In the last 300 years, the American diet has gone through a lot of changes. Our foods used to be nutrient dense, home-grown and organic – not because we knew any better, but just because that’s the way it was. We used to have a much higher intake of fats and a much lower intake of sugar and carbohydrates. People were stronger and chronic, degenerative diseases occurred much more rarely than they do today. But soil depletion, conventional farming methods, rampant dietary misinformation and other factors have changed all that. Our state of health, as a nation, is rapidly declining- despite all of our modern medical interventions and wonder drugs. Of course there are numerous reasons for this, but I’d like to shed some light on one of the leading causes of disease and how it is likely effecting YOU.
- In 1700, the average yearly intake of dietary sugar was 4lbs.
- In 1800, the average yearly intake of dietary sugar increased to 18lbs.
- In 1900, the average yearly intake of dietary sugar increased to 90lbs.
- In 2010, 50% of Americans consume A HALF A POUND OF SUGAR PER DAY, which equals 180lbs. per year
Of course, I’m not just talking about lollypops and gummy worms. I’m talking about CARBS, which are all ultimately broken down by your body into sugars- namely glucose and fructose. So it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about candy, an apple, or a piece of organic, sprouted, whole-grain bread – it ALL turns into sugar. (See chart at the end of this article that lists “What counts as a Carbohydrate?”)
Moving on… It is now becoming apparent that blood sugar and insulin problems are a common factor in almost every modern disease and one of the most damaging things you can do to your body would be to ignore the situation which, in all likelihood, IS affecting you.
The long-term physical problems caused by blood sugar and insulin damage are system-wide and severe. They can include:
Blood sugar and insulin imbalances fall on a relative scale of graduating severity:
Reactive Hypoglycemia –> Insulin Resistance –> Metabolic Syndrome –> Diabetes II
Stage 1: Hypoglycemia (Reactive)
This is extremely common! In my clinical experience, the vast majority of people I see are experiencing some degree of blood sugar imbalances and most of them have never noticed or considered that the vague symptoms that it can present with have anything to do with blood sugar levels. Reactive Hypoglycemia is not itself a disease, but rather a condition (meaning it IS reversible!) which is defined as “too little blood glucose.” Although it seems as if too little blood sugar is the problem, in truth, that’s merely the after-effect of having a history of too much sugar/carbs in the diet.
- Getting shaky, headaches and/or irritable without food
- Feeling better after eating
- Tired without food
- Overall fatigue
- Blurry vision
- Waking up at night (usually around 1-3am, but could be anytime throughout the night)
- Tired in the afternoons
- Difficulty concentrating or poor mental focus
- Acid Reflux, sour stomach, or nausea
- Sugar/Carb cravings
- Craves a small “Sweet” after meal
Reactive Hypoglycemia is most common in people who currently have or have a history of:
- High sugar/carbohydrate intake
- High stress levels
- Skipping meals or long periods between eating
- Trans-Fats make this worse!
So here’s what happens:
Whenever they eat sugary foods or foods containing carbohydrates, their body breaks those carbs down into sugar which eventually gets dumped into their bloodstream. Because the body can only tolerate a small amount of sugar in the bloodstream, the pancreas releases insulin which then stimulates the cells to sponge up the excess sugar, therefore regulating blood sugar levels. Once inside the cells, the sugar is used for energy, with any excess sugar being converted to fat tissue. This process continues until all the insulin in the blood has been used up and all the sugar has been burned for energy, at which point your body finally goes into fat-burning mode until your next meal (YAY, fat burning mode!)
But all of THAT is what happens under normal, healthy circumstances in someone with no blood sugar handling issues. The problem, which applies to over 80% of the population right now, is that when a person has a long history of eating a diet too high in carbs/sugar, their body begins anticipating that each meal will be a high carbohydrate meal and habitually “overcompensates” by surging too much insulin. This surging effect causes insulin levels in the blood to become far too high, resulting in a dramatic drop in blood sugar levels and leaving excess insulin in the blood even after all of the sugar has been sponged up by the cells. The cells burn the sugar for energy, as usual, but the problem now is that they cannot shift gears and go into fat-burning mode till the next meal. Why, you ask? Because as long as there’s still excess free-floating insulin in your blood, your body remains in sugar-burning mode. I say again, as long as your insulin levels are too high, your body can NOT go into fat-burning mode. Hence, the frustrating weight gain or the common, “I work out all the time but still can’t seem to lose weight” scenarios. So, at this point, your cells are starved of fuel, there’s no more sugar left in your bloodstream to compensate, and they can’t simply shift over into fat-burning mode for fuel – this is when all those unpleasant hypoglycemia symptoms start to show up.
To recap, too much sugar/carbs in the diet causes a roller-coaster ride of blood glucose and insulin levels, resulting eventually in low blood sugar. Ultimately, the problem isn’t that your blood sugar is too low- that’s just the side effect. The problem is that insulin levels are too high as a result of too much sugar/carbs in your diet.
People can be hypoglycemic for years with few symptoms, but over time the body’s cells become irritated by being constantly bathed in insulin. Eventually, the constant exposure to insulin irritates the cells enough that the insulin receptor sites on the cells begin to shut down and become resistant to insulin. At this point, what was Reactive Hypoglycemia has now progressed to Insulin Resistance- the next major step towards diabetes.
Step 2: Insulin Resistance
Insulin Resistance is defined as the condition in which the body’s cells have a reduced sensitivity to insulin, as a result of being exposed to too much insulin for too long (in cases of years of high sugar or carb intake). Essentially, you can think of insulin as a critically important, but “irritating-in-high-doses” kind of hormone. Your cells normally require it’s actions, but they don’t like being bathed in insulin all day long. Eventually, the cells begin shutting down their insulin receptor sites and their “sensitivity” to insulin decreases. If the cells are not as responsive to insulin, it means that they won’t receive as strong a signal to sponge up excess sugar out of your blood. This will lead to excess sugar floating around your bloodstream and all the health problems that come with the new problem – high-blood sugar.
If you have too much sugar floating around in your blood vessels, it is likely that you also have too much insulin traveling through your system as well. This is because the pancreas, in a futile attempt to maintain normal blood sugar levels, tries to compensate for the high blood sugar by releasing even more insulin – it doesn’t know that the cells just aren’t responding to the insulin anymore. The problem with this is that having chronically high insulin levels has it’s own set of nasty effects above and beyond the effects of low or high blood sugar alone.
- Abdominal weight gain
- Difficulty losing weight
- Sleepiness after meals
- Mental fogginess and fatigue
- Intestinal bloating and gas
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased blood triglycerides
- Thinning hair in women
This insulin/blood sugar roller-coaster specifically involves the sugar glucose. But what about fructose (the type of sugar found in fruit and many processed foods), you might be asking? Although it’s true that fructose doesn’t trigger insulin directly (only glucose does), it does still cause lots of problems. Fructose turns into FAT faster than any other sugar, and in high amounts, it begins damaging the liver. Basically, the only organ in your body that can take up fructose is the liver…
…Once there, the fructose:
- Increases uric acid which in turn increases blood pressure and causes gout.
- Increases fat production in the liver which can eventually result in Fatty Liver Disease.
- Fructose is metabolized via the same pathway as alcohol and is actually damaging your liver in the the same way as alcohol.
- Increases inflammation which in turn stops the insulin receptors in your liver from working, resulting in higher insulin levels in the body. The pancreas responds to this situation by pumping out even more insulin in another futile attempt to get the insulin cycle working again, which further increases insulin levels and eventually results in the same Insulin Resistance that glucose causes.
The bottom line is that even though fructose doesn’t directly raise your insulin levels in the short term, in the long term fructose will still lead to Insulin Resistance due to the effects of inflammation in the liver.
The next stop on the diabetes train after Insulin Resistance is progression to Metabolic Syndrome. It is currently estimated that 75 million Americans (that’s 1 in 4 people!) have blood sugar imbalances that have already progressed into Metabolic Syndrome.
Metabolic Syndrome is characterized by any of the symptoms of Reactive Hypoglycemia and Insulin Resistance PLUS:
- Severe hormonal imbalances
- Immunological disorders
- More abdominal weight gain
- Elevated triglycerides
- Increased cortisol (with it’s associated adrenal symptoms and diseases)
- High risk for Diabetes Type II
The final progression of this disorder, if it continues to go ignored and untreated, is Type 2 Diabetes.
Step 4: Type 2 Diabetes
- 7th leading cause of death in the US
- All-cause mortality (death from any official cause) is more than double in diabetics
- Medical expenses are more than double in diabetics
- #1 cause of blindness in adults
- #1 cause of Kidney failure
- #1 cause of limb amputations
- One of the top reasons for Erectile Dysfunction
- By the age of 65, 77% of people are diabetic or pre-diabetic
It might help to think of blood sugar imbalances like this:
Imagine that we all start out with a certain amount of allowable insulin/sugar activity in our cells, for our lifetime, before the cells begin to become resistant- a fixed number of lifetime “carb points,” if you will. The problem is that most people are eating so much dietary sugar, that they essentially have used up all of their carb points in their first 30 or 40 years! After that, the continued exposure to a high carb/sugar diet and the subsequent high insulin levels begins to create serious damage. This is why you hear people talk about how they used to be able to eat whatever they wanted without gaining weight, now their metabolism has slowed down and they gain weight if they eat a cracker. It’s not as simple as just a “slowing metabolism,” that’s a total misconception. It’s basically the result of using up all of their carb points too early and as they continue their dietary habits, the effects are now damaging!
In order to avoid serious health problems as you get older, it is vital that your dietary carbohydrates/sugar be drastically reduced or eliminated. Yes- you CAN eliminate carbs! And yes, even if you’re an athlete. Contrary to popular belief, carbs are NOT absolutely necessary in the diet- fat is a very efficient and sustainable energy source! Consider the Eskimos… They have some of the highest average energy requirements of any other indigenous people, yet their diet consists almost exclusively of animal fat and protein. They are some of the longest-lived, healthiest people on the planet with some of the lowest rates of chronic, degenerative diseases.
So what do we do about it?
Well, for starters, STOP TRIGGERING INSULIN!
1) Drastically reduce your carbohydrate intake (especially avoiding grain-based carbs and refined sugars) at least until your sugar/carbs cravings and/or fatigue and other prominent hypoglycemia symptoms disappear.
- Ideally, you’ll aim for 0-60 grams of carbohydrates per day (check labels and keep track!).
- Yes, there carbohydrates in vegetables, but veggies are nutritional powerhouses that deliver enough nutrient value to outweigh the blood sugar effects of the carbohydrates they contain. The insoluble fiber in vegetables also acts as a natural buffer, slowing the absorption of sugar. For the purposes of improving your health by reducing carbs, you do NOT have to count green vegetables, carrots, beets, or healthy veggies like that in your daily carb budget! You also do not need to keep track of total daily calories or grams of fat. JUST CARBS.
2) Eat at least every 3 hours while you’re repairing your blood sugar issues- do NOT skip meals!
3) Avoid fructose like the plague! i.e. – too much fruit. A little bit of fruit here and there is ok but make sure to count it in the budget and keep it to a bare minimum. Keep in mind, our ancestors ate fruit rarely since it was only available for brief seasonal periods, and the fruit they ate was far less sweet than the fruit we eat today, which has been genetically modified or selectively farmed to dramatically increase the sweetness. Fruit should be kept to a minimum (less than daily), only organic, in-season, and preferably local. Do NOT consume fruit juices, dried fruits, or processed foods that contain high fructose corn syrup: all of those are just super-concentrated sugar sources.
4) Increase your intake of healthy FATS and PROTEIN. Healthy fats should be consumed with every meal– especially vegetables. The fat will help to stabilize your blood sugar, plus, failure to include healthy fats in a meal will result in many of the nutrients consumed during the meal not being absorbed by the body. That’s because many nutrients, such as Vitamins A, D, E and K are “fat-soluble” nutrients that require fat in order to be absorbed and used by the human body. Additionally, there are many other nutrients that also need fats for optimal metabolism. Healthy fats will also help keep you satisfied after meals (so you don’t get hungry) by providing a slow-burning fuel for your body, and provide a huge number of other health benefits – so make sure to eat fat with every meal!
What is a healthy fat?
- All meats and fish, provided they’re coming from high-quality sources (fish should be “wild-caught”, red meats should be “grass-fed,” poultry should be “pastured.”
- Organic Butter (preferably from grass-fed cows)
- Organic Cheeses
- Whole, Organic, preferably Raw dairy (don’t use skim or reduced fat dairy products) or healthy-fat, dairy alternatives like Coconut Milk (unsweetened) or Almond Milk
- Coconut oil (use for low-medium heat cooking or add to smoothies)
- Avocado oil (good for medium-high heat cooking)
- Olive oil (good for dressings, and cold use- do not heat)
- Supplemental oils such as Cod Liver Oil, Fish Oil, Krill Oil, Flax Seed Oil, etc. (product quality is very important – they are not all created equal!) Cod Liver Oil is my personal favorite
- Flax seeds and chia seeds (good to add to smoothies or salads)
- Whole eggs (don’t skip the yolk, it’s the best part! And fresh, “pastured” eggs available at your local farmer’s markets are FAR SUPERIOR to conventional, battery-farmed eggs or “egg products” like egg beaters, etc.)
- Nuts and nut butters (especially walnuts, almonds)
- Seeds (especially flax and chia seeds)
- Examples of Food/Snacks: Nuts and nut butters (if tolerated well), half an apple with nut butter, celery with nut butter, cheese, vegetables with a dip, boiled egg, egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, green salad with cheese and/or chicken, rolled up cold cuts with cheese or cream cheese, replace crackers with sliced cucumbers, scrambled eggs with spinach and tomatoes, etc.
5) Get some exercise!
- Exercise is still a great thing that a person can do themselves to help reduce insulin resistance and improve blood sugar metabolism. It doesn’t have to be much, but it has to be consistent – a minimum of 30 minutes, 4-5 times a week.
- Walking, swimming, etc. are all great options. Keep it light in the beginning. Later, you can switch to forms of exercise that are less frequent for shorter amounts of time, but higher intensity (strength training and high-intensity interval training are especially helpful to repair insulin damage).
- Each 10% increase in muscle mass corollated with 11% less insulin resistance and 12% less diabetes
6) Other considerations:
- Insulin flushes minerals from the system – consider a high quality trace minerals supplement (zinc, magnesium and chromium are especially important and tend to be depleted in diabetics and pre-diabetics.
- Although it may be possible to indulge occasionally in sugar down the road, once your insulin and blood sugar levels have stabilized, it is probable that you will need to maintain a low carbohydrate intake indefinitely to avoid the same process that burned out your cells to begin with.
Once your blood sugar and insulin levels have become more stable, you will notice that your energy level is much better, your adrenals start to recover, your immune system improves, hormones balance out, food sensitivities go away, you sleep better, your moods are better, joint pain improves, digestion improves, etc. – the list goes on and on!
This information brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood Austin Acupuncturist, Melanie Irvine, L.Ac., MAOM, owner Turning Point Wellness. For more info about how Acupuncture, Oriental Medicine, and natural nutrition can help you achieve vibrant health and well-being. Feel free to visit my website, www.TurningPointAcupuncture.net for more details and direct contact information.
Johnson RJ and Gower T. (2009) The Sugar Fix: The High-Fructose Fallout That is Making You Sick and Fat
USDA Agricultural Factbook, Profiling Food Consumption in America, http://www.usda.gov/factbook/chapter2.pdf
U.S. Centers For Disease Control, “2011 Diabetes Fact Sheet,” http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/diabetes-statistics/
Preethi Srikanthan and Arun S. Karlamangla. “Relative Muscle Mass Is Inversely Associated with Insulin Resistance and PreDiabetes.” Findings from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, July 21, 2011
For the clearest explanation you’ve seen or heard on blood sugar, check out the youtube videos by Dr. Marlene Merritt at http://www.youtube.com/merrittwellnessz