Today, it is said that the average American consumes 32 teaspoons of sugar per day, and the average Canadian consumes 26 teaspoons of sugar per day. (1) That’s just over half a cup. Stop and think about that for a minute.
Sugar is added to coffee and tea, baked into pastries, cakes and cookies, and sprinkled over breakfast cereal for added “flavor.” It’s even hidden in dressings, sauces, soups, bread, pasta and grain products. A little sugar here and a little sugar there can quickly become 32 teaspoons. This is highly problematic as sugar is said to be eight times more addictive than cocaine and has serious implications for our health.
Elevated blood sugar levels can cause insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular diseases, cognitive decline, pancreatic cancer and type 2 diabetes. In order to survive, our bodies try to naturally maintain a balance (or homeostasis) of blood glucose levels. As a result, a person who has stable blood sugar levels should not experience a surge of energy right after consuming a meal, nor a drop in energy as these are respectively indicative of reactive hypoglycemia and insulin resistance issues.
However, when overloaded with more sugar than can be metabolized, homeostasis is difficult to maintain. Those with healthy blood sugar levels can handle spikes and keep themselves in homeostasis.
Those unable to keep blood sugar levels balanced likely suffer from either hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or hyperglycemia (high blood sugar).
Are All Sugars Unhealthy?
There are many different types of sugar, some of which are more dangerous than others:
- Glucose refers to the “simple” sugars found in all foods that contain carbohydrates. Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose to use for immediate energy, while the excess is stored in the form of glycogen in the muscles or fat.
- Fructose is another simple sugar. It’s commonly referred to as fruit sugar because it’s mostly found in fruits. Honey is also considered a fructose.
- Sucrose typically combines glucose and fructose to become a “complex” sugar. Examples of this include white and brown sugars. Processed sugars, or refined sugars, come from sugarcanes or sugar beets that are processed to extract the sugar.
- High-fructose corn syrup is a chemically produced sugar that’s cheaper than regular sugar and is found in many processed foods. Are these sugars healthy? Glucose and fructose, in their natural states, are quite safe—to a certain extent.
However, those trying to lose weight or who have blood sugar issues should limit their fruit and simple carbohydrate consumption. Furthermore, we also have to be wary of refined and chemically produced sugars as they can wreak havoc on our health. Consuming too much of them can truly contribute to the health problems discussed earlier in this chapter.
What About Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners like Splenda, NutraSweet, Sweet ’N’ Low, Saccharin, Sorbitol or Sucralose should also be avoided. Though they might not have the same effects as sugar consumption, they come with a whole new set of health problems—health problems, dare I say, that are even worse than what sugar or high fructose corn syrup can do!
They have been shown to increase the very things that they are said to help prevent: obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They are also known as neurotoxins and have been shown to contribute to gut dysbiosis and interfere with metabolic functions. (2)
Sugar and Insulin Resistance
The constant roller coaster of spikes and dips in blood sugar produces what we call AGES—Advanced Glycation End Products. They are one of the causes of cellular oxidation and inflammation and can lead to insulin resistance if not attended to. A good analogy to better illustrate the effects of glycation on the cells is to think of how rust forms on a car. Similarly, AGES “rust” the cell.
The overconsumption of carbohydrates and refined sugars has led to an increase in diabetes, heart conditions, cancers and many other lifestyle-related illnesses. Thus, when striving for health, energy and vitality, it’s important to understand blood sugar and its effect on our overall well-being.
The hormone insulin is a key player in the regulation of blood sugar. Insulin’s job is to stimulate the uptake of glucose into the cells and promote the production of glycogen.
Glycogen is a source of stored glucose in the cells—mostly the liver and muscles. Insulin also promotes the formation of lipids, triglycerides and proteins. When the system is functioning optimally, the body can easily convert glucose into energy. In other words, it is insulin sensitive, which is the case in healthy, active people. The opposite of this is insulin resistance. Individuals who are overweight and tend to make poor lifestyle choices can develop a resistance to insulin. Insulin resistance occurs when the amount of insulin secreted is not enough to move glucose into cells. This means the body must produce more insulin to metabolize the amount of sugar it’s presented with, resulting in chronically high insulin levels. Insulin resistance puts a strain on the pancreas, which can negatively impact your waistline, energy, mood and overall health. It can also
result in the development of type 2 diabetes. Another common issue that comes along with insulin resistance is its ability to inhibit the conversion of the thyroid hormone T4 to T3, so many diabetics or individuals with insulin resistance will often end up with thyroid issues.
What are the symptoms of insulin resistance? Well, to start, constant cravings for sweets or caffeine show that the body is going through spikes and drops of blood sugar, and is looking for something to regain energy. This can cause fatigue, poor concentration, irritability, and other symptoms such as:
- greater appetite
- weight gain
- heart palpitations
- puffiness in the skin
- water retention
Insulin also plays a key role in the body’s ability to burn fat. When insulin and blood sugar levels are too high, the body is unable to burn fat and stores fat into cells. This is why so many people struggle with losing weight. Many start the day with a high-carb breakfast (e.g. toast, bagels, pancakes, cereals), which is problematic as carbohydrates turn into sugar. High-carb breakfasts spike your insulin levels and can cause us to crash by mid-morning.
What do we tend to reach for when crashing? Something sugary like a muffin or a chocolate granola bar, which perpetuates the cycle and keeps us in fat-building mode. The cycle also suppresses the body’s ability to turn fat into energy, causing people to feel lethargic and experience more mood swings. The less active people are and the more sugars they consume, the less energy they have to complete their daily activities, and the more they pack on pounds. It’s a very vicious cycle in which many people are trapped.
When we eat right and exercise, insulin is our friend. It helps us build muscle, regulate our blood sugar levels and absorb energy. It’s the poor choices we make that turn insulin into a bad guy. Too many refined sugars, carbohydrates and processed foods, not enough sleep, and high-stress levels all contribute to poor insulin regulation. The harsh reality is that the body was never designed to handle the carbs and sugar than the average person consumes. If we want insulin to work in our favour, we need to make healthier choices.
For years, the primary cause of Alzheimer’s disease was unknown. But a growing body of research suggests there’s a powerful connection between your diet and your risk of both Alzheimer’s disease and glaucoma—a condition that causes damage to your eye’s optic nerve. Alzheimer’s disease is now being called “type-3 diabetes” by some experts.
Why this connection? Researchers have learned that the pancreas is not the only organ that produces insulin—the brain does as well. And “this brain insulin is necessary for the survival of your brain cells.”(3)
Insulin helps with neuronal glucose uptake and the regulation of neurotransmitters, like acetylcholine, which is crucial for memory and learning. This is why reducing the level of insulin in your brain impairs your cognition. Other research shows that type-2 diabetics lose more brain volume with age than expected, particularly gray matter. This kind of brain atrophy is yet another contributing factor for dementia.
“Brain diabetes” may also be responsible for glaucoma, according to recent research. Fluctuations in insulin production in your brain may contribute to the degeneration of your brain cells, and studies have found that people with lower levels of insulin and insulin receptors in their brain often develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Sleep, Stress and Sugar
Sleep plays a major role in controlling satiety, appetite and even insulin levels. It also affects ghrelin, which is known as the hunger hormone. Studies show that sleeping less than seven hours per night can significantly increase ghrelin levels, causing cravings and an increased appetite. The less you sleep, the higher the secretion of ghrelin and the greater the chance of gaining weight.
Another shocking fact is that the more fat cells you have, the more the body produces ghrelin. Due to this, individuals who are overweight are more likely to feel hungry even when full, and this results in eating more and storing more fat. To get out of this cycle, it’s important to get at least seven to eight hours of undisturbed sleep per night. This helps the body rejuvenate and regulate its hormones, so that ghrelin isn’t overproduced.
Stress also affects blood sugar control. In stressful situations, our adrenal glands secrete cortisol, which when partnered with adrenaline creates that “fight-or-flight” response.
Cortisol’s main function is to raise blood sugar levels by converting glycogen from your muscles back into sugar for immediate energy. This provides you with fuel for sudden and unexpected situations, like running away from a harmful situation. As our blood sugar increases in response to our cortisol levels, our insulin levels also rise. Our body was designed to handle short bursts of stress. Unfortunately, in this day and age, many people are chronically stressed, which is something our body wasn’t designed for.
Chronic stress keeps our cortisol and insulin levels elevated, which is the perfect recipe for weight gain. New research has also shown that there is a connection between insulin dysfunction and mood disturbances such as depression. According to the research, blood sugar irregularities can take a toll on the human brain and neurotransmitter function. (4)
Metabolic Risk Factors
As if all this was not enough, the combination of these lifestyle stressors can eventually lead to an overarching condition known as metabolic syndrome. The five conditions described below are metabolic risk factors. You can have any one of these risk factors by itself, but they tend to occur together. In order to be officially diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, you must have at least three of the metabolic risk factors. (5)
A large waistline—This also is called abdominal obesity or “having an apple shape.” Excess fat in the abdominal area causes a greater risk factor for heart disease than excess fat in other parts of the body.
A high triglyceride level—Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood, and, when they are too high, chances for heart disease and stroke are increased. Triglycerides can be increased due to a diet high in refined carbs, sugars and unhealthy trans fats.
A low HDL cholesterol level—HDL sometimes is called “good” cholesterol. This is because it helps remove cholesterol from your arteries. A low HDL cholesterol level raises your risk for heart disease.
High blood pressure—Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps blood. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage your heart and lead to plaque buildup.
High fasting blood sugar—Even mildly high blood sugar may be an early sign of prediabetes. Tests such as the fasted serum glucose test can help identify if blood sugar is abnormally high so that the necessary precautions can be taken to prevent it from becoming higher.
Testing For Blood Sugar
When testing, blood sugar levels are not the only thing to be measured; you should measure insulin levels and hemoglobin A1c (which is a measure of glycation), as well. Other tests should include measuring High Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein, which is a good marker for inflammation. It can also be important to test levels of cytokines, interleukins and TNF-alpha since they are inflammatory markers as well. Other markers like ferritin levels, fibrinogen activity and homocysteine can also be tested to indicate inflammation or oxidative stress response.
How to Kick The Sugar Addiction
Reading about the effects of sugar and stress is enough to make someone stressed. But don’t be too discouraged. There are solutions. There might not be a magic pill, but eating a proper diet and exercising daily is the only magic you need! Eating right and moving your body is the best treatment for restoring the body’s ability to respond to insulin.
When trying to kick your sugar addiction, keep these tips in mind:
Address Hypoglycemia—Hypoglycemic people are often not hungry in the morning and sometimes are even nauseated. It is suggested that they should try their best to eat, even a small amount. They should start with small bites to engage their parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system and gradually finish their meals. After 2 or 3 days of stabilizing their blood glucose, they will take themselves out of sympathetic (fight-or-flight) overdrive, and will no longer wake up with nausea or loss of appetite.
Eat Healthy Fats—Increase your consumption of healthy fats, such as omega-3, saturated and monounsaturated fats. Your body needs health-promoting fats from animal and vegetable sources for optimal functioning. Some of the best sources include organic butter from raw milk, (unheated) virgin olive oil, coconut oil, raw nuts like walnuts and macadamias, free-range eggs, avocado and wild sockeye salmon.
Substitute Artificial Sugars—Natural sugars do not spike the blood glucose level as much as refined sugars. They also provide some nutrients and minerals the body can use. Reach for things like raw honey or maple syrup. Stay away from artificial sugars.
Exercise—Craving something sweet? Exercise. Exercising replaces the “sugar rush” with an endorphin rush and gives your body the energy boost it’s looking for.
Don’t smoke—Smoking contributes to insulin resistance. Quitting is recommended to keep the sugar levels under control, as well as to improve your overall health.
Monitor Your Sugar Levels—Consider buying a blood glucose monitor to measure your blood sugar levels. A glucose meter or monitor can be a little pricey, but a worthy investment. There are two types of monitors to consider. The first is a standard glucose meter: this requires a finger blood sample that is placed on a test strip and then inserted into the glucose meter. The second one is a continuous glucose monitor: this is non-invasive and does not require finger pricks (or sticks). It uses a sensor that is placed directly on your skin.
Use Herbs and Spices—Cinnamon not only has a sweet taste to it but is actually good for helping to balance your blood sugar levels. You can also use fenugreek, bitter melon, or bilberry as they too have been shown to impact blood sugar levels.
Use Nutraceutical Support—There are many nutraceutical supplements that can help with insulin resistance support and should be considered once diet and lifestyle have been addressed. The top ones for insulin resistance support are resveratrol, berberine, short-chain fatty acids, glutathione, Gymnema Sylvestre, fibre supplementation, adrenal support and general B vitamins and mineral supplement. I personally use and love the Design for Health professional-grade supplements, as they exceed industry standards for quality. I like the ease in which you can select the supplements that are right for you and it will be delivered directly to your mailbox. I’ve preselected the supplements I recommend to help support blood glucose levels. Have a look HERE.
Many people are surprised by how high their blood sugars actually are. Measuring your levels can help gauge where you are at and how much sugar needs to be cut out of your diet.
Maintaining a normal and stable blood glucose level is key when it comes to weight management and improving your overall health. Ultimately, too much sugar leads to inflammation, and inflammation leads to chronic diseases. The choice is yours.
- Walton, A. G. (2012, August 30). How Much Sugar Are Americans Eating? [Infographic]. Retrieved March 02, 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2012/08/30/how-much-sugar-are-americans-eating-infographic/#66c51b384ee7
- The 5 Worst Artificial Sweeteners. (2015, July 01). Retrieved March 02, 2017, from https://draxe.com/artificial-sweeteners/
- Monte, S. M., & Wands, J. R. (2008, November). Alzheimer’s Disease Is Type 3 Diabetes–Evidence Reviewed. Retrieved September 10, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2769828/
- Kodl, C. T., & Seaquist, E. R. (2008, June). Cognitive Dysfunction and Diabetes Mellitus. Retrieved September 10, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2528851/
- What Is Metabolic Syndrome? (2016, June 22). Retrieved September 10, 2017, from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/ms
- Kharrazian Institute, Diabetes and Dysglycemia Clinical Strategies and Treatment Applications Course.