The Allure of Sugar
When we think of sugar, we think of sweetness, decadence, luxury, a special treat. But the truth is that sugar has become an insidious uninvited guest in almost everything we put in our mouths. This is frightening in light of the fact that a survey of medical journals produced findings "implicating sugar as a causative factor in kidney disease, liver disease, shortened lifespan, increased desire for coffee and tobacco, as well as atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease." It’s time to re-evaluate our relationship with sugar... Your relationship to sugar is not just about how much sugar you ingest, but also what your body does with sugar and how much sugar is active within your body tissues at any given time. I have read so many articles that claim sugar cravings are exclusively about candida. In fact, this is actually the minority of cases. Most of the time sugar cravings are a self-medicating regulation of the body to maintain proper metabolism. This shift in metabolism is what creates the onslaught of dysglycemia symptoms such as inability to focus (you may want to see my article on ADHD), headaches when hungry, energy surges and crashes throughout the day, anxiety, panic disorders and muscle fatigue. Interestingly, these are also many of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue, demonstrating the strong correlations between dysglycemia and adrenal fatigue.
So how does dysglycemia occur? Stress would be the foremost factor, followed by chronically poor nutrition and lack of essential fatty acids, liver dysfunction, pancreatic dysfunction or lack of glucose tolerance factor in the blood. Any or all of these aspects can lead to your cutting off three cars to get over fast enough to turn into the Dunkin’ Donuts. But it’s not just about the typical sugar that we sinfully eat in donuts, desserts, coffee and cakes. It’s the total amount ingested from fruit, carbohydrates and even packaged foods, where sugar is the second largest ingredient. Imagine my shock when I realized that a single serving of ketchup contains 4 grams of sugar. Now 4 little grams may not seem like a lot until you realize that with the burger and the fries, you’re talking about over 45 grams of sugar, when you’re only getting 35 grams of protein.
Normally we associate any type of sugar issue with the pancreas, such as hypoglycemia and diabetes. But the real signal of sugar problems begins long before these conditions are noticeable because of the development of insulin-resistance. When we eat anything that is termed a carbohydrate, which includes vegetables, rice, grains and even fruit, we are consuming sugar. All of these things, and many more, will be converted in the process of digestion to glucose for energy. When we speak of glucose as being the "chemical energy basis of the body" it is because the glucose compounds are easily reduced to a size small enough for our body to use, and in this reductive activity, large amounts of electrons are released creating energy.
However, many sugars are too large for our bodies to reduce, or we may not have sufficient enzymes or catalysts to produce glucose from them. So we simply store it. Our liver converts the sugar to glycogen and stores it throughout our skeletal muscle tissue as well as within the liver itself. This can also happen if we have eaten more sugar in a meal than our body needs at that moment. Once again the liver steps in to convert sugar into storage areas.
This action of the liver to store unnecessary sugar is based on our body’s ability to monitor blood glucose levels at all times. When we eat, and a large amount of sugar enters the blood, the pancreas releases insulin into the blood to signal the need for an increased absorption rate of the glucose into our body tissues. Both this absorption and the liver glycogenesis reduces the level of sugar to a preset amount. When the level of glucose in the blood gradually drops below this, the liver will initiate conversion of the stored glycogen back into glucose to raise the level available in the blood. One of the main catalysts in glycogen conversion is inositol. Often by simply adding inositol to the diet, the liver can regain the ability to convert glycogen to glucose effectively. This can also help to relieve the symptoms that accompany hypoglycemia such as uncontrollable fatigue, dizziness, trembling, temporal or frontal headaches, anxiety, nerve pain and muscle fatigue. Symptoms of low blood sugar will usually occur mid to late mornings and then between 2 and 4 in the afternoons. You can even add liver support herbs if the liver is the main consideration in sugar rebalancing. I like Schisandra because of its relationship to the adrenals as well. Milk Thistle, Dandelion Root and Rosemary are all good choices.
The third aspect of sugar balance is the glucose tolerance factor of the blood. There are a group of amino acids, vitamin B complexes and trivalent chromium that are responsible for modulating cellular receptivity of insulin. Research also suggests that the glucose tolerance factor in blood plasma provides an anti-arteriosclerosis effect by slowing the plaquing of cholesterol and calcium. Standard Process makes a whole food complex version of these essential components for glucose tolerance factor called Cataplex GTF. I have found it to be significantly more effective than any straight chomium product on the market.
The problem that we face is the imbalance that is becoming inherent in the typical American diet. We seem to be taking in sugar at every meal which means that our stored sugar is never utilized, and in fact, our body is constantly pumping insulin through our blood due to large amounts of sugar present. This is startling when you realize that in 1821 the average sugar intake in America was 10 pounds per person per year, while today it is 170 pounds per person per year, accounting for over one fourth of our average daily caloric intake. If the glycogen areas in the liver and skeletal muscle cells are full, hepatocytes in the liver can convert the glucose to glycerol and fatty acids used to make triglycerides. These are then deposited for storage in adipose tissue throughout the body which has an unlimited amount of storage. Lastly, the kidneys are the gateway to prevent loss of essential glucose. Over time, we begin to become immune to the signal of insulin (insulin resistance). This leads to insistent sugar cravings because our body’s energy is failing. Balancing the body’s sugar use is one of the most important contributions to energy, endurance and weight loss.
Insulin resistance may also be caused by a high intake of fructose. The liver prefers to metabolize fructose as opposed to lipids, causing hypertension and reducing the production of insulin. Fructose also antagonizes the mineral copper, which is typically low in sympathetic dominant types. Dysglycemia is also strongly linked to adrenal function. The adrenals normally provide counter-regulatory mechanisms of blood sugar control with the pancreas. So if you are under chronic stress, your adrenal fatigue will also throw off your sugar balance making you more susceptible to making your daily lunch a feast of cupcakes or bags of M&M’s. One of the basic ways of dealing with afternoon sugar cravings is to take adrenal herbs such as Rehmannia, Rhodiola, Ashwaganda and Licorice. These can help support you through the afternoon when sugar crash tends to occur.
Another consideration in the efficient use of glucose is the level of oxygen available. Without sufficient oxygen levels, the process of utilizing glucose produces a significant amount of byproducts which would normally not be the case. One of these is lactic acid, which when present in high levels has been shown to produce anxiety and panic attacks. Lactic acid may also accumulate in muscle tissue creating chronic muscle fatigue. So if we are breathing shallowly, are asthmatic or suffering from chronic allergies, we may be affecting much more than just our ability to breathe freely.
A final consideration when evaluating our sugar balance is the amount of exercise that we get vs. the amount of food or available nutrition we take in. I have often found that athletes can overtrain, particularly as they get close to a competition. Overtraining can cause not only destruction or cannibalization of muscle tissue, but can force the body to stop producing hormones that are made from fat, as well as metabolize established tissues for their fat reserves, such as joint tissues, myelin sheath and even our skin.
So how do we turn this around? First, our eating lifestyle is the first thing to review. In order to prevent dramatic shifts in blood sugar levels, we need to eat every two to three hours with the first meal of the day within one hour of rising, and the last meal of the day within three hours of bed. Each of our main meals including the first and the last, need to be comprised mainly of protein and fat. Protein stimulates gluconeogenesis resulting in a balanced release of glucose by the liver. Protein at the last meal can also reduce hypoglycemic insomnia, a common problem in adrenal fatigue cases.
But the big factor dietarily is the increase in essential fatty acids which will change our relationship to sugar almost immediately. We have only two sources of fuel for our body’s metabolism, sugar (glucose) and fat (essential fatty acids/triglycerides). If we are sugar dominant, we can transition ourselves simply by reducing our sugar intake while increasing our essential fatty acid intake. I always recommend high levels of cold water fish oil as well as enhancing the intake of healthy fats in our diet. There are individuals who may be more sensitive to a drop in blood sugar. Eliminating caffeine intake and reducing carbohydrate consumption while increasing protein intake, particularly at breakfast can make a huge difference every day. I recommend adding larger amounts of alfalfa, buckwheat, pea vine, carrot, oat flour, beet, soybeans and flaxseed. These can not only provide essential fatty acids but also all the catalysts to balancing blood sugar.
The important thing is to begin treating dysglycemia early. In this way the inevitable progression towards chronic conditions such as Diabetes Mellitus can be prevented. This disease is quite devastating and can drastically affect the eyes, kidneys, nerves and blood vessels. Generally by the time Type 1 appears, most pancreatic beta cells have been destroyed and it can be too late to address it as an autoimmune disease.
I have had some amazing results in treating this form of dysglycemia with a group of natural options. The first is zinc. It is possible that insulin production relies on zinc as a catalyst, so long-term insulin resistance may deplete zinc reserves causing insulin to not be produced. The second most important piece is the Indian herb Gymnema, which acts as a tonifying restorative to the beta cells. It even helps to dampen sugar cravings and to act as a natural appetite suppressant. Baical Skullcap and Licorice are useful here as they act as aldose-reductase inhibitors, aiding insulin production and balance. Standard Process Pancreatrophin PMG is essential as a protomorphagenic infusion for pancreatic autoimmune disorders and when beta cells have been severely disrupted.
Facing our relationship to sugar means questioning many of our life choices, our ways of handling stress and our need to self-medicate. It is very important to address this imbalance because it can determine our future health and life. One final thought to leave you is that since before 1998, Johns Hopkins researchers have long suspected that the cancer cell not only relies heavily on glucose for viability, but that when deprived of glucose, the cancerous cells will self-destruct. So if you are going to self-medicate, removing sugar should be your first choice...
Karen Clickner, N.D. is the founder and director of ISIS Holistic Clinic & The Waters of ISIS Body Purification Spa in Brookline, MA. The clinic can be reached at www.isisboston.com.