Learning how to manage blood sugar (while still enjoying the sweet side of life) is essential for reaching nearly any health goal. Here’s the scoop:
- We need some sugar.
Natural sugars provide necessary energy for the body to carry out the day’s functions and for the brain to function properly.
- Excess sugar causes inflammation and increases our risk of disease.
Eating too much refined sugar can negatively impact every system in the body, especially the nervous system, the endocrine system, and gut microbiome. As a result, sugar is a sneaky culprit in many of our biggest health challenges.
- You can take control of your blood sugar naturally with the right tools.
Maintaining a healthy balance with sugar is possible with functional medicine, a diet rich in low glycemic foods, and smart lifestyle habits.
Got a sweet tooth? You’re not alone – researchers estimate that the average American eats their weight (about 152 pounds) in sugar every year.
It’s not hard to understand why. Sugar is a key ingredient in many of our favorite treats, both sweet and savory. It offers immediate comfort and a quick pick-me-up. Enjoying sugar is even wired into our brains.
Unfortunately, you can easily have too much of a good thing. Excess sugar intake is also an underlying factor in a wide range of health issues and is always a consideration in our holistic functional medicine treatment plans at Seattle Functional Health.
When it comes to sugar, the key to health lies with balance. Let’s learn more about the effects of sugar – both positive and negative – as well as some simple tips for enjoying the sweet side of life in moderation.
Sugar: Our Essential Energy
At its simplest, sugar is energy. It offers the body both an immediate and stored source of energy for all organs of the body, especially the brain. In fact, the brain is the “hungriest” of the organs, requiring up to half of the body’s daily glucose.
Do you find yourself reaching for a sugary treat like chocolate or cookies when you feel blue? There’s science to your craving. Sugar (and carbs in general) naturally increases serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone. When we’re sad, angry, or tired, a sugary snack helps to boost our mood – at least for a moment.
And let’s not forget the obvious – sugar tastes good. This sweet flavor makes getting the essential nutrients in fruits and sweet vegetables (like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) as easy as pie.
The Trouble with Too Much Sugar
Sugary treats, sodas, and processed foods are packed with more sugar than we would normally eat through fruits and vegetables alone. As such, we easily overdo it with our sugar intake often without knowing it. To make matters worse, sugar is addictive. That feel-good effect we experience after eating a treat is fleeting, and soon we are craving more and more pick-me-ups.
Unfortunately, this excessive sugar intake is associated with some serious chronic conditions and generally poor health. Issues like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, stroke, and other diseases are closely linked with sugar intake.
Let’s explore some of the more specific effects excess sugar has on the body:
Gut Health and Sugar
When it comes to excess sugar consumption, our bellies take a beating. Aside from stomach aches and weight gain from too many indulgences, refined sugar has an inflammatory effect on the entire digestive system and negatively impacts the microbiome. These issues can prevent proper absorption of nutrients and lead to digestive disorders.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
One of the main digestive issues associated with high sugar intake is leaky gut syndrome. The digestive tract is lined with an intricate web of microbiota and lining that forms a tight barrier between the inside of the gut wall and the outside.
Inflammation and changes in the gut flora cause this barrier to weaken, thus “leaking” small particles through the barrier. The result is troubling inflammation and even an autoimmune response. A diet high in sugar is one of the main factors in leaky gut syndrome because of sugar’s strong inflammatory properties and destruction of healthy gut bacteria.
SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth)
SIBO is a painful abdominal condition that occurs when the gut bacteria that live inside the large intestine enters the small intestine and overgrows. Here we have dysbiosis: an imbalance in the body’s bacterial balance. While this bacteria is helpful in the large intestine, it causes poor digestion, fermentation, toxicity, and inflammation In the small intestine. Like leaky gut, SIBO is most often caused by a diet high in added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and low fiber.
Endocrine and Hormone Disruption and Sugar
From metabolism to menstrual cycles, immunity to sleep cycles, hormones play a major role in our overall health. Hormones are chemical messengers that help control and regulate the body’s processes. When balanced, the body works smoothly and efficiently. When out of balance? Things go awry.
While many different things can cause hormone imbalance (like medications, sleep cycle, or stress), sugar intake is one of the most influential.
Blood Sugar and Insulin Resistance
Over time, a diet high in sugar eventually leads to insulin resistance. Insulin is released after the food we eat is broken down into blood sugar. Insulin takes this blood sugar and stores it in the body’s cells and liver as energy to use later on.
The more sugar we eat, the more insulin our bodies release until the muscles, fat, and liver cells are desensitized and don’t respond to insulin anymore. The result? Excess blood glucose gets stored as fat, we gain weight, our insulin and hormone balance falters, and we put ourselves at risk for issues like type 2 diabetes.
While hormones and blood sugar can be tricky to manage, adjusting diet and sugar intake is a transformative step in moving towards balance.
Thyroid hormones are responsible for managing the body’s glucose metabolism along with several other important functions. Like insulin, thyroid hormones are also susceptible to the pitfalls of high sugar intake. Studies show that there are complex links between hypothyroidism, blood sugar, and insulin resistance.
One of the main ways sugar impacts thyroid function is through inflammation. Sugar causes an increase in inflammation which has been shown to slow down thyroid hormone conversions (specifically T4 to T3) which leads to a poor functioning thyroid (or hypothyroidism).
Nervous System and Sugar
The nervous system runs on sugar. But, excess added sugars do more harm than good. In general, sugar prevents the nervous system from self-regulating and maintaining a healthy balance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. As a result, we experience stress, anxiety, loss of focus, brain fog, fatigue, and more.
Adrenal fatigue is an all-too-common result of our busy, stressful, modern lives. The condition causes fatigue, poor sleep, stress, mood imbalances, and can make you more susceptible to illness.
Along with lifestyle factors, sugar and diet can be a triggering factor in developing adrenal fatigue. After eating foods high in sugar, the body responds with a rapid rise, then a dramatic fall in blood sugar levels (the sugar crash).
In an attempt to maintain homeostasis, the adrenals release adrenaline and cortisol to release sugar back into the bloodstream. This rush of stress hormones turns on your sympathetic nervous system and the stress response resumes. As a result, those who suffer from adrenal fatigue often feel like they live in a constant state of stress and exhaustion.
Anxiety, Depression, and Stress
As with adrenal fatigue, the sudden rise and fall in blood sugar levels can cause irregular fluctuations in our moods, too. In response to the surge of adrenaline and cortisol, the body responds as if it were in “fight-or-flight” mode: our heart races, our breath quickens, our muscles tense. Although we may not feel like we are threatened, the body’s physical changes are enough to make us feel stressed or anxious. With a diet consistently high in sugar, this constant rise and fall of blood sugar and stress hormones lead to chronic stress and anxiety.
In addition to stress hormones, sugar also stimulates serotonin and dopamine. These two neurotransmitters are “feel-good” hormones, meaning they stimulate the pleasure and reward centers of the brain and simply make us feel happy.
So, how could that be such a bad thing? In moderation, it’s not. But over time, we tend to chase the rewarding feeling we get from sugar more and more often. Sugar cravings and even sugar addiction can develop, creating a vicious cycle.
Unfortunately, high sugar intake is also correlated with a higher risk of depression. Studies show that the hormone imbalance and irregular blood sugar levels can cause drastic changes in mood and emotional states.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are neurological conditions in which neural pathways are disconnected or dysfunctional. Studies show that high maternal blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as low blood sugar in infancy, could impact the development of ASD.
Research into a more holistic approach to autism spectrum disorders is growing, with a strong consideration for diet and sugar intake. Some of the latest research indicates that diets high in sugar and additives may negatively impact those with ASD.
Dr. Kubesh’s Tips to Maintain a Healthy Sugar Balance
Seattle Functional Health develops individualized functional medicine treatment plans to address each person’s unique needs and goals. Still, there are a few helpful tips that apply to anyone hoping to keep their sugar intake under control and heal from a high-sugar diet:
- Limit added and refined sugar intake.
Not all sugar is “bad” sugar, and as we learned, some sugar is necessary for a healthy body. The best way to keep your balance is to avoid added and refined sugars. This tends to refer to sugar that is processed and added to foods (usually junk foods) to make them taste better.
- Swap sweets with natural treats.
The next time you crave a piece of candy, try a piece of fruit instead. You’ll notice that fruits like oranges, berries, apples, mangos, and bananas are deliciously sweet (and full of blood sugar-regulating fiber) if you take the time to enjoy them.
- Cool inflammation with anti-inflammatory foods.
Sugar causes inflammation throughout the body, not just in the gut. To cool and calm inflammation and allow your body to heal, switch to an anti-inflammatory diet or the diet recommended to you through our functional medicine testing and plan.
- Restore gut health with pre and probiotics.
We learned that sugar can deplete our healthy gut bacteria, but we can work to restore our microbiome with pre and probiotics. These are found in supplements and natural foods that support your natural gut bacteria.
Rebuild Whole Body Health with Functional Medicine
Sugar can affect the body in many different ways, which means that each person will have their own set of challenges on the path to healing. Functional medicine offers a comprehensive, holistic approach to whole-body healing with treatment plans that are unique to your body’s needs.
At Seattle Functional Health, we are committed to offering the best plan of action for our patients. Are you ready to get started with a comprehensive functional medicine program? Take the first step to better health and schedule your consultation with Seattle Functional Health!