The Roller Coaster Sugar Ride: Diabetes
In recognition of Diabetes Awareness Month we’re looking at The Roller Coaster Sugar Ride; the journey of rising and falling blood sugar and Insulin levels that Diabetics struggle to regulate.
Each of us has around 5 litres of blood circulating around our bodies, however, amazingly we only need the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar to ensure our optimum blood level of 80 g/dl. Of course, our bodies also have built up large reserves of sugar around our bodies (in the form of glycogen, a quick-release form of sugar, in our liver and muscles) and longer-term energy stores in our fat. We only require a minimal amount of sugar to circulate in our bloodstream at any one time and it’s up to insulin, our glucose-regulating hormone, to maintain this low level, to keep us healthy and functioning well.
Just a teaspoon of sugar is all you need
Sugar is a precious fuel that our brains and body need for optimal functioning. However, the amount of sugar we need in our bloodstream is surprisingly small; if we have too much of it, we can cause damage to cells through inflammation all over our body, and if we have too little of it, we can fall into a coma.
The Role of the Pancreas and Insulin
When we eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into simple sugars and pushed into the bloodstream. The pancreas is an organ that lies near the stomach and is responsible for making a hormone called insulin to help glucose get into the cells of our bodies to be used as energy. The pancreas senses the sugar level rising in the bloodstream and begins secreting the hormone, insulin. It’s insulin’s job to ensure that the excess sugar is removed from the bloodstream and directed (mostly) to fat cells where it’s converted to triglycerides and stored. When the blood sugar settles back to a manageable healthy level, the insulin disappears from the bloodstream as it’s no longer needed.
Carbohydrates & Insulin
Foods that are made up of complex carbohydrates such as vegetables, oats or brown rice need time for the bowel to break them down and release sugars much more slowly, requiring a longer but much lower level of insulin to manage the sugar as it is released into the blood stream.
The roller coaster sugar ride
The amount of insulin that is secreted into the bloodstream to deal with excess sugar, is directly proportional to the amount of sugar we eat and the speed with which this sugar is dumped into the bloodstream, and this is dependent on the type of food that we eat. Food and drink that contains high levels of sugar (i.e. highly processed, manufactured foods such as cakes, biscuits, and fizzy soft drinks) will produce a huge surge in insulin levels, forcing the excess sugar out of the blood stream and into storage. There is of course a downside to this: the surging insulin results in too much sugar leaving the bloodstream quickly, resulting in blood sugar levels falling rapidly, which has the effect of setting off alarm bells in our brain. The result is, that we start to feel anxious, and this quickly leads to craving foods that contain sugar. We can satisfy this craving by eating, say, a sugary biscuit or a sweet snack, which again has the effect of dumping excess sugar into the bloodstream and the roller coaster starts all over again!
The cumulative effect of the sugar roller coaster is that we consume much more sugar than we would from a healthy, balanced diet. The result of eating sugary processed foods, coupled with our growing culture of snacking between meals, is that we are gradually increasing the total amount of insulin required to cope with managing these waves of sugar that we are loading into our bloodstream.
Insulin spiking and the effect on weight set point
Research has found that insulin levels are integrally related to where our weight set point settles. Excess insulin production, brought on by eating high-sugar foods, results in reducing the effect of leptin (our master weight controller), ultimately encouraging the body to store more fat. Insulin levels increase (with the consumption of sugary foods), resulting in increased leptin resistance. If we continually spike our insulin levels, by regularly consuming high sugar content foods over a period of weeks, it will result in pushing up our weight set point, leading to weight gain. Lowering insulin levels over several weeks by ensuring a balanced diet, and minimising processed high-sugar foods, will lower your weight set point and help you to effortlessly lose weight.
The link with diabetes
The NHS defines Diabetes as “a lifelong condition that causes a person’s blood sugar level to become too high”.
There are two main types of diabetes:
- type 1 diabetes – where the body’s immune system
attacks and destroys the cells that produce insulin
- type 2 diabetes – where the body does not produce
enough insulin, or the body’s cells do not react to
Almost 4 million people in the UK have been diagnosed with diabetes, with around 90% having type 2 diabetes. A further 12 million people are at risk of developing diabetes.
The overwhelming cause of type 2 diabetes
Overconsumption of highly processed food and drink is the main culprit for people developing diabetes type 2. These are packaged products with five or more ingredients, usually containing sugar, unhealthy oils or fats, salt, and ultimately lacking in fibre, vitamins and minerals. These types of food make up an estimated 50% of calories consumed in the UK, and include items such as mass-produced packaged bread, many breakfast cereals, pre-packed meals, carbonated drinks, ice cream, deserts, biscuits.
These foods are deliberately designed by the food industry to encourage overconsumption, stimulate your appetite, and be mildly addictive. The biggest culprit here is high sugar content.
The good news is that studies show that it is possible for some people to reverse type 2 diabetes, by losing weight and maintaining a good diet.