Do any of these symptoms sound familiar: lightheadedness, sweet cravings, headaches, irritability, poor sleep, mood swings, depression, anxiety, mental fog, energy highs and lows, need for caffeine, high blood pressure, fatigue alleviated by eating, sweating, low libido, PMS, poor immunity, excessive estrogen production, abdominal weight gain, and high cholesterol? Me too. And do you know what they all have in common 99% of the time? Poor blood sugar control. Yup, that pesky blood sugar can cause a lot of havoc on our entire body when it’s out of whack.
So, how is blood sugar imbalance able to cause all those nagging symptoms and health issues? In order to understand that, we need to understand how our body manages blood sugar in the first place.
When we eat carbohydrates, such as grains, fruits, beans, and potatoes, our gastrointestinal tract releases enzymes that break the food item down (digestion) into its simplest form, glucose. Have you eaten a piece of bread and noticed how it begins to dissolve in your mouth? Those are enzymes at work! Once the carbs are digested, mostly by the mouth and small intestine, and broken down into glucose, they are absorbed through the walls of our intestine. They then enter our bloodstream and visit the liver where they are stored or shuttled to be used throughout our body. Finally, our blood sugar is managed via three organs: pancreas, liver, and adrenal glands.
The pancreas serves two roles, it releases insulin when blood sugar is high and it releases glucagon when blood sugar is low. Insulin is a hormone that helps get glucose into our cells for use and stores excess as glycogen in our liver (which can be used throughout the body) and muscles (which can only be used for that muscle). It also increases a specific enzyme that stimulates cholesterol production. Glucagon, the hormone released when blood sugar is low, helps turn glycogen stores back to glucose, and helps turn fat and protein we consume into glucose as well if we aren’t eating enough carbs. It also inhibits the release of the cholesterol producing enzyme, which means it decreases cholesterol production.
So, the pancreas does a lot, and by explaining it, we also learned the liver’s role in storing glucose as glycogen, and releasing it for use when blood sugar is low. So, what about the adrenal glands? Well, they house hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. These hormones, referred to as the “stress hormones,” are released when the body is stressed. They, in turn, stimulate the liver to break down glycogen stores to glucose, which is released into the bloodstream; therefore, keeping blood sugar elevated. Why do stress hormones want high blood sugar? ‘Cause we got to “fight or flight” our way out of this perceived stress, and our body thinks it needs that extra energy to punch someone or run.
Okay, that’s cool and all, but how does blood sugar get imbalanced and cause all those issues? The problems start when we consume either too many fast-acting or simple carbs, or too few carbs (or calories in general). Fast-acting or simple carbs are processed foods such as potato chips, breads, crackers, pastas, cookies, sugar, and the like. They break down quickly. Imagine what would happen if you placed a cracker in water? It would get soggy pretty quickly, kinda like the bread that begins to break down immediately in your mouth. Now, imagine what would happen if you placed a broccoli floret in water? Nothing, at least not for quite a while, because that is an example of a slow-acting or complex carb. It has a lot of great fiber, which is why whole food items, such as vegetables and beans, keep blood sugar steady.
When we consume too many carbs (i.e. too much glucose), our glycogen stores are full and the excess glucose is stored as fat. This fat from excess carb consumption isn’t only stored around our body, including our midsection, but it can also be stored in our liver (which can ultimately lead to fatty liver disease). Fat tissue is also hormonally active, which can lead to excessive levels of estrogen and a slew of issues including PMS, PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), and infertility when left unchecked. Also, insulin increases a specific enzyme that increases cholesterol production, which again, in excess, can lead to high levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides, which can contribute to heart disease. And the kicker? If we repeatedly consume too many carbohydrates, then our body is constantly releasing insulin. Eventually, our body is tired of working so hard and starts to downregulate these insulin receptors, not allowing glucose to get into our cells. This is known as insulin resistance. Many people can’t “feel” insulin resistance, because they aren’t noticing the symptoms of sugar cravings or the socially acceptable “hangry” term (aka imbalanced blood sugar). However, the body is definitely feeling it, because it can lead to oxidative stress, cardiac disease (high blood pressure and cholesterol), sleep apnea, hormonal imbalance (increased estrogen in men and testosterone in women), skin tags, increased fat storage, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.
Remember our friends, the adrenal glands? Well, if we are constantly in a state of perceived stress (and low blood sugar is a stressor too), then our body keeps pumping cortisol, which keeps insulin pumping, which can lead to all those wonky insulin issues mentioned above. Overworked adrenals can also lead to an inability to concentrate, fatigue, difficulty getting out of bed, hangover-like feelings when you wake, insomnia, depression, anxiety, low libido, poor memory, and low immunity. No thank you.
The good news? ‘Cause there is a lot of good news, especially if you can relate to these symptoms, is that you can do a lot to bring your blood sugar into balance. Next week, in Part 2, I’ll show you how.
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With love, Steph