The Excess Sugar Conundrum
You don't need sugar! While glucose is vital to health, we do not need to eat regular "sugar" in the form of sucrose, which is made up of fructose and glucose. We don't need fructose. Nor do we need to eat high fructose corn syrup, which is today widely used as a sweetener in processed foods. There is no need to add sucrose or fructose to our food.
Sure, it's okay to eat sugar that is naturally present in whole fruits or vegetables. Fruits and vegetables have other nutrients to mitigate the impact of glucose. You can obtain glucose from high-carbohydrate food like grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits.
Once starchy carbohydrates are converted into glucose and absorbed into the blood, the pancreas produces insulin to escort glucose into the cells to be metabolised into energy. Any excess is converted into glycogen for storage inside the liver and muscles. When these stores are full, further surpluses are converted into fat and stored in fat cells.
In the distant past, when food supplies were not consistent, storing fat was not a problem. People grew slightly fat when they had more to eat and they would draw on their glycogen and fat reserves when food was scarce. Today, because food is abundant, many people persistently eat more than what they need... until they become obese. And obesity increases the risk of other diseases like diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.
Sugar: A Mind Toxin
Glucose is a vital brain energy food. However, excess glucose is toxic to brain cells. Children become hyperactive when they eat too much sugar. This is why the pancreas produces insulin as a balancing mechanism to keep the blood glucose level in check.
Type 3 Diabetes: The Link to Alzheimer's
In 2005, scientist discovered that, apart from the pancreas, the brain also produces insulin. For insulin to escorts glucose into brain cells for energy production, the brain cells develop insulin receptors on their cell walls. These insulin receptors enable brain cells to signal insulin to bring in glucose for energy that is essential for brain functions like cognition and memory. What happens when your brain lacks insulin (as in type 1 diabetes) or develops insulin resistance (as in type 2 diabetes)? People develop another form of diabetes called "type 3 diabetes", where ineffective insulin signalling causes brain cells to malfunction and degenerate. Eventually, this leads to Alzheimer's disease.
Type 3 diabetes affects only people who already have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Thus, the way to prevent this degenerative brain disease is to manage type 1 and type 2 diabetes by controlling the blood glucose levels. Apart from diabetes medication, exercise and proper nutrition help.
Glucose and Dopamine: The Mood Connection
Glucose releases the neurotransmitter, dopamine, in your brain. This makes you feel energetic and even happy. Your mood improves. But the body can only tolerate a slight increase in blood glucose for this need. Too much glucose in your blood can kill you.
This is what happens to people who do not control their diabetes. When their blood glucose levels rise too high, they develop diabetic ketoacidosis that causes coma and death.
Normally, people don't die from eating large amounts of sucrose or starch because the pancreas produces insulin to regulate blood glucose levels. In this sense, insulin is a life saver. However, the pancreas is not "trained" to cope with sudden, large increases in the blood glucose level - because in the past, people did not eat large amounts of sucrose and starch.
The Rollercoaster of Blood Glucose Levels
What often happens today is that, when faced with a sudden, big surge in blood glucose, the pancreas over-reacts and produces too much insulin. As a result, the blood glucose level drops too low and the person starts to crave for sucrose and starch again.
The Vicious Cycle of Sugar Cravings
This is what many people experience at mid-morning and mid-afternoon. They feel the need for a "coffee break". But what they really want is a "glucose break". They want to eat something sweet with their coffee or tea. Otherwise, they feel tired or even weak. Once they get their "glucose fix", they feel happier and more energetic again.
From Mood Swings to Pancreas Breakdown
- What happens when this pattern repeats itself, day after day, for years?
- Mood swings become a part of that person's character; The person becomes addicted to glucose;
- The cells develop insulin resistance;
- The pancreas eventually gets exhausted and breaks down.
In the process of consuming lots of sucrose in order to obtain glucose, you also end up with equally large amount of fructose. And this causes greater problems.
This content is adapted, with permission, from Book 1 of 2 : The Wonders of Nutrition by Dr Ang Poon Liat. MBBS, M.MED (PAED), MRCP (UK PAED), FAMS, MD.