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Blood Sugar 101

Happy Monday to you!  I know, that’s kind of an oxymoron.  I’ve actually got a sick little one with me today so blogging isn’t exactly ideal at the moment, but he’s resting right now.

I tend to write a lot about the importance of good quality fats on here, and I was about to do another one on a different topic but still relating to fats, and then chose to change it up.  I’ll save that one for another time.  I just feel that fats are so misunderstood because of the information that’s been drilled into us over the last few decades about what’s good and what’s bad and I want to clear it up.  However, today, I want to discuss some basics about another topic that really isn’t talked about enough.

Blood sugar.  It’s a common misconception that diabetics are the only ones that really need to be concerned with blood sugar levels, but that’s not true. Not true at all. Did you know Americans consume an average of at least 140 lbs of sugar each year? Back in the early 1800s, it was about 10 lbs.

So, what is blood sugar?  Blood sugar, first of all, is one of the very foundations of our overall health and wellness.  This means that if our blood sugar is out of whack, dysregulated, it can cause other health problems…even problems that seem unrelated.

Secondly, for more of a definition, blood sugar is simply glucose in the blood at any given time.  It’s such an important bodily function that there are systems in place to keep it very tightly regulated.  Let’s talk about how it’s supposed to work.

In short, we eat something and the nutrients from that food are broken down by the digestive system into nutrients. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose. Our blood sugar will then rise based on the amount of carbohydrates we just consumed. The pancreas then steps up and its beta cells are triggered to release insulin. Insulin is a storage hormone whose main function is to take the glucose that’s currently in the blood and put it into cells for immediate energy, muscles for storage, or in the liver to be stored for later use. As it removes the glucose from the blood, the blood glucose level returns to normal and all is well again.

Then in between meals, blood sugar will begin to dip a bit. This triggers the alpha cells of the pancreas to release a different hormone called glucagon. Glucagon tells the liver to release some of that glucose that was stored earlier to help bring the blood glucose back up to a normal range. Insulin then returns to put that glucose into cells for energy.

When we are eating healthy foods in proper balances, and not “loading up” on starchy carbohydrates all the time, this is a pretty gentle process that the body was designed to handle.

normal-blood-sugar-balance

So that’s all well and good…when everything is ideal. It actually used to be this way for everyone. Blood sugar regulation wasn’t a problem because people were not flooding their bodies with high amounts of breads, pastas, grains, cookies, sugary beverages, etc. In fact, it’s become a bit of a national emergency to lower blood sugar.

Remember back when we talked about digestion and those primitive emergencies?

There are two different “states” we can be in.  If you think back to your school days, likely a psychology class, you might remember learning a bit about “fight or flight”.  This is known as a sympathetic state and goes way back to our ancestors where the body flips over to survival mode.  You can think of it like a man suddenly being chased through a field by an angry ox.  The man is literally running for his life and his body is doing everything in its power to flip things around and provide enough energy to carry his legs faster and farther in order to survive.  It’s a big deal.   

Well this energy came from the adrenals stepping in and firing the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones tell the body to start breaking down proteins and fats and release those into the blood. Then those are converted into glucose, by a process called gluconeogenesis. The liver and muscles are also triggered to release their stored glucose quickly to be used. The problem with this in relation to today, is that this process was meant for emergency situations, like the one above.  Unfortunately, with our current food system and eating habits, most people have this blood sugar emergency not only daily, but multiple times per day!

From a biological standpoint, we were never meant to run on carbohydrates. To put it simply, think of a campfire. You know those small tiny twigs that get thrown on top to catch flame quickly? The kindling. (My mom, as our Girl Scout leader growing up, would be so proud.) That burns quickly. That’s how carbohydrates work. They’re a quick source of energy, but will not sustain. The big logs that burn slowly and last long are like the fats. Being that our body is always working and living, our body prefers fats as energy, so again, we were never meant to run solely on carbohydrates, let alone the processed simple carbohydrates we have today.

Think about what a typical breakfast might be…Pancakes with syrup? Sugary/starchy cereal? Sugary coffee drink? Toast/bagel/English muffin with jelly? Heavily sweetened muffin? Store bought waffles with syrup? Pop tarts? Nutri-grain bars? Are you noticing a trend here? Most countries have a savory breakfast, full of a healthy balance of fats, proteins, and non-starchy carbohydrates,  but here in America we basically have dessert for breakfast.

This is a real problem for proper blood sugar regulation. Foods like this are SO high in carbohydrates that it causes the blood sugar to rise dramatically and quickly. Therefore, the insulin needs to be released quickly and also act quickly because high blood sugar is basically toxic to the body. Then since it works so quickly in an effort of survival, blood sugar levels also drop dramatically. Too far, actually. When blood sugar levels drop this low, this is where the adrenals step in because it senses an emergency state and releases the hormones we talked about above. This low blood sugar is where you’re feeling hungry, irritable, tired, shaky, brain fog, light-headed, etc. Have you been there? This will also leave you craving more sugar for an energy boost! The body is smart and it knows what it needs, so it makes you crave sugar. The problem is that we reach for the wrong things…coffee (which also affects adrenals), donuts, sweets, candy bars, etc. Then the cycle starts all over again.

blood-sugar-dysregulation

This doesn’t look nearly as gentle and gradual as the first graph, right?  Think about how you personally feel throughout the day. Do you reach for that mid-morning snack? Do you find yourself crashing around 2pm? In a non-diabetic, our body isn’t the problem. Everything is functioning as it should…based on the resources it’s given. So it’s the food choices that are causing the problems. How is it fixed?

Most obviously, look at the food choices.  Are you surviving on mostly simple starches for meals and snacks?  Look at replacing those with more unrefined/complex carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables, legumes, properly prepared whole grains, and sweeteners like raw honey and pure maple syrup. These are the carbs that exist in nature and therefore also will provide other nutrients. Secondly, pair those carbs with a protein and a fat. Pairing with a fat actually slows the uptake of the glucose into the cells so that you get more of a steady supply, rather than a spike-dip cycle.

Here’s where we can tie back to the misunderstanding of fats too….it’s not the good quality fats that are causing weight gain.  It’s the excess sugar/carbs.  When you eat excessive simple starchy carbohydrates, there is only so much space for that glucose to go.  As we learned earlier, first it goes to the cells for immediate energy.  Once those are full, then it goes to the muscles for energy/storage.  Once those are full, the glucose then goes to the liver for storage in the form of glycogen. But even the liver can only hold so much…so if there’s any glucose left over after all of that, where does it go? I wish I could tell you that it just gets excreted…wouldn’t that be nice? The reality, though, is that it gets stored as fat. So if you are having trouble losing weight, that’s a good place to look for the culprit. Conventional nutritional advice has been to eat mostly starches throughout the day, about 6-11 according to the older version of the Food Guide Pyramid. Consider making some changes in that area.

So that’s the basis of how blood sugar SHOULD work versus how it might unfortunately work for most people.  I’ll be back hopefully later this week with a 102 post about other health problems this dysregulation can cause.  It might have to be broken into two parts…we shall see.

In good health,

Michelle

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