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How your body responds to sugar and refined carbs

Learn about the short-term and long-term effects on your blood sugar and more.

Why do some foods make us feel energized, while others make us sleepy? Why do we feel alive & alert at some points during the day and completely exhausted during others? Hint: It’s got a lot to do with the food you’re consuming—and, subsequently, your blood sugar—throughout the day. Here are some of the ways that sugar can negatively affect your body: nutrient-lacking sugar, too much sugar, not enough sugar.

Your body's not meant to process refined sugar

The sugar you buy at the supermarket or that gets added to desserts, sodas, and even bread may be “natural” but it’s stripped of its original nutrients. Those nutrients might have helped your body break it down, but now your body is left to fend for itself. Vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium are required to turn sugar into energy. If the sugar lacks these on its own, your clever body will take these vitamins and minerals from other parts of your body, such as teeth and bones.

‍Once in your body, some sugar is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. However, some of the sugary goodness makes its way to the GI tract instead, where it feeds the organisms living there. Once well-fed and overly-produced, these organisms basically hijack your body, causing complications and issues including:

  • A serious sugar addiction
  • Mental fog
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Inflammation
  • Recurring infections

The excess sugar then makes its way to the liver, where excess sugar that’s not used immediately is converted into fat in the body, contributing to weight gain and fatty liver disease.‍

High blood sugar: hyperglycemia + sugar rush

Hyperglycemia simply means that your blood sugar level is higher than normal. This is most commonly a term used for people with diabetes who experience severe hyperglycemia, but non-diabetics can also experience what’s known as postprandial hyperglycemia after a meal. This is also colloquially known as a sugar rush. Here’s how it can cause problems.‍

Digestion begins in the mouth where salivary enzymes break down the sugar molecules for absorption. A lot of it is directly absorbed into the bloodstream from the mouth, setting off a rapid blood sugar reaction. As the rest of the sugar travels to the GI tract, enzymes (with the help of vitamins and minerals from your body) break it down for bloodstream absorption. This full process causes your blood sugar to increase.

High levels of sugar in the bloodstream can affect your mood and mental state. Additionally, this sugar rush triggers the production of dopamine (the brain's feel good hormone), which gives you a natural “high”, a phenomenon similar to the habit-forming addictive nature of narcotics. 

‍Further, it has been shown that consumption of sugar can cause white blood cells to be less effective at fighting off infection compared to the white blood cells of people who have not consumed refined carbs. The immune system can be crippled by this for at least 5 hours, suggesting that sugar consumption can lead to a weakened ability to fight infection. ‍

Low blood sugar: hypoglycemia + sugar crash

On the other side of the spectrum, we find hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia simply refers to when your blood sugar is lower than normal. The term is often associated with people with diabetes who experience severe hypoglycemia, but non-diabetics regularly experience hypoglycemia throughout the day. This is often referred to as reactive hypoglycemia, and it is the reason why you might get sleepy after a meal or sugar-heavy snack/beverage.

Following the intake of sugar, your body releases insulin to lower your blood sugar. However, the slight delay between the rise in blood sugar and this excessive insulin means that after a few hours, your blood sugar starts to go down, and down, and down—until eventually it’s lower than your ideal blood sugar values. This dip, hypoglycemia, causes tiredness and irritability—a.k.a. a “food coma”.

So, how do I prevent sugar from controlling me?

Three major elements can help you step off that blood sugar rollercoaster: food, physical activity and sleep.

‍Food: Some sugar can be okay in moderation, but what you really want to focus on is loading up with good nutrients. Make sure your diet includes plenty of fiber, “good” fats, complex carbs, and protein. (Here’s some more info on metabolism-friendly foods.)

Physical activity: Exercising regularly has been known to help stabilize your blood sugar by increasing your insulin sensitivity and by using glucose to contract your muscles. (Science-backed exercise tips for metabolic health here.)

Sleep: Sleep plays a crucial role in blood sugar management. Lack of sleep has been shown to be associated with higher blood sugar values and increased insulin resistance. (More info on sleep and metabolic health here.)

And—maybe most importantly—find what works for you. This is where glucose monitoring comes into play. Using glucose monitoring can give you answers about your body’s real response to your lifestyle. Veri gives you trackable metrics to help you learn what happens in your body as you eat, sleep, and exercise. You can then use that individualized data to make and assess adjustments in order to become your most energized and resilient self.

References

American Diabetes Association, “Blood Sugar and Exercise”, 2020. URL: https://www.diabetes.org/fitness/get-and-stay-fit/getting-started-safely/blood-glucose-and-exercise

A. Sanchez et al., “Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis”, 1973. Published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. URL: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article-abstract/26/11/1180/4732762

J. Kirwan et al., “The essential role of exercise in the management of type 2 diabetes”, 2017. Published in Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. URL: https://www.ccjm.org/content/84/7_suppl_1/S15


M. Grandner et al., “Sleep Duration and Diabetes Risk: Population Trends and Potential Mechanisms”, 2016. Published in Current Diabetes Reports. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5070477/

N. Goyal et al., "Non Diabetic and Stress Induced Hyperglycemia [SIH] in Orthopaedic Practice What do we know so Far?”, 2014. Published in Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4253199/

Y. Altuntas, “Postprandial Reactive Hypoglycemia”, 2019. Published in The Medical Bulletin of Sisli Etfal Hospital. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7192270/

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