Understanding Blood Sugar Control (pt. 1)
Blood sugar could be said to be the most important marker of health there is. However, all along, cholesterol has received all the bad reputation for causing heart disease. Ironically, sugar and foods that turn quickly into sugar in the body are the main cause of elevated cholesterol. What is more, fructose, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and carbohydrates are among the deadliest of poisons, they all cause a stress reaction in the body. They can be even more deadly than unhealthy fats. In what follows we will see how sugar can create havoc in our health. What is behind the sweet poison that nobody seems to be scared about? It seems a lot more than we have been told.
For most people the addiction starts in the early years. It looks like it is a good thing to give kids sweets just because of the fact that they are kids. What is more, everybody celebrates with food and sweets, it is the thing to do, and if you don’t partake of the sweet poison, you will be left out of many social gatherings. How many sugar-free social gatherings can you think of?
With today’s technology it has become possible to extract sugar from plants so efficiently that we are all eating much more sugar than our liver can handle. According to pharmacist Ben Fuchs, “The average American is ingesting around 60 pounds of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and 140 pounds of sucrose every year. When you do the math, we’re looking over two pounds of fructose a week, per person, per year. And that doesn’t include the amount people are getting from fruit and honey and other sources. That’s a lot of fructose for a body that is equipped to handle the sweet stuff in only the smallest of quantities”.
Fructose vs. Sucrose
Both High Fructose Corn Syrup and sucrose have been the target of a marketing war which has brought a lot of confusion. On the one hand we have HFCS which is argued to not raise blood glucose and has a low glycemic response of 20. On the other hand we have sucrose which is converted into blood glucose quickly in the body and has a glycemic response in the GI tract of 100. According to the authors of the book “Sugar Shock” Dr. Stephen Sinatra and Connie Bennett, the reason behind this purposeful confusion is money: sugar costs 30 cents a pound while HFCS is 10 cents a pound, therefore is cheaper to put in many products. The truth of the matter is that fructose can raise cholesterol and lead to heart disease. Fructose can also increase the risk of metabolic syndrome due to its ability to increase uric acid, which decreases the levels of nitric acid.
The term fructose in High Fructose Corn Syrup can be misleading. Despite the fact that HFCS is extracted from corn, ‘fructose’ implies it comes from fruits. HFCS is a man- made fructose that is not the same as fructose from fruits, it doesn’t exist in nature but it’s chemically refined to form an artificial hydrocarbon. It is refined in such a way that the body does not recognize it. Sugar (sucrose or ordinary table sugar) on the other hand is extracted from sugar cane or beets. Furthermore, HFCS is 55% fructose and 45% glucose, sucrose is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. This implies they are both metabolized the same by the body, however, this is not the case: fructose goes directly to the liver where it is more prone than sugar (sucrose) to being metabolized and converted into fat and raise triglyceride levels for many hours after. Sugar (sucrose) on the contrary is recognized by the body and converted into blood glucose.
So, what’s the problem with fructose?
According to pharmacist Ben Fuchs, High Fructose Corn Syrup affects every system of the body. HFCS he explains is ‘especially problematic for the digestive system in general and specifically for the liver. Proof of this is the alarming incidences of fatty liver disease (now considered a normal part of aging) and pervasive intestinal illnesses”. Do you experience symptoms like gas, bloating and loose stools, or any other digestive problems after eating and drinking fruits, fruit juices and HFCS containing foods? The problems associated with HFCS are worse with liquid or powdered fructose because they are more quickly absorbed into the blood. Even more alarming is how this substance affects children. ‘Little kids are major victims because of the vast variety of fructose-containing processed foods that target them’. He explains how mothers like to give apple juice in a bottle or pacifier to put their babies to sleep without realizing they might be harming them greatly. According to him “when a baby cries for his apple juice he’s going through withdrawal symptoms that are just as severe as those associated with opium” He further explains “There is a well-researched link between the sweet taste and so-called “opioid” receptors in the brain. These receptors are called “opioids” because they respond to opium. In other words, sugar and opium (think heroin) both “turn on” the same chemical systems in the brain. Which means, sugar is essentially brain heroin and when a baby (or adult) goes without it he screams because he’s withdrawing! That’s one of the main reasons it’s so hard to get off of sugar. It’s a withdrawal stress on an already stressed out body system. In a way, ingestion of fructose and the associated problems are better than adding another stress in the form of withdrawal.”
Another side effect of HFCS consumption, according to Ben Fuchs, is that it blocks the very important mood enhancing amino-acid tryptophan. “What happens is that HFCS makes tryptophan unavailable to the brain and this is bad news. Tryptophan is really important for mood and wellbeing and gets turned into melatonin and serotonin, the two most important chemicals in the brain. You can think of tryptophan as natural Prozac and for many people fructose will be blocking it from access to the brain. What is more, the brain has an appetite area, that initiates hunger sensations and a satisfaction area that shuts these sensations down. It uses tryptophan to determine which center will be activated. All day long it is scanning the blood for this important amino acid. When tryptophan levels rise, activity in the satisfaction center is turned on and hunger ceases. Low tryptophan levels on the other hand stimulate brain activity in the appetite or hunger center. If fructose is complexing with tryptophan, preventing it from getting into the brain it will take ingestion of a lot of tryptophan for the brain to activate satisfaction centers vs. the ‘go get us a Coke or some other kind of sugar’ center.”
Sugar and heart disease
Dr. Stephen Sinatra, a board-certified cardiologist, certified nutrition specialist and antiaging specialist claims there are ‘far more significant and devastating causes of coronary artery disease than cholesterol and too much sugar and high blood sugar are at the top of the list’. Consuming too many sweets and refined carbohydrates, he says, can clog your arteries even more than cholesterol and give you heart disease faster than cholesterol.
Dr. Sinatra has observed that people on a high sugar diet age faster. He recalls one instance during his training years at medical school when they were asked to identify a disease shown on a X-ray showing a calcified femoral artery that looked like that of a 60-year old person. It turned out to be the X-ray of a 40-year old diabetic woman.
Dr. Sinatra is very familiar with diabetes, he watched his mother die from it while suffering from cardiac arrhythmias, severe osteoporosis and bone fractures and blindness. For years he would watch doctors being unable to help her while advising a diet high in refined carbohydrates was ‘ok’. That was what inspired him to become a doctor later in life. He himself suffered from diabetes until he became a young cardiologist and he started seeing the evil side of sugar. He mentions how heartbreaking was to work with the elderly diabetics’ hearts, it was then that he realized that it was sugar that was the evil one, not cholesterol. He explains sugar shortens our cells’ life force. What causes silent inflammation? Insulin he says, what releases insulin? Sugar.
This is how it happens: when you eat sugar or refined carbohydrates, your body converts them into glucose, when this enters the blood stream, your pancreas releases the hormone insulin also called ‘master hormone’ or ‘fat storage hormone’. Insulin’s role is pivotal. Insulin helps convert the excess glucose into glycogen for energy storage in liver and muscles, while the un-metabolized calories are stored as fat. This regulates your body’s blood sugar levels by moving the excess glucose out of your bloodstream into your cells, thus lowering your blood sugar and making glucose available to fuel your body’s functions and activities of daily life. Both the insulin and glucose then travel directly into your liver where insulin tells the liver’s cells to open up their doors and let the sugar in. Once inside the liver’s cells, glucose can be processed through four different pathways:
- Some sugar is used for immediate energy.
- Other is stored in the form of glycogen in the liver and muscle for later use.
Excess sugar is turned into two forms of fats:
Both of which lead to diabetes and heart disease. This means the more sugar, the more insulin the body has to produce which means more inflammation. Excess insulin is the number one cause of hardening of the arteries Dr. Sinatra explains.
Furthermore, when blood sugar is cleared from the circulating blood by the action of insulin this triggers signals of hunger. Since sugar is cleared out pretty quickly in the body, this means you are going to be hungry over and over after eating sugar! This also leaves you with lower than normal blood sugar levels, a very stressing condition known as hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia will make you hungry, anxious, depressed, bad tempered, etc. making you so unstable that you will be more vulnerable to stressful situations, it will lower your immune system and health overall making you crave carbs over and over again.
Insulin is not the only hormone released after eating sugar, glucagon is another hormone released by your hardworking pancreas. Glucagon starts working when your blood sugar drops below normal, it stimulates the breakdown of glycogen (the storage form of glucose) so glucose can be ready for the body to use. This protects you from the dangerous effects of hypoglycemia. Glucagon also promotes the mobilization of previously stored fat. Both insulin and glucagon work together in an intricate and precise way known as ‘homeostasis’: insulin puts your sugar into storage as fat, glucagon takes it out by signaling the cells to get sugar and fat out so it can be used as energy. However, if insulin is out of balance because you eat too many carbs, glucagon will not be released. In other words, when you eat high sugary meals glucagon will be shut down. For glucagon to work fully it needs regular intake of protein. A diet high in vegetables, nuts, berries, etc. is also important. These foods are high in carbs but because they are complex carbs they are gradually broken down into the blood stream so they don’t cause a sudden sugar spike. They have all the fiber, vitamins and minerals so the body has to digest them layer by layer and this slows down its release into the blood stream. On the contrary, heavily processed foods have been stripped of fiber, vitamins and minerals in order to extend shelf life. White flour, white rice, white sugar, etc. all raise our blood sugar very quickly.
Glucose metabolism disorders are: hypoglycemia, prediabetes (impaired glucose tolerance or glucose intolerance and impaired fasting glucose), hyperinsulinemia, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Once this has become chronic then you will need more and more insulin to do the same load of work resulting in the pancreas not being able to keep up with the demands for insulin. This is what is called insulin resistance/impaired glucose tolerance/prediabetes. When this condition develops what happens is your cells stop listening to insulin. (Picture your insulin knocking on the cells’ doors asking them to open the door to carbs but the cells ignore the knock, carbs are then shuttled to fat cells). The more we become insulin resistant, the more insulin the body has to produce, eventually the pancreas cannot keep up and diabetes is the result.
Sugar is more of a killer than stress itself
According to Dr. Perricone, sugar and foods that convert rapidly to sugar in the blood stream (high-glycemic carbohydrates like fast burning carbs) are toxic, they are pro-inflammatory. His many years of research have shown to him that chronic, subclinical inflammation is the single greatest precipitator of aging and age-related diseases. These include heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, cancer, obesity, unwanted weight gain, loss of muscle, and wrinkled, sagging skin. This inflammation takes place at the cellular level so it is invisible to the naked eye and we can’t see it or feel it until it’s too late. He believes that diet is more of a killer than stress itself.
A pro-inflammatory diet is one that provokes an inflammatory reaction in the body and the body has to defend itself from the offending agent. Chief inflammatory foods are sugars and foods that turn quickly into sugar in the body, also called high-glycemic carbohydrates: cakes, cookies, potatoes, most packed cereals, juice, soda, chips, etc.
Understanding the inflammatory mechanism
Pro-inflammatory foods cause a sudden spike in blood sugar, triggering an insulin response from the pancreas in an effort to control the rising level of blood sugar. Diabetics do not have a properly functioning pancreas, so they suffer from high blood sugar. Constant high sugar causes kidney failure, blindness, heart attacks and strokes. Studies have shown that when diabetics keep their blood sugar stable, their death rate is cut down by 70%. The bad news is that you don’t have to be a diabetic to suffer from sugar problems, healthy bodies are harmed by sugar as well by the process known as glycation: eating sugar causes an immediate browning (glycation) of the protein in the tissues. You can think of it like what happens when you heat sugar and it turns brown. Your organs are ‘caramelized’ when sugar molecules attach themselves to collagen in your body permanently. This process becomes a source of inflammation which in turn produces enzymes that break down collagen, resulting in wrinkles on the skin and deterioration of blood vessels. (Remember your blood vessels are mainly collagen). This causes loss of elasticity on the skin and blood vessels. According to Dr. Perricone, healthy skin or blood vessels have collagen strands overlapping making them elastic, so skin can snap back and stay elastic after a smile or a frown and an artery can stay flexible to take the pressure needed to deliver blood to our organs. This does not happen when years of sugar consumption make our arteries stiff and inflexible because the sugar molecules have attached themselves to collagen.
Glycation turns soft baby skin and strong blood vessels into a leather-like hardened tissue. This happens throughout the body: arteries, veins, bones, ligaments, brains, resulting in breakdown of all organ systems.
What leads to Heart Disease: Bad Fat, Sugar or Both?
Dr. Sinatra points out how people worry too much about their cholesterol levels and not eating fats, not realizing that their sugar intake might be even more dangerous. Dr. Block points out how many people have traded a high fat diet for a high sugar one, low fat cookies are loaded with sugar! So to the question above, the answer is BOTH. Both unhealthy fats and sugar are pro-inflammatory. Dr. Zammit explains a diet high in sugars makes your liver secrete more triglycerides so you end up at the same endpoint as if you ate fat. Nutrition expert John Yudkin, M.D., Ph.D. noticed the tremendous rise in heart disease coinciding with the increased intake of refined carbohydrates.
Similarly, Dr. Willett explains refined starches and sugars are one of the most powerful predictors of heart disease, and adds, ‘replacing those foods with whole grain, high fiber forms of carbs will actually reduce the risk of heart disease”. What is more, a team of scientists at UCLA in Los Angeles found that men with cardiovascular disease may be at considerably higher risk of death even when their blood sugar is in the ‘normal’ range. “Our findings suggest that for men with cardiovascular disease, there is apparently no ‘normal’ blood sugar level…for these men across the normal range, the lower their blood sugar, the better”.