While many of us may not be suffering from a serious blood sugar disease like diabetes, understanding that certain foods or methods of eating may have an effect on our blood sugar can form part of optimising appetite control, weight management and energy.
How does blood sugar work?
Blood sugar is the concentration of glucose that is found in our blood. We need a certain amount of sugar in our blood to maintain a balance. Organs like our brain absolutely rely on a steady flow of blood sugar in order to function and the whole body needs glucose to use as an energy source. It's a subtle and sophisticated process partly controlled by an organ called the pancreas. This is located in the upper part of the abdomen behind the stomach and plays a role in the endocrine (hormone) and digestive system. The pancreas releases two important hormones called insulin and glucagon. Insulin’s role is to help move blood sugar into the cells for use. When we have low blood sugar, glucagon signals the liver to convert a stored sugar called glycogen into active glucose. Basically glycogen acts as a fuel reserve – like keeping a small spare tank of petrol in the back of the car. When we suddenly need energy for any reason, for example running away from something or needing great force (fending off a bear!) then this stored glucose provides our muscles with energy.
How well your body can use this energy largely depends on something called Insulin sensitivity.
What is insulin sensitivity?
This refers to how well your body can detect or recognise insulin. On the outside of the cell wall are receptor sites. These receptor sites could be imagined to be like mini lighthouses. The role of the lighthouse and the keeper in the lighthouse is to help steer the ships into the harbour. These imaginary ships are carrying sugar cargo. If the lighthouses and ships cant see each other in the darkness very well or the lighthouse keeper can’t somehow communicate with the sugar cargo ships’ captain it makes it harder to bring the ships to the harbour. By biochemically increasing sensitivity to insulin, the sugar can be shuttled into the cell much better, like the ships nicely docked into the harbour, and their sugar cargo effectively delivered.
What happens to us when our blood sugar is not in ‘balance’?
Blood sugar regulation is a complicated balancing act that the body can do quite well in most cases. We can however give it a really good helping hand through good diet. When we don't get enough of the nutrients we need or eat in the right way, this is when little cracks in the equilibrium may occur and we can experience symptoms of blood sugar fluctuations. If this is experienced regularly, it can over time create imbalance in other sometimes seemingly unrelated, areas of health including our weight, hormone balance and response to stress.
Blood sugar problems, mood and weight
Gentle ‘ups and downs’ of blood sugar are normal but if you are subjecting your body to extreme blood sugar fluctuations on a regular basis it can cause us to feel over-stimulated, anxious, and sleep poorly.
This cycle can also affect our weight because it causes our body to release stress hormones known as adrenaline and cortisol. Research has shown that imbalances in these hormones as well as the hormones insulin and glucose can cause us to gain weight (in the form of abdominal fat) around the middle. This ‘yo-yo’ blood sugar pattern can also affect your food choices and appetite. Research has shown that blood sugar imbalance can make us feel more hungry, more often, and can cause us to choose ‘high sugar’ or ‘high fat’ foods. Therefore supporting healthy blood glucose levels is a fundamental aspect of any sustainable, healthy weight loss programme.
Extreme changes in blood sugar levels can also affect our mental health. Symptoms include irritability, anxiety and hyperactivity, followed by slumps in mood.
Why does the food we eat make a difference?
When we eat foods containing sugars, the pancreas responds by releasing insulin to push the blood sugar into the cells. If we eat foods higher in fast releasing sugars, insulin will be used to remove that sugar quickly because it’s not safe for us to continue experiencing high blood sugar. However, sometimes this process can cause a sudden ‘high’ in blood sugar levels followed by a more dramatic drop or ‘low’.
Symptoms of low blood sugar may include not being able to go for more than 1-2 hours without food, not experiencing fullness from meals (being more prone to snacking after meals) and experiencing dizziness, nausea, fatigue and mood swings when feeling hungry. Another sign of blood sugar fluctuations may be sugar cravings or a ‘sweet tooth’.
We can moderate this process by eating foods that support this process better.
For more on the importance of the correct nutrition for maintaining blood sugar balance see 6 Nutrition tips to help manage your blood sugar.
This article offers general advice. If you are experiencing more serious or uncomfortable issues with your blood sugar, we always recommend you seek the advice of your qualified health practitioner.