The Blood Sugar Roller Coaster

Meals and snacks that contain a high percentage of foods that break down quickly into sugar in the bloodstream will often spike blood sugar into an unhealthy range.  Exactly what kind of foods are we talking about? Think white--white as in heavily refined sugar and flour.  It’s pretty obvious that consuming white sugar will raise blood sugar, but because white flour breaks down quickly into sugar in the bloodstream, it too can spike blood sugar into an unhealthy range.  Foods like soda, candy, cakes, pastries, white bread, bagels, pancakes and syrup, pretzels, white pasta, white rice and white potatoes all have the potential to contribute to abnormally high blood sugar.

So let’s say you have a white bagel of some kind with a glass of orange juice for breakfast.  This is a “double whammy” from a blood sugar perspective, and though you might feel pretty good as your blood sugar rises, when it gets out of optimal range, your tiny blood sugar policemen start shouting, “Too high! Pancreas, get busy!” Your pancreas does its job, secretes insulin and your blood sugar falls.

But often too much insulin is secreted and your blood sugar falls below the optimal level.  This is when you experience the “crash.”  You might feel weak, shaky, nauseated, irritable, “foggy,” or like you really need to go to sleep.  (Do you feel this way mid-morning at work?  Take a good look at your breakfast.)  It won’t be long before you’re craving sugar again to pull you out of the slump.  In fact, this is where a lot of sugar cravings come from—crashed blood sugar.  The process of repeatedly spiking and crashing is known as the blood sugar roller coaster.  You can do this all day long, day after day.  In fact, I lived this way for years in complete ignorance of what was going on.  In addition to how miserable the crashes felt, every blood sugar spike had the potential to damage my body.  

How so?  Blood sugar spikes cause the body to create free radicals.  Free radicals are rogue oxygen molecules that cause damage to the linings of the arteries.  These linings become inflamed and thicken, making it more difficult for insulin to pass through.  If insulin can’t get through, it can’t do its job, and over time, the body, desperate to get that blood sugar under control, responds by making more and more insulin.  When this happens, we have entered a state known as “insulin resistance.”  We might still have plenty of insulin, but due to the inflammation of the arterial walls, it can’t get to where it’s needed.  Our body has actually become resistant to its own insulin.  As insulin levels stay elevated in the blood, we may develop high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, weight gain in our midsections, and heart disease. (This cluster of symptoms is known as metabolic syndrome, and it’s estimated that a third of all Americans are living with it, many unknowingly.) Eventually, due to the demand for more and more insulin, the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas get exhausted.  They fail to produce enough insulin, blood sugar rises, and when blood sugar numbers get high enough, we leave the doctor’s office with a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. 

This is an oversimplified explanation of an insidious process that takes years to unfold in our bodies. We are often surprised when we get that diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, when in reality our blood sugar numbers have been climbing for years.  Hopefully, what I’ve shared here has made it clearer why the number of people with type 2 diabetes is skyrocketing in this country.  When we spend years and years spiking our blood sugar by our food choices and encouraging inflammation in our bodies, that lifestyle eventually catches up with us. The good news, however, is that insulin resistance (and sometimes even type 2 diabetes in the early stages) can often be reversed!  If we get off the blood sugar roller coaster and make diet and lifestyle changes, we have a chance to impact our risk of more serious illness down the road.