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Maintaining stable blood sugar is a mind-boggling concept for most of us. The human body is so complicated, how can anyone really know how it works?

In this blog post, we take a no-nonsense look at blood sugar and how being aware of how to control yours can improve your health and extend your life.


Blood sugar is an often-overlooked factor in proper nutrition.  While counting calories and eating the latest foods to appear on the shelves at Whole Foods might work for some people, the most sustainable way to eat healthier is to appreciate what food does to the body.

Understanding the science of blood sugar is a first step towards that goal.


What Is Blood Sugar?

Glucose is the primary fuel source for bodily cells and without it, the cells would not be able to function or survive.  Blood sugar refers to the concentration of glucose in the blood.

Energy from food becomes glucose through the process of metabolism.  Energy from food begins to be absorbed once food reaches the small intestine.  Enzymes in the intestines begin to break down nutrients into substances that the cells can use as energy.  Blood containing the nutrients absorbed from fat, proteins and carbs ultimately circulates throughout the body to fuel the cells.

Proteins, fats and carbohydrates are used by the body in different ways.  Proteins are broken down into amino acids, which aid in cell repair and tissue building.  Fats break down into fatty acids, a fuel source for certain bodily systems and a vital component to brain function.  Carbohydrates break down into glucose, the primary fuel source for many of the body's cells.

Because carbohydrates break down directly into glucose, carbohydrate quantity and quality are the biggest variables when managing blood sugar.


The Ins and Outs of Carbohydrates

Different foods have varying impacts on blood sugar based on the properties of the carbohydrates in the food.  The glycemic index value of a food is an assessment of how strongly a food will affect blood sugar levels.  A high glycemic index value means that a food will have a significant impact on blood sugar, while a lower glycemic index indicates that a food will have a lesser, milder impact.

The glycemic index of a food is a product of two factors; the quantity of carbohydrates in a food and the quality of those carbs.  The more carbs a food has, the higher its glycemic index will likely be.  A food comprised of simple carbohydrates that reach the blood quickly will also generally have a high glycemic index.  Conversely, foods low in carbohydrates or with complex carbohydrates that reach the blood more slowly will have a lower glycemic index rating.

Scientifically, the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates comes down to the length and complexity of the molecules that they form.  Simple carbohydrates are composed of short saccharide chains that are quickly absorbed by the body and are converted to glucose more easily than complex carbohydrates.  Complex carbohydrate sources require a more complicated process to break down, thus reaching the blood at a slower, more stable pace.  Longer saccharide chains require the cooperation of several intestinal enzymes to separate into smaller, more easily absorbed chains and some complex carbohydrate chains are complex enough to resist metabolism; dietary fiber is an example of this.


Discerning Between Simple and Complex Carbohydrates

There's no way to simply eyeball a food and tell how complex its molecules are, but there are tricks that can help you determine the quality of a food's carbohydrates.

The first trick is the simplest; look at the ingredients.  Ingredients such as refined flour, high fructose corn syrup, table sugar, or other types of sugars are dead giveaways that a food is loaded with simple carbohydrates.  Sodas, candies, fruit juices and white rice and bread are typically made using processed sugars and flours that cause these foods to have a very strong impact on blood sugar.

A second tip is minding fiber content.  Simply checking the nutrition label of most foods can help estimate the complexity of the food's carbohydrates.  The greater the proportion of dietary fiber compared to the total carbohydrate count, the more complex the carbohydrates generally are.  Replacing simple carbohydrate foods with high-fiber alternatives not only helps to control blood sugar, it also promotes digestive health.

In both cases, a quick review of the nutrition label will give you all of the information you'll need to make more educated food purchases that will help to keep you stable.

Photo by little blue hen on Flickr

Photo by little blue hen on Flickr.

The Consequences of Blood Sugar Swings

Blood sugar swings have tangible physical consequences.  High blood sugar can cause splitting headaches, thirst, blurred vision and other uncomfortable side effects.  Low blood sugar can cause fatigue, dizziness, extreme hunger, sweating and shakiness.

Even with the body's regulatory methods in place, highs and lows in blood sugar can affect your mood, energy and ability to concentrate.  When blood sugar gets too high, the pancreas excretes insulin, a hormone that causes cells to take up glucose and store it as glycogen as a means of driving blood sugar down.

A healthy body is generally able to self-moderate its blood sugar through the release of insulin from the pancreas.  Depending on insulin to regulate blood sugar, however, is not without its consequences, as the release of the hormone accelerates fat storage as glucose is removed from the blood and stored.  Aside from causing fat storage, insulin also tends to be hyperactive, driving blood sugar down too far and causing unexpected lows.

Forcing your body do the control blood sugar despite an unhealthy diet is destructive over the long term; healthy eating habits and an awareness of how food works for you will go a long way in helping you live healthier.


Why Should I Care So Much About Blood Sugar?

Maintaining stable blood sugar has a great deal of rewards for both long-term and short-term health.

In the short term, the immediate consequences of high or low blood sugar can manifest as headaches, fatigue, inability to concentrate, shakiness, hunger, thirst, irritability, and other symptoms.  By eating smarter, one can avoid these side effects and enjoy increased energy and focus on a daily basis.

The long-term consequences of poorly managed blood sugar are much more sinister.  Poor eating habits may lead to pre-diabetes or full-blown type 2 diabetes, where the body's regulatory system is no longer effective in moderating blood sugar.

For people that have diabetes, the long and short term consequences of unmonitored blood sugar are even more extreme.  Because the body can no longer self-regulate effectively, the constant rigor needed to maintain blood sugar stability can take a significant toll on day-to-day life.


What Is Diabetes and Is It Avoidable?

Diabetes is a metabolic condition in which the body is no longer able to properly regulate the amount of glucose circulating in the blood.  There are several types of the disease, though the primary symptoms of the disease are very similar across these types.

Type 1 diabetes mellitus is most often a result of genetic predisposition; people with type 1 diabetes are most often diagnosed at an early age or they have shown signs of improper blood sugar self-regulation for most of their lives.  In most cases with type 1 diabetes, the body is unable to produce sufficient insulin for effective blood sugar regulation.

Type 2 diabetes is often diagnosed later in life.  Factors contributing to the onset of type 2 diabetes include diet, lifestyle, exercise, genetic predisposition, stress, race and more.  Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body becoming less sensitive to insulin, so blood sugar doesn't respond when the insulin response kicks in.

Gestational diabetes is another common form of diabetes developed in women during pregnancy.  Gestational diabetes can be quite dangerous for both the mother and the unborn child and requires the same diligence in blood sugar maintenance as type 1 and type 2 diabetes.  Factors for gestational diabetes include weight, lifestyle, activity level, diet, hormonal changes, and genetic predisposition.  Babies born to a mother with gestational diabetes run a significantly higher risk of being diagnosed with some form of diabetes later in life, as well.


That's A Lot of Info!  Where Should I Start?

Terms like saccharide chains, molecules, and glucose are intimidating to anybody uninitiated in human biology.  There are countless factors in the science of human digestion and metabolism, so it's hard to know where to start.

The best way to start is to get in tune with your body.  By working to find alternatives to foods high in sugars and simple carbohydrates, it's very easy to start feeling the immediate physical benefits of a healthier diet.

By learning a little bit about food nutrition labels and by being aware of red-flag ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, you'll have the knowledge you need to make healthier buying decisions at the grocery store.


Still Feeling Lost?

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For More Information

US Food and Agriculture Association: Digestion, Absorption and Energy Value of Carbohydrates
US Department of Health and Human Services: Your Digestive System and How It Works
Wikipedia: Digestion
Wikipedia: Metabolism
Clif's Notes: Human Digestive System
WebMD: Blood Glucose

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