John feels restless and suffers from irritability and insomnia. Gloria complains of headaches and recurrent nausea. Susan is hungry all the time and has an insatiable craving for sweets. Mark gets dizzy and shakes if he goes too long without eating. Eileen has crashing fatigue and feels exhausted even after a full night’s sleep. Carl’s blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels are all high. Peggy’s memory is failing her and she is unable to think clearly. Peter is battling heart disease. Jackie feels depressed and anxious for no apparent reason. Ten year old Seth is hyperactive and has just been diagnosed by his doctor with attention deficit disorder. Ten different people suffering different symptoms, but each a victim of what alternative health practitioners are now calling glycemic disregulation; an inability of the body to properly manage its supply of blood sugar. And the number of sufferers is growing at an alarming; some would say epidemic rate.
Blood sugar, known as glucose, is the energy currency of the body, and every cell must have a steady supply or it ceases to function. An end product of digestion, glucose is the assimilable form of carbohydrate in the body. Without it we would collapse. It is such a precious commodity, the body utilizes powerful counter-regulatory mechanisms to ensure that glucose levels are never allowed to get too high or too low for any length of time. Given this fact, you might be surprised to learn that over twenty million Americans suffer from either hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). High and low blood sugar are two sides of the same coin. The hypoglycemic is unable to maintain enough sugar in the blood to keep the tissues well supplied. The hyperglycemic has plenty of blood sugar but isn’t able to transport that sugar into the tissues. In either case, mismanagement of glucose creates a shortfall in our body’s primary fuel.
One of the key players in the management of glucose is a hormone called insulin. Produced in the pancreas, it is insulin’s job to lower rising blood sugar by transporting it out of the blood into the tissues where it can be used for physical and mental energy. The more sugar in the blood, the more insulin produced. Problems arise when the pancreas, original equipment when we rolled off nature’s assembly line eons ago, meets our highly refined and processed diet. As it turns out, the organ’s Paleolithic design is unsuitable for managing blood sugar levels in the modern American, whose sedentary lifestyle and fiber deficient food supply bears little resemblance to our historic, more appropriate diet.
Reactive hypoglycemia is a condition brought on by our modern way of life. In essence, the pancreas over-reacts to the consumption of sugary foods, fast foods, low fiber, white flour products like pasta and white bread, and concentrated fruit juices that, because of their refined nature, enter the bloodstream too quickly. The resulting spike in blood sugar triggers an excess production of insulin, which pulls glucose levels down too far too fast. This is especially harmful to the brain, which uses over a third of the body’s glucose and is particularly sensitive to changing blood sugar levels. Small fluctuations will disturb your feelings of well being. Large fluctuations can lead to depression, anxiety, fatigue, irritability and mood swings.
The internal scenario goes something like this. Fifteen minutes after finishing that bear claw and café mocha breakfast, an avalanche of sugar crashes into the bloodstream. We might feel a short-lived surge of energy. Then in a desperate attempt to maintain proper blood chemistry, the pancreas overproduces insulin to bulldoze the excess glucose out of the blood. Glucose levels plummet, and the brain, in a panic, triggers emergency counter-regulatory measures by our adrenal glands to shove blood sugar back up to a proper level. Those who are sensitive to their bodies will feel this rush of adrenal hormones as an internal trembling or nervousness. If we eat more processed and refined foods for lunch and dinner, we’ll ride this same rollercoaster, up and down, several times a day, week after week, month after month, year after year. After a few decades the body’s blood sugar management team is exhausted and the result is chronically low blood sugar levels. What was once a tolerable down swing in energy between 2 and 5 each afternoon, becomes great, unending fatigue. Craving for sweets has transmuted into dizziness and ravenous hunger. Irritability turns into restlessness, sleeplessness and anxiety. Mild mood swings have become manic/depressive, even violent tendencies.
Nor do you want to allow your blood sugar level to remain chronically high. Hyperglycemia is a red flag that may indicate a problem with insulin’s ability to transport sugar out of the blood and into the cells. Decades of eating overly processed sugary, fatty, and refined food forces the body to produce massive amounts of insulin to carry sugar out of the blood. Hyperinsulinism is the result; an over-abundance of insulin in the blood stream. Over time a person can gain 5, 10, 15, 20 lbs. or more as the insulin transports excess sugar into the tissues. To stem the flow, the body can become resistant to insulin, leading to chronically high blood sugar, high insulin levels, and an inability to convert glucose into physical and mental energy. Syndrome X is the ominous term being used to describe a cluster of metabolic disorders including heart disease, diabetes, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, and high triglycerides, that have their roots in insulin resistance.
Diabetes, chronic hyperglycemia, is the seventh leading cause of death in our country. At its present rate of increase, 6% a year, the number of diabetics will double every 15 years. Left unchecked, it can lead to high cholesterol and triglycerides, atherosclerosis, kidney disease, hypertension, heart disease, strokes, cataracts, loss of hearing, blindness, and even death. Type II, known as adult onset diabetes, accounts for 90% of all diabetes. Years of dietary abuse and lack of exercise bring it on.
Until recently, natives living on the Pacific island of Nauru ate a simple diet of mainly yams and bananas. Diabetes was virtually unknown. When the inhabitants became wealthy with the discovery of valuable minerals on the island, they settled into a life of leisure and began eating a western diet-high in sugar, fat and refined carbohydrates. Today, The World Health Organization estimates that close to one-half of the urbanized population of Nauru between 30 and 64 years of age now has Type II diabetes.
The good news about adult onset diabetes is that it is completely preventable and reversible. Clinical trials have repeatedly shown that returning to a more “primitive” diet, high in plant fiber and complex carbohydrates, have shown superior results over oral insulin therapy combined with a low carbohydrate/high protein diet, like the one suggested by the American Diabetes Association.
If diabetes isn’t a concern and you have no hypoglycemic symptoms, there is one more reason to consider managing your blood sugar levels. Recent government studies indicate that over 50% of all adult Americans are now over weight. Contrary to popular belief, weight gain is not merely the result of consuming more calories than we burn up in activity. Excess weight, particularly the stubborn kind that doesn’t respond to increased exercise, is often the result of elevated blood sugar and insulin levels. When you consider the fact that the average person consumes his or her weight in pounds of sugar every year, our corpulent condition is not very surprising. If we don’t have an immediate energetic need for the calories in all that sugar, insulin stores it in the body. Fat isstored energy.
Influenced by a barrage of inaccurate advertisements and media reports, dieters continue to consume low fat (high sugar) products that elevate insulin levels and make weight loss virtually impossible. Dietary fat has been made the enemy, and we eat less of it than we used to. Yet the average American man, woman and child is 10 lbs. heavier today than they were 25 years ago. Dietary fat, as it turns out, is not what’s making us fat. The culprit is an increased consumption of refined, white flour products and sugary foods.
So much for that no-fat frozen yogurt.
Sam Rose, CN MS is a licensed and certified nutritionist and owner of Rose Nutrition Center in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310-473-8835.