Last time I talked about inflammation, and how it can lead to serious health problems; and how it can be greatly reduced given a little effort.
Today we’re going to look at sugar.
I talked about sugar some before when I discussed High Fructose Corn Syrup. Today I’m going to go a little more in depth about sugar in general, and what it does to your poor body in excessive quantities.
I want to say that again: in excessive quantities.
The reason I emphasize that is to be sure everyone understands that sugar in and of itself is neither evil nor harmful, in moderation.
What is sugar?
Sugar is actually a name given to lots of different specific molecules that taste sweet. I say “sugar” and most people (myself included) envision a pile of white granules. This is table sugar, or Sucrose. Sucrose itself is constructed from two other sugar molecules, Glucose and Fructose.
Here’s a model of glucose:
Kind of looks like a duck, doesn’t it?
Anyway. It’s a carbohydrate. Meaning, it is a molecule made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms.
All of the different kinds of sugar have construction similar to this one: a number of carbon atoms, same number of oxygen, and twice as many hydrogen. The kinds of sugars we’re interested are saccharides, which can come singly (like glucose) or doubly (like sucrose). When they get more than a few of them connected together, they stop being sugars and start being starches. Which goes to the point that starchy foods are carbohydrates too, and because your body just rips them apart and turns them into sugars anyway, they’re going to contribute to the, er, bottom line just as well as plain old sugar will.
So like I said, sugar isn’t a bad thing in limited quantities – and given the proper accompaniment.
The problem we have these days is that because of the easy access to foods containing sugar, whether plain candy, processed junk or even whole foods, we’re all consuming a whole lot more sugar than our poor little helpless bodies can deal with.
What was once a natural, sparse and relatively gentle energy source is now more like a missile barrage: where fruit sugars and more complex carbohydrates (each bringing along helpers such as fiber and vitamins) enter your bloodstream in a relatively calm and slow manner, refined sugar comes rocketing in so fast that your system gets overloaded and starts shipping most of it off to storage – as fat.
Fat, you say?
Yup. Your body’s cells (primarily the muscle cells) use sugar as fuel. Insulin comes along and rings the doorbell, sort of, so the cell will let the sugar in. But your cells don’t overeat. What they don’t consume, they shut out. In fact, they eventually start disconnecting their doorbells: the insulin receptor sites start to decrease in number and efficiency as they sense a sugar overload.
This is where things get ugly: all that extra glucose hanging around in your bloodstream starts making a racket, so your poor pancreas starts sending out more insulin, which is just ignored. Eventually, this cycle gets turned around when the body’s fat cells finally wake up and tell the sugar “All right, you can hang out here if you promise to be quiet.” Those fat cells really never get tired of letting sugar in. They can always get bigger. It’s not at all difficult to convert sugar into fat, and it’s a much more efficient way to keep it safe for later.
To add to the fun, there’s another little messaging system that gets all whacked out by the sugar fest. Fat cells secrete the hormone called “Leptin”, which is believed to be one of the things that our body uses to tell the brain “Hey, brain? We’re really not hungry right now. We’ve got some reserves to work off, kay? Thanks!”
Only, high insulin levels, such as those that you get during a sugar binge, interfere with the brain’s reception of Leptin. So your body will go right on thinking it’s starving, even if it grows to the size of a Buick.
Well, I can handle a little fat.
Everyone does. It’s natural, and necessary. Trouble is, by the time it’s noticeable, it isn’t “a little fat” any more: it’s a problem. Particularly when it comes to the spare tire. Belly fat (visceral) is the worst kind, because it is more active in your daily metabolic processes than the fat layer that sits under your skin (subcutaneous). Your body’s portal vein (it goes from stomach, intestines and other gut-related organs to the liver) runs right through that wad of blubber, so the fat has a chance to dump its inflammation-promoting interleukin 6 directly into your bloodstream. IL-6 causes increased production of c-reactive protein, which in turn increases the systemic inflammation I talked about last time. IL-6 also encourages insulin resistance, like I mentioned earlier.
I can always get liposuction.
Sorry, Charlie, no dice. Scientists checked on that and have found that removing subcutaneous fat does not significantly impact the production of IL-6, CRP or any of the other bad fat by-products. Because they can’t suck belly fat out; it’s too intertwined with your guts.
I suppose it gets worse, right?
Indeedy do. Guess what happens to the sugar that doesn’t find its way into fat cells? It wanders around in the blood stream getting into trouble, like unsupervised teenagers.
Recent research shows that extra glucose molecules that are just bumming around start getting chummy with certain proteins in your blood, reducing nitric oxide in the blood vessels. Blood vessels are more than simple tubes, as they can tighten or relax depending upon the blood flow needs of individual areas of the body. Nitric oxide is needed for the relaxing part. Tense blood vessels lead to greater hypertension (high blood pressure), and then everything that is associated with high blood pressure: gradual destruction of blood vessels in the eyes, kidney.
Another way the excess glucose causes problems is in roughing up the blood vessel walls, damaging them to the point where we get inflammation (yep – inflammation again), buildup of plaque and narrowing of arteries as well as creation of clots which lead to heart attack and stroke.
AND, as if that wasn’t enough, it turns out that too much insulin in the bloodstream also contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries – explaining heart disease in diabetics. It also increases cellular proliferation in cancers.
What’s the cure for all this?
Glad you asked! The best remedy is to visit with our old friends diet and exercise.
I was afraid of that
Naturally, cutting down on sugar intake is going to make the most impact. Anything with refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup is high up on the list of things to avoid. But any kind of high carb food, whether it’s fruit juice or white bread needs to be consumed in moderation. And whole grains and whole fruits are important in the diet as they bring fiber, which helps slow down the absorption of sugar.
Further, exercise can reverse the trend. When they’re used a lot, your muscles will “up regulate”, meaning they’ll wire up their insulin doorbells again and start letting in the sugar. It’s basically a supply and demand thing. Where before they weren’t demanding much because they weren’t being asked to do much, with exercise they’ll start demanding more, and will take the sugar that would have otherwise become fat or otherwise be troublesome.
Make those muscles work for your health. Make them suck up that sugar.
And I’m not even talking about 30 minutes every day at the health club. I’m just saying do more moving. That’s all. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park one row farther out in the parking lot at the mall. Fidget. Stretch. Do stuff wherever, whenever you have ten seconds to spare. It’ll make a difference. Naturally, though, the more consistently and vigorously you exercise, the better.
Good luck and good health to you all.