Blood Sugar Part I: The Effects On The Body
Dr. Maya Kuczma | Minute Read
You wake up early to fit in a morning workout. You don’t have time to make a meal, so you grab a banana to eat on the way. After a 45-minute spin class, you’re famished. You roll into your local cafe and look for a healthy breakfast option. You order an acai bowl – it’s full of fruit, topped with gluten-free granola, and it looks delicious! You grab an almond milk latte for the road, and head into work. But by 9:30 AM, you’re hungry again. You planned for this – you grab a Lara bar from your bag and munch away to carry you through until lunch. Noon rolls around and you can’t wait for lunch. You pop out for lunch to get a gluten free chicken sandwich, no mayo. By 3 pm, you’re crashing – and your office mates are breaking out the snacks. You’ve got a few hours to go, and a decision to make – do you drink more coffee? Or dig into the potato chips (or chocolate, or muffins) that are in the office? You feel like you need a nap, so you have another coffee and a few handfuls of chips to tide you over. By the time you finally get home at 7 pm, you’re exhausted and can’t face the thought of cooking. Some days, you abandon ship, feeling like you already ‘screwed up’ with the chips and write the whole evening off; it’s a pizza and wine kind of night! Other days, you give your head a shake – ‘make something healthy!’ You tell yourself, before quickly cooking gluten-free pasta with a tomato sauce and a side salad. You eat quickly, and end up feeling stuffed. ‘Tomorrow will be better’, you tell yourself before heading to bed. ‘Tomorrow, I’ll start over.’
If this sounds like you, you are not alone. If you feel like you are doing ‘everything right’, and not losing weight, you are not alone. If you stick to a restrictive diet for a few weeks before finally caving in and binging for a weekend, you are not alone. The problem is not your will power; it's your blood sugar.
Most of the diets out there eliminate entire categories of food: low fat, gluten-free, low-carb, vegan, sugar-free. These plans focus on what not to eat, with very little (or no) guidance about what to eat, or how, or when. Misinformation is everywhere and it’s easy to feel confused, led by the latest trends and ‘superfoods’. Without knowing how to eat to manage our blood sugar, we’re victim to cravings, energy crashes, relentless hunger, and unpredictable mood swings. The scenario I described above is a roller coaster many of us ride everyday, and it is fueled by blood sugar imbalances.
All of the foods we eat are made of fat, protein, or carbohydrates; many are a combination of all three, but predominantly consist of one. Protein is broken down into amino acids, which helps to build muscle and other tissues, play a role in the synthesis of certain hormones, and are the building blocks of neurotransmitters, compounds that play a key role in mood and nervous system function. Fats are broken down into fatty acids, which play a role in cell growth and brain health, provide energy, and aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin A and D.
Carbohydrates are a different story. They are broken down into glucose. When carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, the glucose ends up in our bloodstream, causing our blood sugar to rise. Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar, honey, candy, soda, white flour, and white rice have a high glycemic index, indicating that they are broken down quickly, leading to a large and rapid increase in blood sugar. Complex carbohydrates such as fruit, green vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils are broken down a bit slower due to their fiber content, leading to a slower rise in blood sugar levels. Regardless of the speed, the rise in blood sugar signals the pancreas to release insulin to drive the glucose into the liver, where it will be converted into glycogen and triglycerides for storage. The glycogen will be kept in ‘short-term’ storage in the liver and muscle tissue, until we need it released back into our bloodstream to maintain blood sugar levels. But there is a limit to what we can store in these short-term storage methods. The excess will be converted into triglycerides and moved into ‘long-term’ storage: our fat cells. The more blood sugar we have, the more overflow we get into our long-term storage system and slowly, we gain more and more fat.
Let’s go back to the typical day we described above
The banana, fruit in the acai bowl, granola, almond milk, Lara bar, gluten free bread, potato chips, and gluten free pasta are all mostly carbohydrates. Many of the trendiest foods are, including oatmeal, cold-pressed juice, acai bowls, fruit smoothies, granola bars, most ‘protein’ bars, gluten-free pastas, breads, and baked goods, as well as most vegan desserts. All these foods we are eating are broken down into blood sugar, building up the glucose in our body, rapidly filling up our muscles and liver. With a continual intake of carbohydrates all day, the muscles and liver fill up, and the rest is stored as fat. Additionally, each time glucose is moved into the liver, muscle, or fat, our blood sugar suddenly drops, signaling to the brain – ‘eat more! We need more blood sugar!’ Shortly after a meal, we’re hungry again, reaching for another snack, or meal, or coffee, and the whole cycle repeats.
Up and down we go all day, spiking and crashing, eating (or at least desiring to eat) most of the day. If this process occurs chronically, our cells can become resistant to insulin, leading to increased levels of insulin in our bloodstream in an effort to drive the glucose into our cells. Excess insulin plays a role in many inflammatory conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.(1) Chronically high insulin levels, known as hyperinsulinemia, has also been linked to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and infertility (2), as well as thyroid dysfunction.(3)
Besides hungry (or hangry!), we can feel pretty awful when our blood sugar is out of balance. If your blood sugar is high, you might feel sleepy, crave sugar, gain weight and/or have difficulty losing weight. When your blood sugar crashes, you can feel anxious, shaky, weak, depressed, and tired. It has also been theorized that you may be more prone to relapse into addictive behaviors, indicating that blood sugar stability may be a helpful consideration when dealing with any addiction.(4)
Our body runs best when we eat in a way that breaks the cycle of excessive peaks and valleys to maintain blood sugar balance, while also providing a variety of nutrients. When we eat in a way that satisfies these requirements, we can go hours between meals without eating, we feel full and satisfied, our cravings decrease, we lose weight, and we are not ruled by thoughts of when/what/how/where to eat. We feel more stable.
Want to learn how to break the cycle, and balance out your blood sugar for good? Check out Part II of this series, or book in with Keyrsten, our holistic nutritionist, or one of our naturopathic physicians, to learn more.