- ANTIOXIDANT SCIENCE
The link between blood sugar and your cells
Blood sugar is a hugely underestimated aspect of our biology that significantly impacts how we look and feel. This is mainly because the influence that blood sugar levels can have on the rest of the body is linked to oxidative damage (aka, cell stress!). If blood sugar levels are left unstable, they can negatively impact our energy levels, hormonal balance, stress, mood and even the aging process.
Jul 9, 2023|
Jul 9, 2023
Blood sugar balance
When we eat carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into glucose – a major source of energy for the body. Once carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, that glucose is then absorbed into the bloodstream and your blood glucose (or blood sugar) levels increase.
Once blood sugar levels increase, the pancreas produces a hormone called insulin that helps move glucose into the cells to either be used as energy to fuel the body, or stored as glycogen for later use. This clever feedback loop ensures that there is a constant supply of glucose readily available for our cells to use. It keeps our blood sugar levels balanced and ensures that there’s a steady supply of energy available to the body.
What happens when blood sugar levels are imbalanced?
While it’s true that this blood sugar feedback loop is responsible for maintaining blood sugar balance, the food we eat can affect this clever mechanism. Out of all macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat), carbohydrates release the largest amount of glucose into the bloodstream, which naturally requires more insulin to help move the glucose into our cells.
The goal is to have steady, stable blood sugar levels, but if there is more glucose than there is insulin – the body won’t be able to effectively manage the glucose that enters the bloodstream. When cells are drowning in glucose – the body won’t be able to convert glucose into energy fast enough, which can impact the way the body utilizes and stores energy.
Blood sugar spike
If there isn't enough insulin to move glucose into cells or effectively store it for later use – it can accumulate and cause a blood sugar spike. A blood sugar spike will usually happen after we eat food that is rich in carbohydrates or simple sugars – but we can also experience the same spike at other times (e.g. when we’re stressed, or after a cup of coffee).
After any spike, blood sugar levels will drop dramatically, leaving us with the familiar ‘sugar crash’ feeling that often follows a carbohydrate/sugar-heavy meal. These dramatic highs and lows are often referred to as a ‘blood sugar rollercoaster’ because once they start – the pattern tends to continue throughout the day. The body is wired with hundreds of feedback mechanisms to keep things balanced, so when blood sugar levels drop after a spike - the body will encourage you to crave energy-dense foods to help bring your blood sugar levels back up. Many of us ride this blood sugar roller-coaster each day without even realizing it – and our cells are forced to keep up.
Blood sugar and your cells
While blood sugar levels are largely controlled by the hormones insulin and glucagon, studies show that mitochondria play a crucial role in blood sugar control. Also known as the powerhouse of the cell (or your cells’ energy batteries!), mitochondria are responsible for providing your cells with energy to fuel your body. There are a few ways that blood sugar levels are closely linked to your cells’ energy batteries:
- One study explored how brain cells adapt to a spike in blood glucose, and researchers were surprised to find that brain cells, or neurons ‘feel’ the changes in blood sugar levels and adapt to them accordingly. Researchers found that when blood sugar in the body increases, the function and shape of mitochondria within neurons changes. When mitochondria undergo these changes in response to glucose, these subtle adjustments have a powerful impact on circulating levels of glucose.
- In addition to increasing after eating carbohydrates, blood sugar levels can also increase in response to other things like stress. Likewise, the rise and fall of glucose can also trigger the stress response – which impacts your mighty mitochondria. When the body’s stress response is triggered by low or high levels of blood sugar, it increases the demands of your body and puts pressure on mitochondria to generate more energy. If you’re riding a blood sugar roller coaster every day, your mitochondria might be struggling to meet these increased energy demands.
- Blood sugar spikes accelerate a process called glycation, which is a natural process that occurs when glucose binds to protein and fat in the body. This process creates ‘advanced glycation end products’ (AGEs) which can significantly impact metabolic health and aging. AGEs are damaging to collagen and elastin, two important proteins that support bouncy, youthful skin – and they also interfere with the normal function of cells. Research shows that the more our blood sugar spikes, the more the process of glycation is triggered and consequently – the faster we age.
How to help balance blood sugar levels
Eat carbohydrates with a source of protein or healthy fats
Glucose spikes occur when increased amounts of glucose enter the bloodstream too quickly, which can happen when there are no other macronutrients present to ‘buffer’ the increase in glucose from carbohydrates. Studies show that carbohydrates eaten on their own are a major cause of blood sugar spikes and to counter this, it can help to pair carbs with other macronutrients. One study found that adding 2Tbsp of peanut butter to a high carbohydrate meal (in this case, two slices of white bread with a glass of apple juice) significantly reduced post-meal blood glucose levels in comparison to eating the carbohydrates alone.
Don’t let your blood sugar levels get too low
What goes up, must come down. When blood sugar levels spike they consequently drop, and scientists believe that low blood sugar can be as dangerous as high blood sugar. Low blood sugar levels can also be caused by infrequent meals or skipping them all together, under-fueling exercise and stress. By managing stress, reducing caffeine and eating regular protein rich meals you can help prevent your blood sugar from dipping too low.
Walking for as little as 20 minutes after a meal has been shown to significantly reduce the glucose spike caused by a high carbohydrate meal.
Use vinegar as a glucose buffer
Drinking a mixture of water + 1Tbsp of vinegar (e.g. apple cider vinegar) before a meal has been shown to significantly reduce the post-meal spike in glucose. How? It helps to slow down the rate that food leaves the stomach, which slows down the rate of glucose entering the bloodstream.
Eat your food in the ‘right’ order
Research shows that ‘meal sequencing’ or the order that you eat your food can hugely influence your blood sugar balance. Since protein, fats and fiber have a minimal impact on blood sugar, studies show that if we eat either of these nutrients before we consume the carb-heavy options on our plate, it can significantly reduce a post-meal spike in blood sugar. One study found that this organized approach to eating reduced a post-meal spike in blood sugar by almost 30%.
Eat more antioxidants
while we can’t reverse or stop the process of glycation, we can slow it down to reduce the effects of high blood sugar. The body can use antioxidants to combat the negative effects of glycation, so including more antioxidants in your diet (like MitoQ) can help the body cope with excess glucose.
Focus on blood sugar balancing nutrients
Particular nutrients like zinc, chromium and cinnamon have been shown to support normal blood sugar balance by managing the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Eating more of these nutrients can help you sustain steady, balanced blood sugar levels all day long.
Are mitochondria the key to mental health?
Jul 24, 2023|