If you or someone you know has diabetes, then you know that controlling the amount of “sugar” (technically glucose) in the blood is critical.
What you may not realize is that every one of us needs to be concerned about our blood sugar levels.
So let’s talk about what happens when there is too much glucose in the blood stream. Because it’s not that glucose is inherently bad for us (after all, the body can use it for energy), rather the problems arise when a bunch of it enters and hangs out in the blood vessels, where it’s not meant to be.
This is what occurs in your body when you experience a spike in blood glucose…
- The pancreas must pump out a ton of insulin to get the excess glucose out of the blood stream. This is a protection mechanism because too many sugar molecules floating around in your blood is like sucking sand-saturated water through a straw… the excess glucose [ie, sand] causes damage to the blood vessel walls [ie, the straw] and the heart has to work really hard to keep it all moving.
- Immune cells are triggered to release inflammatory messengers, which is inflammation. However, in a strange paradox, sugar also suppresses the immune system’s ability to actually fight invaders. So we’re pissing off our body guard (our immune system) while also tying its hands behind its back so it can’t fight for us when it needs to. That’s an over-simplified analogy because the effect is in two different parts of the immune system, but the result is the same. We increase our inflammation (not good) and we can’t fight off bad microbes (also not good).
- Excess glucose in the blood binds with proteins in cell walls and forms advanced glycation end (AGE) products. These AGEs are essentially damaged cells that cause inflammation (because the immune system wants to clean up damaged cells) and oxidative stress which is a sign of cellular aging. (And, really, “old” cells lead to old people… functionally, not necessarily chronologically.)
- Excess glucose in the blood can also oxidize blood lipids (such as LDL and HDL cholesterol). Oxidation is what happens when free radicals attack a cell and damage it. It’s not good, and oxidized lipids are directly tied to atherosclerosis and other vascular diseases. (Cardiovascular disease does not develop just because lipids are present. It’s a result of how those lipids function. Being damaged doesn’t help them behave well… which is also true of people, if we think about it.)
- Some people (both kids and adults) seem to be more sugar sensitive than other people. This sensitivity can lead to hyperactivity, trouble concentrating and/or aggression when blood sugar spikes occur. Although the following reactions happen in all people when a blood sugar spike occurs, it seems to be worse in those who are sugar sensitive…
- A huge adrenaline release,
- A spike in cortisol, and/or
- A severe drop in blood glucose in the blood when the cells rapidly pull the excess glucose out of the blood (which is also not good).
- Beyond the behavior problems caused by glucose crossing the blood-brain barrier, high blood glucose can also cause neurological problems as it forms AGEs in brain tissue (see #3 above). In fact, research has shown an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and stroke with increased blood glucose levels over time.
- Perpetually high blood sugar leads to kidney disease. In fact, uncontrolled diabetes is one of the two main causes of renal failure (the other is uncontrolled hypertension). Remember the analogy above about the sand and the straw? Well, the “straws” (blood vessels) in your kidneys are t-i-n-y and become easily damaged as they try to filter blood that is packed with stuff that shouldn’t be there (like a bunch of glucose).
Are you convinced? I sure hope so! After all, maintaining a healthy ebb and flow of blood glucose is necessary for our survival (as I said, our body uses glucose) and for optimizing our well-being.
Now that you know why blood sugar is necessary, check out the next post in this series: Understanding Blood Sugar Control: The Basics, which will explain how blood sugar control works.
— Ask Dr. Sears. Harmful effects of excess sugar. In Feeding and Eating. Accessed on March 24, 2015.
— Brogan K. From Gut to Brain: The Inflammation Connection. Accessed on March 24, 2015.
— Kroner Z. The relationship between Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes: type 3 diabetes?. Alternative Medicine Review. 2009; 14(4): 373.
— Lewis JG. Here’s what happens to your brain when you give up sugar for Lent. In Health + Medicine. Accessed on March 24, 2015.
— Michaels K. Halt sugar-induced cell aging. In Life Extension Magazine. Accessed on March 24, 2015.
— Mishra N, Singh N. Blood viscosity, lipid profile, and lipid peroxidation in type-1 diabetic patients with good and poor glycemic control. N Am J Med Sci. 2013; 5(9): 562–566.
— Quinn TJ, Dawson J, Walters MR. Sugar and stroke: cerebrovascular disease and blood glucose control. Cardiovascular therapeutics. 2011; 29(6): e31-e42.