One more point on glycation and AGEs. They injure the cell membranes of neurons (nerve cells) creating neuro-inflammation. Studies show that diabetics have 4 times the rate of Alzheimer's Disease, pre-diabetics have 3 times the rate and compromised blood sugar sufferers 2 times the rate. The inability of Alzheimer's and dementia patients to utilise glucose is a key factor in this disease, and as a result some doctors describe these conditions as Type 3 or brain diabetes.
resolving blood sugar issues naturally with Nutritional Therapy
In my nutritional therapy practice, most people I see have some degree of blood sugar dysfunction, even among those who believe they eat well (and compared to many, actually do). Unfortunately, our perception of what a healthy diet is has become distorted with the normalisation of processed food. Also. blood sugar issues can be complex and are often tied to caffeine consumption and stress.
Yet once people make simple and strategic changes to their diet along with possible supplemental support, they always respond quickly. This is something I guide people to do at a rate that best suits them and their lifestyle. While losing their symptoms of sugar dependence, they also find a host of other health issues begin to diminish such as hormonal and digestive problems.
Blood sugar normalisation is one of the 5 health foundations I balance along with digestion, minerals, dietary fats and hydration. Once brought into balance, the consequences of these imbalances such as compromised immunity, hormone problems, vitamin shortages and adrenal problems begin to heal.
In Sugar Part 3, I will discuss in more detail the symptoms and impacts of blood sugar disorders.
In Sugar Part 4, I will outline practical ways to give up sugar and refined carbs.