Blood Sugar Basics

It wasn’t that long ago that fat was considered public enemy number one in the health world.  So we took fat out of much of our processed food and replaced it with various forms of sugar--to help compensate for the loss in taste.  But obesity didn’t decline—it rose.  In 1990, the obesity rate in America was 12%.  Today it’s almost 35%.  Perhaps more concerning is the fact that diabetes diagnoses increased by 50% in 42 of our states from the mid-90’s to 2010.  Now we’re pointing the finger at sugar, and it’s time we did.  Sugar is “killing us softly.”

The inflammation in our bodies that comes from repeatedly spiking our blood sugar over time is usually silent.  We don’t feel it, and our doctor doesn’t often talk to us about it at our annual physical.  Unless we are diabetic, we live from day to day with little awareness of our blood sugar levels.  Most of us would benefit from more knowledge in this area, as it would almost certainly help prevent disease further on down the road.

So what exactly is blood sugar? Blood sugar is the sugar (glucose) in the bloodstream that is used to make energy by every cell in the body. The body is very invested in keeping blood sugar levels within an optimal range—not too high and not too low.  Why?  One reason is that glucose is the primary fuel of the brain and is needed to facilitate the movement of nerve impulses there.  Brain cells cannot store energy, so it’s important that a steady supply of glucose be made available through what we eat.

Hormones like insulin and glucagon (both secreted by the pancreas) help to regulate the supply of sugar in the bloodstream. When blood sugar is too high, insulin brings the level down, and when it’s too low, glucagon raises it.  In people with diabetes, insulin no longer functions as it should to bring blood sugar levels down when they are too high.  If left unchecked, extremely high blood sugar can result in dehydration, coma and death.  Similarly, when blood sugar dips too low, it can lead to confusion, fainting, seizures and death.

It’s clear that regulating the amount of glucose circulating in our bloodstream at all times is crucial to our health. Without this, our brain cannot function properly and our cells can’t make energy.   What happens, then, when we choose to eat a lot of sugar in one sitting and spike our blood sugar above healthy levels?  Does that hurt us?  Or can we trust the insulin/glucagon partnership to keep us in tip-top condition?  That’s the topic of my next blog.