Blood sugar and the resulting insulin surge that comes with it seems to be an extremely important piece to the complex puzzle of human health. Our blood glucose levels are supposed to be naturally low, but our modern diet has driven it to constant high levels resulting in insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, metabolic disease, and a host of other inflammatory conditions like cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Eating things like sugar, grains, and high carbohydrate processed foods introduces an unnatural amount of glucose into our blood stream. Insulin is released, and the glucose is shuttled away as stored glycogen in the muscles or fat. Insulin isn’t a bad thing, we need it to regulate inflammation caused by blood sugar. However when our blood glucose levels are constantly raised, we become resistant to our insulin, and pro-inflammatory hormones and cytokines are released. This inulin resistance and the resulting chronic inflammation is at the core of many illness, so it is critical we keep it in mind.
Before diving in, let’s establish what “normal” blood glucose ranges are. According the American Diabetes Association, healthy fasted blood glucose ranges should be less than 100mg/dl. Fasted meaning no food or calories for at least 8 hours. The post-prandial response (after eating) should be less than 140mg/dl 2 hours after eating.
So how exactly does constant high blood sugar affect our health? Here are a few things to consider.
Controlling our blood glucose levels is key for an effective weight loss strategy. The higher the blood glucose response to food, the more energy is being stored as fat instead of being used as fuel. This is due to our good friend, insulin.
Different foods elicit different rates of insulin response. Fat barely registers on the insulin index. The two types of foods that elicit an insulin response are carbs and protein.
- When protein is in the bloodstream, insulin is released to allow the storage of amino acids in our tissue.
- Glucagon is also released to balance out the insulin response and allow some amino acids to travel to the liver to be converted into glucose if necessary.
- The body processes protein in a way that gets insulin out of the bloodstream as soon as possible and shuttles nutrients where they are needed efficiently.
Carbohydrates, however, are not balanced out by glucagon. Carbs raise blood sugar very quickly (even “healthy whole grains”) and insulin is released to store the glucose as glycogen in our muscles or liver. When those stores are all full, the only place left is in our fat cells. So, eating carbohydrate rich foods when we have not depleted our glycogen stores through intense exercise or restriction of carb-heavy foods leads to that glucose being stored as fat.
This is an interesting topic. For years we have been told that the root cause of heart disease is the consumption of fat/cholesterol. This all started with the research of Ancel Keys, who conducted the famous Seven Countries study. Using cherry picked data, he showed that saturated fat intake correlated with heart disease. What was left out, was that sugar intake also correlated with heart disease. He wasn’t the first and certainly not the last researcher to do this, but the fact that much of the public understanding and government guidelines were based off of this makes his error all the more important.
Lets cut right to the chase, higher fasted blood glucose is associated with a significant rise in the chance of having a cardiac event. The details from that study.
- Baseline fasted blood glucose results were calculated from 24,160 non-diabetic adults. These were then compared to the incidence of cardiovascular disease a year after.
- Higher than 100mg/dl blood glucose was associated with a 53.9% increase in the chance of having a cardiac event.
That isn’t just significant, but a clear as day cause and effect. A review of 38 different reports also found a significant correlation with non-diabetic having higher than normal blood glucose and a higher rate of heart disease.
Not the first thing you think of when this topic comes up is it? It’s turning out blood sugar has much more to do with brain health than we thought.
In a Swedish study 838 “cognitively healthy” adults were given cognitive functioning tests over a period of three years. All adults had a history of high blood glucose, some had Type 2 diabetes. In every marker for cognitive health there was a downward trend going right along with blood glucose. This means the higher the blood glucose levels, the greater the rate of decline in all aspects of mental health. This includes premature dementia, verbal ability, spacial ability, the list goes on.
This review argues that among heart disease, organ damage, and retinal damage, cognitive decline should be recognized as a hallmark of diabetes.
These are just a few things to consider on the vast topic of blood sugar. Many other things are affected like the likelihood of cancer, kidney disease, energy, and general health. Next week I’ll dive into exactly how to control blood sugar and how certain foods effect it.
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