Our association with sugar often contains fond memories. Little girls are described as “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Most social events are associated with some kind of sugar exposure. I remember when we were raising our children that one of the highlights for them and probably also for me was the parent-child date, when we went out to get the chocolate dipped ice cream cones. Sugar and chocolate seem to relieve depression, or when we are down in the dumps we can get a little sugar high and that helps with the mood. Incentives in school and family are often sweets. Memories of Christmas stockings, Easter, Halloween are filled with sugar treats. Suckers at the bank or in purses or pockets to quiet unhappy toddlers are a common event in our society.
I’m going to get up on my soapbox a bit, and talk to you about one of the greatest health concerns I see in my practice. It is so common and so constant that it is deceptive. Very few people will admit it, but most people are addicted to it. I will explain why and how that is the case later, but for now, let’s talk about…SUGAR, the great food deceiver.
We are bombarded with it. Every occasion that calls for celebration features a plethora of choices: candy, pastries, cakes, cookies, brownies, ice cream, cream puffs, éclairs, shakes, donuts, frozen popsicles, gum, soda pop. The list could continue almost endlessly, because the bulk of our food contains sugar. Even the most unlikely candidates for sugar inclusion contain sugar, because it is such an addictive substance. Amazingly, meat often contains it; pasta dishes frequently have it as well.
A recent study that I featured on my website, along with my comments (www.stangardnermd.com), refers to a study that concludes that sugar is as addictive as heroin, and potentially even more harmful, because of its far-reaching effects and its deceptive acceptance in our diet. That entry drew over 42 comments from readers, many of them begging for help to get off the sugar habit. (If you’re one of those—keep reading! I have an important announcement—and request—coming up).
Various Deceiving Roles Refined Sugar Plays in Your Body
There are various deceiving roles that sugar plays in yours and my bodies. Let’s first of all talk about what happens with the ingestion of sugar. When sugar is ingested and enters the mouth, the organisms in the mouth use sugar for energy and become more active. The byproduct of this activity or metabolism is acid production, which starts to wear down the teeth and cause cavities. Unfortunately, many dentists are still using mercury fillings that they call silver fillings or amalgam fillings. The sugar causes the initial problem by contributing to cavity formation; then the mercury toxicity from mercury amalgam fillings over subsequent years is clearly related to neurological difficulties, muscle problems (including in the heart)—and it also affects the immune system.
Another major problem with sugar and refined carbohydrates in the mouth is it feeds Candida infection, which may be found anywhere: from the mouth, esophagus, down through the large intestine and rectum. Because Candida uses sugar for metabolism and energy, Candida is better able to divide, multiply and morph into a more toxic form with sugar as fuel.
One last problem with sugar ingestion before it gets into the stomach where absorption takes place is the neurochemical changes that sugar triggers in the brain. These are related to actual tongue stimulation, which sets off immediate changes in the brain. The brain, unfamiliar with this type of onslaught, evidences behaviors which are not uncommonly seen in children, such as hyperactivity, anxiety, crankiness and diminished concentration and depression. All of these can significantly affect school performance. Some people experience drowsiness instead of hyperactivity. Interestingly, recently presented data at a neuropsychopharmacology conference demonstrated that some of these neurochemical changes are the same changes that occur in people ingesting alcohol and other addictive substances. Clearly, sugar is an addictive substance.
Now, let’s talk about what happens with sugar or refined carbohydrates after they leave the mouth and are ingested into the gastrointestinal tract. Of particular interest are insulin and sugar. Increased insulin production due to sugar intake will eventually lead to insulin resistance. Since refined sugar requires no metabolism or digestive processes for breakdown, sugar is immediately absorbed into the body, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar or blood glucose levels. The pancreas anticipates this rise and releases insulin, anticipating not only the amount of sugar in the stomach, but that there will be a meal following. Often too much insulin is secreted, which drops the blood sugar to a level below where the body functions optimally. This sets up a stress hormone reaction in the adrenal gland, and epinephrine, or adrenaline, is released to handle the stress. When adrenaline is released, it sends a message to the liver to break down glycogen stores (which are many glucose molecules hooked together) to release glucose into the blood stream. This corrects the low blood sugar level. Adrenalin makes many people feel anxious, nervous, and irritable; their heart rate may also go up. These adrenaline symptoms are perceived by the body as stress, and many people have discovered that if they eat sugar when their blood sugar is low, then their blood glucose will immediately rise and take away these symptoms. Unfortunately, with the body’s normal mechanisms of correcting low blood sugar and the ingestion of a sweet, the blood glucose may again go too high. The pancreas secretes too much insulin (again), dropping the blood sugar too much (again). If another candy sweet is ingested two hours after the first one, and the liver kicks in increasing glycogen breakdown, blood sugar rises too high, which triggers the pancreas to secrete more insulin, and gets into this endless cycle.
This could all be avoided if the carbohydrates were not in the refined state. Carbohydrates in the complex form (like whole grains, legumes, vegetables) take time for the body to break down and much slower absorption would then take place. After years of being on a roller coaster with too much sugar and too much insulin, the cell walls of the cells in the body become thick and there is a reduced number of the insulin receptors in these cells. Because the insulin can no longer drive the blood sugar into the cells as rapidly as it could before, the blood sugar rises, the pancreas continues to excrete insulin and pretty soon, we have what’s called insulin resistance. This is a chronic problem of high blood sugars or high normal blood sugars with an elevation in the insulin. Eventually, this will be the cause and source of diabetes type two.
What do consistently high levels of insulin do in our body? High insulin levels block the conversion of triglycerides into energy. Glucose and triglycerides are the two major sources for energy or ATP production. When triglycerides are blocked with consistently high insulin levels, there is a rise in the triglycerides, which is a precursor for cholesterol. As the cholesterol and triglyceride levels rise, there’ll be a greater deposition of these fat molecules into the body with associated weight gain.
Another problem with high insulin levels is that there is an increase in sodium and water retention, which leads to hypertension and edema or water retention in the body. Insulin is also associated with increasing testosterone levels, which causes androgen effects. Some of the androgen effects that women don’t like are blemishes that appear and increased hair growth. (Although today most everybody likes the muscle building effects of increased testosterone levels).
The effects of high blood sugar in the body are many and varied. If the blood sugar is high enough, then the sugar will bind to proteins. This is given a fancy name called glycosylation or glycation. All that means is that the glucose is binding to proteins. If glucose binds to the proteins in the red blood cell, then it decreases oxygen delivery to the cells and increases its stickiness. This will cause clumping of red blood cells, which will diminish the ability of the blood stream to carry nutrients to areas and it will actually cause microinfarcts because these clumped red blood cells cannot pass through capillaries and will block the supply of blood.
When the glucose binds to a nerve cell, it will cause tingling or pain or numbness in that nerve area. This is most often seen in the feet and is called neuropathy. Unfortunately, there may be unrecognized skin breakdown with subsequent infections because of the sensory nerves having difficulty assessing damage to the skin.
When the sugar binds to a blood vessel wall, it causes inflammation and vascular disease. Inflammation is the beginning point of vascular disease, with its subsequent clotting and trapping of red blood cells, white cells, platelets and release of iron and copper. The release of iron and copper from the red blood cells will increase free radical releases. These are actually catalysts for free radical acceleration with subsequent free radical damage. The release of serotonin from the platelets will cause local inflammation and vasoconstriction or constriction of the blood vessels. This will eventually lead to an increase in incidence of strokes and heart attacks, hypertension, and kidney failure. Between the clumping of the red blood cells and the microinfarcts and the inflammation in the blood vessel wall, the blood vessel system is compromised, which reduces nutrients, oxygen, and the ability of the blood vessels to get rid of waste products, causing cyanotic (blue because of lack of oxygen) feet or limbs.
When the glucose binds to the LDL or a low density lipoprotein, which is a cholesterol molecule, then cholesterol synthesis will be increased, resulting in more fat storage. When glucose binds to the protein in the lens of the eye, it is a cause of cataracts.
When the blood sugar is elevated, the body makes every attempt it can to reduce the blood sugar. One of the ways it does this is by converting glucose into triglycerides. Triglycerides are precursors for cholesterol, and as the cholesterol or triglyceride levels rise, more fat is deposited in the body.
Sugar is a known pro-inflammatory substance. All inflammation causes free radical damage. All inflammatory diseases have been attributed to rises in blood sugar levels and exposure to sugar on a chronic basis. These inflammatory diseases include arthritis, migraine headaches, the vascular disease that we’ve already talked about, emphysema, and eczema. Food allergies, rise in blood pressure and even symptoms of multiple sclerosis are increased upon exposure to sugar. Asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis all can lay a good part (if not all) of the blame onto sugar. Even cancer has been specifically associated with high-blood sugar levels. Cancer cells have 15x more insulin receptors than regular cells. They will even make their own insulin to bring sugar in. Breast cancer, ovarian, prostate, rectal, colon, and gall bladder cancers all have been documented to be associated with higher sugar intakes. In fact, once the cancer has started it is an obligate sugar consumer, and sugars and all carbohydrates (because they break into the glucose molecule) feed cancers. All inflammatory diseases also accelerate aging with loss of elasticity and function of tissue.
Because blood sugar and sugar ingestion causes inflammation, this will be a stress on the body, which will activate the sympathetic nervous system. The stresses of sugar cause a decrease in GI tract motility or movement in the gastrointestinal tract, which increases the amount of acid reflux. This is why we often get acid reflux when we are stressed. Sugar also slows down the motility in the stomach, small and large intestines, and colon, causing constipation. Constipation is commonly associated with hemorrhoids, colitis, and diverticulitis. Often when we find sugar that is ingested, it is ingested without associated fiber, which also contributes to constipation.
High blood sugar levels cause an increased excretion or loss of certain minerals out of the kidneys, including calcium and chromium. Of course, this eventually leads to a calcium deficiency with the possibility of contributing to osteopenia and osteoporosis. A chromium deficiency increases insulin resistance. The elevated blood sugar also decreases absorption of magnesium and calcium which again contribute to the calcium deficiency.
Many nutrients are used up in the process of metabolizing sugar. Magnesium is one of the most important minerals in the body, as it is utilized in more biochemical reactions than any other single mineral or vitamin in the body. With the diminished magnesium absorption and increased utilization of magnesium to metabolize sugar, it is not uncommon to have a magnesium deficiency in people with insulin resistance and diabetes. Manganese is also used up in sugar metabolism. Manganese is a critical co-factor in superoxide dismutase (SOD), which is one of the major anti-oxidants in the body and found in all the cells of the body.
Cobalt is also metabolized with sugar. It is an important part of vitamin B12. That’s why it’s called Cobalamine because it’s a Cobalt molecule that is inside the cell. Zinc is utilized in sugar metabolism, and it is important for hair and skin, strength, and for the immune system. In a deficiency, there tend to be skin problems, hair problems, and a drop in the immune system. Many of the B vitamins are utilized, especially vitamin B1, or thiamine. Thiamine deficiency is highly tied into energy metabolism, and it’s not uncommon to have heart arrhythmia or skin swelling with a thiamine deficiency.
High blood sugar levels also cause an immune system deficiency. The phagocytes, which are the cells in the body which chew up foreign material including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and break-down products, are not as effective when high blood sugar levels are found in the blood stream.
One last topic associated with high blood sugar is what happens during pregnancy. High blood sugar levels actually have the capability of affecting the DNA of the fetus and newborn child. This results in that child having more illnesses, and typically a shorter life span than children not exposed to sugar. Sugar has a genetic effect on jaw size, which tends to be reduced in the subsequent generation, and as this is passed on from generation to generation, jaw size is reduced to the point where orthodontic work is needed just to create straight teeth.
On my website, www.stangardnermd.com, I made an announcement several weeks ago about a program that I am developing to help people with their health issues—so that they can change from sick and fatigued to feeling dynamic health and energy. If this article is of interest to you, I invite you to visit the site, and let me know your hopes and wishes for this program. My objective is to help everyone who desires to be healthier achieve their goal.
In my next article, I have included some real life situations and tips on getting rid of the sugar habit. I’ll also help you to think of ways to relegate sugar to an unimportant, rarely-ingested status. In the meantime, please feel free to share your stories with me. I may include them in my next article! If you have an interesting recipe that helps relieve cravings for sweets, let us know. Just make sure your recipes don’t use Splenda, Equal, NutraSweet or similar saccharine products, or any ones that contain aspartame.
Get your mind and heart ready for a significant change. Change is possible. It’s not rocket science, and many thousands, if not millions, have achieved it. You can too! Get well. You deserve it! To your dynamic health and energy, Dr. Stan Gardner