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We all know that sugar isn't great for you, but do you know why?
Our cells use blood sugar or glucose as fuel to keep our cells alive and functioning. We need it to survive. So why then should eating sugar have a negative impact on our health?
How does your body use sugar to fuel it?
Glucose is the form of sugar that our cells use for fuel. Glucose comes from all kinds of carbohydrates, from simple table sugar and refined flour, to complex carbohydrates like barley, or even carbohydrates from vegetables.
In order for glucose to be taken into our cells to be used for fuel, the pancreas produces insulin, which is the hormone that triggers cells to take in sugar. Insulin release can signal to the body to use sugar to store it for later use. It's also the job of insulin to regulate the level of sugar that's circulating in the blood, while keeping fuel on hand for daily activities and any fight or flight situations.
When we have enough sugar in the blood to keep our cells fueled, insulin then triggers the liver and muscles to temporarily store sugar as glycogen. Between meals, when blood sugar drops, the hormone glucagon, triggers the conversion of glycogen back into blood sugar, which provides immediate energy to keep us going throughout the day.
How do blood sugar levels impact your health?
When the body can't produce enough insulin, type 1 diabetes occurs.
This happens when the beta-cells in the pancreas are destroyed by the immune system. Because insulin isn't being produced, sugar from the blood isn't getting into the cells.
In type 2 diabetes, too much insulin is the problem.
In this case, insulin resistance prevents cells from taking in sugar, so not only are the cells not getting the fuel they need, but there is too much insulin and too much sugar in the blood. This causes stickiness and blockages in the blood vessels, which is what causes the complications of diabetes.
You're probably getting the idea that blood sugar balance is important. So now I'd like to look at the factors that affect blood sugar.
Blood sugar levels can be affected by:
How do each of these factors play a role in blood sugar balance?
Blood sugar levels are influenced by diet at the most basic level.
Simple carbohydrates like table sugar or foods made from refined flour, are rapidly turned into blood sugar.
Over time, too much of these can derail healthy insulin and blood sugar regulation, leading to issues like type 2 diabetes. Your body has to work harder to find balance when you eat too much sugar.
More exercise means more fuel burned, so blood sugar levels drop after exercise as a result of the sugar being used for energy.
Stress triggers the production of adrenaline and cortisol, which signal the liver to release sugar. The problem is that your body can't tell the difference between an actual emergency, like your house being on fire, from being late to an appointment while stuck in traffic.
This is why chronic stress can be problematic isn't being used to fight or run, therefore cortisol can cause belly fat.
The stress response is also triggered by low blood sugar. When the body doesn't have the fuel it needs, it triggers a stress response, which is why it's important not to go too long without eating.
The collection of bacteria in your gut influence your blood sugar levels. In other words, you many not digest foods the same way as someone else.
The bacteria in your gut influence your appetite, your blood sugar production, and the rate at which you burn the sugar. The more sugar you give them, the more the bacteria that like sugar proliferate.
Body fat affects blood sugar, just as blood sugar influences body fat. Blood sugar imbalances can cause weight gain and gaining weight can cause blood sugar imbalances, which can create a cycle that's difficult to break.
The control of appetite and energy expenditure is a complex process as you can probably imagine. It involves communication between the digestive, endocrine, and nervous systems. It also involves hormones, such as leptin and ghrelin.
Leptin is the "full hormone." It's produced by fat cells in response to insulin production and signals to the brain that you're full. Leptin also has a role in regulating body fat.
Ghrelin is known as the "hunger hormone." The production of ghrelin is triggered when the stomach is empty. When the stomach is full, this triggers a stop to ghrelin secretion.
Ghrelin also contributes to the regulation of blood sugar by halting the release of insulin by the pancreas and triggers glucose production in the liver. Both of this result in higher blood sugar levels.
Scientists aren't sure why, but insulin, leptin, and ghrelin functions are often disrupted in obesity.
You can see why it's all a bit complicated and different for everyone!
Five Ways to Balance Blood Sugar
1. Crowd out simple sugars.
Trade your table sugar and other simple sugars for more complex sugars, like sweet root veggies. The more complex the sugar the better.
The exception is whole fruit. Fructose in the form of whole fruits, eaten in moderation, is a great source of energy and nutrients. Whole fruit contains fiber which means the sugar breaks down more slowly.
Artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup don't add any value to your diet and can impact blood sugar negatively, so they should be crowded out as well.
2. Eat protein and vegetables before eating simple carbohydrates.
This is helpful for two reasons.
First of all, glucose and insulin levels are generally lower when protein is consumed first.
Second, eating these foods first may fill you up so that you ultimately eat less sugar or simple carbohydrates.
If nothing else, try eating protein at the same time as sugar. For example crackers with peanut butter or hummus are better than crackers by themselves.
3. Eat insoluble fibers or probiotics before meals to stabilize insulin levels.
Vegetables are the best source of insoluble fiber. Pairing your carbohydrates with insoluble fiber can significantly reduce glucose and insulin levels. Plus, you're also feeding the good bacteria in your gut! When you feed the good bacteria, they will crowd out the sugar loving bacteria resulting in fewer sugar cravings!
Try throwing some kale into your smoothie, having a salad with your sandwich for lunch, or eating some broccoli with your rice for dinner.
4. Explore supplements that may help balance blood sugar.
Please talk to your health care provider before taking any supplements.
These are three supplements that can help with blood sugar stabilization.
Berberine, has a long history in Chinese medicine. Berberine is found in the roots and rhizomes of plants such as goldenseal, Oregon grape, and California poppy. It can help aid in weight loss and blood sugar maintenance.
Resveratrol is naturally found in red wine, the skin of red grapes, blueberries and other dark berries, real chocolate, and more. The extract can help the body produce the beneficial short-chain fatty acids that help with blood sugar control. It may also help protect the brain from Alzheimer's disease.
Chromium is a mineral that helps insulin function optimally. It's found in supplement form but also found naturally in whole grains, brewer's yeast, broccoli, and black pepper. People with diabetes tend to have lower chromium levels.
Get a good night's sleep!
Generally during sleep, blood sugar remains stable, even though you aren't eating during that time. However, when you're sleep deprived, your insulin response to blood sugar decreases. As a result, your blood sugar levels are higher than normal because the sugar isn't being taken into the cells to be utilized.
It's even more important to eat a high protein, low-sugar meal when you haven't gotten enough sleep so that your blood sugar doesn't spike.
Less sleep also translates into increased appetite and triggers cravings for foods rich in simple carbohydrates to get a quick burst of energy. I'm sure you've noticed yourself craving carbohydrates or junk food when you've had a bad night's sleep.
Shorter sleep also seems to increase there risk for obesity and diabetes, along with increased visceral fat and cortisol levels.
Try to get at least seven or eight hours of sleep a night, although some people require even more!
I hope you're getting the idea that one: blood sugar regulation is important for your health and two: that sugar cravings are more complex than whether you have strong willpower.
I like to look at it as the bacteria in your gut craving sugar, not you!
So if you can use your willpower for a short bit of time, you can starve out the bacteria that want sugar.
Do you feel like your diet and lifestyle support balanced blood sugar levels, or could it us some improvement?
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Hi, I’m Crystal!