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What is Blood Sugar and What Can go Wrong

Blood sugar level, as well as hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia, are some of those medical terms we’ve heard many times but never really took the effort to understand. Managing your blood sugar is probably not on your to-do list for today, is it? However, you shouldn’t wait till something goes wrong to research it—being proactive about your health is the best medicine! In this article, we’ll try to explain the blood sugar roller coaster in simple words and diagrams. Let us know if you have any questions as you read!

Where does sugar in your blood come from?

The sugar in your blood is called glucose and it comes from eating foods that contain carbohydrates. Your body breaks down carbohydrates (and sometimes fats and proteins too) to extract glucose. So what we call blood sugar is actually blood glucose.

As your logic might be telling you, foods rich in glucose are typically sweet. Fresh and dried fruit, fruit juices and nectars, as well as honey, corn syrup and molasses  are some of the foods high in glucose. Glucose can also be obtained from grains, legumes, vegetables and dairy products, such as milk. These are natural sources of glucose, but there are also refined, processed sugars like high-fructose corn syrup or that white sugar you add to your morning coffee. Processed sugars contain “empty calories” that have been stripped of all vitamins and nutrients.

sugar in tomato sauce
Photo credit: sugarstacks.com

Sugar Stacks is both an entertaining and educational website that lets you  visualize how much sugar many common food products contain.

Your body needs glucose to produce energy

So, the blood sugar you’ve heard so much about is actually glucose extracted during digestion and circulating in your vessels. But what is glucose doing in your blood in the first place? Your cardio-vascular system helps carry glucose to all the cells, providing them with vital energy to run your body. Hormone called insulin makes glucose in the blood accessible to cells, so that they can absorb it and burn it to produce energy.

However, not all glucose is delivered to the cells. Depending on the amount of glucose in your blood (blood sugar level), some of glucose gets stored in the liver as glycogen for short-term use and some gets converted into fat for long-term energy needs.

blood sugar lifecycle

What can go wrong with your blood sugar

Every time you eat, you are typically consuming some kind of carbs, which then turn into glucose during digestion. The rising blood sugar levels trigger the release of insulin that helps deliver glucose to the cells to produce energy. This is how it’s supposed to work.

Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes 

However, some people may develop insulin resistance, which occurs when cells stop recognizing insulin and processing glucose as they used to. This leads to progressively high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia.) As pancreas keeps producing more and more insulin to take care of glucose, more and more cells get over-stimulated and lose their sensitivity. Insulin resistance is a symptom of pre-diabetes and may eventually turn into type 2 diabetes if not caught early. Studies have shown that insulin resistance can be linked to excess weight, physical inactivity, poor diet based on too many (often processed) carbohydrates and even sleep deprivation.

Type 1 Diabetes

On the other hand, pancreas may stop producing insulin all together, which is the cause of type 1 diabetes. While the exact origin of this disease is unknown, it is commonly believed to be autoimmune. This means that your own body may attack your pancreatic cells responsible for insulin production.

Both type 2 and type 1 diabetes result in dangerously high blood sugar levels. It might not be evident at first, but without treatment and changes in lifestyle and diet, high blood sugar can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms and long-term consequences, such as:

  • Thirst and frequent urination that can lead to dehydration
  • Damage of arteries and nerves, especially in hands and feet
  • Heart attack and stroke
  • Blurred vision and blindness
  • General weakness and fatigue
  • An influx of yeast and fungal infections that flourish with elevated blood sugar

Reactive Hypoglycemia

As you can see, high blood sugar is bad. But on the other end of the spectrum we have low blood sugar. How does that happen? Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can occur in both type 1 diabetics (due to overdose of insulin) and non-diabetic people.  While the exact causes of low blood sugar in people without diabetes are still unclear, researchers agree that it’s related to presence of insulin in the blood. According to one theory, eating too much processed carbohydrates too often causes the body to absorb glucose too fast and overproduce insulin.

reactive hypoglycemia cycle

As the blood sugar level takes a dive, you may feel sleepiness, dizziness, anxiety, irritability, as well as hunger even though you just ate. Your body will be craving carbs to get the glucose levels back up, which will start the cycle all over again. Additionally, because the body takes the abundance of insulin as a sign that there is plenty of glucose in the bloodstream, it stops burning fat.

The first step is to identify a problem

Now that you understand what blood sugar is and how it works, it’s time to find out whether you have blood sugar imbalance. Visit your doctor and ask them to check your blood work, especially if you haven’t done it in a while and particularly if you are 45 or older.  According to the 2014 National Diabetes Statistics Report, over 76% of Americans are pre-diabetic or diabetic by the age of 65. Thankfully, many of the diabetes and pre-diabetes symptoms are reversible through diet and exercise, as long as they are timely addressed. If you know you have high or low blood sugar, please feel free to contact Cara-Michele for nutrition advice and stay tuned for more articles on how to manage your blood sugar.

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