The Myth about Blood Sugars and Diabetes
The information that follows is Medical Advice for Education Purposes Only
The Myth about Blood Sugars and Diabetes, part 1 - What is Diabetes?
As most people know, diabetes is caused by excessive sugar consumption. It's no wonder, then, that diabetes is on the rise! Americans consume about 149 pounds of sugar per year, and our bodies simply aren't designed for that. Sugar isn't just the obvious stuff like candy and baked goods: it is added to almost everything, from baby food to whole grain cereal.
What exactly is diabetes?
Diabetes is an inability to regulate the body's blood sugar levels. A healthy blood sugar level is approximately 100, but it can fluctuate between 80 and 110. 100 is the ideal, and the body will do everything it possibly can to keep blood sugar as close to 100 as possible. Too low, and your body is in a state of hypoglycemia. Too high, and your body is in a state of hyperglycemia.
What organs are responsible for regulating blood sugar?
The liver and pancreas are the main blood-sugar regulating organs.
The pancreas is the small, insulin-producing organ that regulates your blood sugar when you are eating. As sugar enters you body, the pancreas produces insulin to address the influx of sugar. If sugar is not used immediately for energy, one of two things will happen: the sugar will be stored in reserves in the muscles called glycogen, or it will be stored as fat. The primary responsibility of the pancreas and insulin is to get sugar out of your blood, thus lowering your blood sugar.
The liver is the large (very large- three and a half pounds!) organ on the other side of your body that regulates blood sugar when you aren't eating. The liver uses a hormone called Insulin-Like Growth Hormone to raise your blood sugar. The liver will use glycogen first, and fat second. Fat is a last resort source of sugar for the body, and will only be burned if you have no sugar from food and no glycogen reserves.
What is the difference between Type I and Type II Diabetes?
Type I diabetes: is the more serious form of the disease, and affects the pancreas. With this form of diabetes, the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin become exhausted and cannot do their job anymore. If you cannot produce insulin, your blood sugar will spike whenever you eat. The only treatment is lifelong insulin injections to replace what your body isn't making.
Type II diabetes affects insulin-receptivity of the cells in the liver. Each cell in the liver has about 200,000 insulin receptors, and when these are damaged, the liver doesn't know how much sugar the blood needs. Drugs like Metformin or Glucophage are used as treatment. These drugs help to lower blood sugar, but if your blood sugar is already low, these drugs will obviously make the situation worse.
How can I support my liver and pancreas?
The first thing you can do is obvious: eat less sugar! Easier said than done, sure- sugar is almost everything, as we've discussed. Start reading labels. Make yourself aware of how prevalent sugar is, and do your best to avoid eating hidden sugars that add up so easily.
Be good to you liver by limiting alcohol and junk food, and eating plenty of bitter, cruciferous vegetables. Alcohol and junk food tax the liver, while cruciferous vegetables heal and support the liver.
Your body also needs plenty of potassium in order to store sugar as glycogen and not fat. I say it so much it might as well be my catchphrase: eat seven cups of vegetables a day to make sure you get enough potassium. Every sugar molecule needs a potassium molecule, but they aren't adding potassium to everything we eat, are they?
Physical fitness is an important piece of the puzzle as well. Exercise- periodic, short bursts of intense exercise if you can handle it, especially!- keeps your levels of Insulin-Like Growth Hormone healthy. This hormone regulates blood sugar on top of burning fat and protecting collagen and proteins (it's an anti-aging hormone, too!), and production declines as you age. This is one you really want to keep going!
The Overlooked Liver
In the above part of this article, I discussed the basic physiology of diabetes, and the affected organs, the pancreas and the liver. I devoted deceptively little space to the liver, though. The liver’s importance in the management and prevention of diabetes is critically overlooked. So often, when we talk about diabetes, we think of insulin, we think of Type I diabetes, we think of patients carefully rationing sugar and food; we think, in short, of symptoms associated with the pancreas and not the liver.
Why is the liver underestimated?
The pancreas produces insulin. The liver produces insulin-like growth hormone (or factor, also known as IGF). Both hormones are responsible for blood sugar regulation, but they are measured in different units. This can make IGF seem relatively unimportant and secondary to insulin.
And yet IGF does one hundred times the work of insulin. This means that increasing liver function by just 20% can take up to 80% of the stress off the pancreas! Like most things in the body, the pancreas doesn’t operate on its own. Damaging the liver damages your blood sugar regulation, and in turn your pancreas.
What harms the liver?
If supporting the liver is so important to the prevention and management of diabetes, how can we avoid hurting it? Well, there are some pretty easy common-sense dietary choices that will benefit your liver.
Alcohol is one of the better known enemies of the liver. Excessive alcohol consumption can also translate to excess sugar (mixed drinks and wine both contain quite a bit of sugar), making it a double-whammy. Scaling back your alcohol consumption is rarely a bad idea, whether or not you’re concerned about diabetes.
Heavily cooked proteins like red meat can also tax the liver, as can fried foods and junk foods. Diabetes prevention: yet another reason to limit these foods!
It’s not necessarily fair, but you will be more susceptible to issues like this as you age. Your IGF levels will also be affected. Aging can be a risk factor on its own!
How can I support my liver?
The liver is an incredible organ, as it can completely heal and regenerate itself, but it does take time - three years to completely regenerate. Start supporting your liver today. A good first step is to add more cruciferous vegetables to your diet.
Bitter vegetables help to clear the liver of toxins. They are very low in natural sugars and contain potassium, which will help to stop sugar cravings. When you eat cruciferous vegetables, you are not only supporting your liver, but also preventing something that can fatigue the pancreas.
You’ll also want to work on keeping your levels of growth hormone high as you age. If you can handle it, interval training exercises are one of the best ways to do this. I recommend that my patients base the intensity of their exercise routine on the quality of their sleep, so if you aren’t sleeping well and can’t handle interval training, take a step back on work on your sleep. Better sleep has independent benefits, on top of allowing you to be more physically active.
Getting enough restful sleep will keep your growth hormone levels to stay up, and is related to a cascade of other health benefits. It may very well be that all you need to start sleeping better is five minutes of stress-relieving acupressure at night.
It is important to note, in general, that as you age, your dietary choices, sleep, and physical fitness will have a greater impact on your quality of life and health. Adjust your expectations accordingly, and start taking those extra, small steps to maintaining your health and happiness.
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