The Other White Powder
By Nuri Adams-Davies - Bare Health Nutritionist
March 8, 2019|
When I was in nursing school, the only nutrition course required was one decades-old, outdated class that was based on learning specific nutrients, and which foods were rich in said nutrients. I thought the course severely lacking to begin with, but my utter distaste for the class was confirmed with the textbook’s teeny tiny mention of table sugar. According to the text, and also the teacher, the one and only problem associated with sugar was dental caries. There was even a test question designed to mislead students, which read something like this ‘The negative health effects of table sugar include: (choose one) A) Cancer, B) Diabetes, C) Dental carries, or D) All of the above.’ The only answer that the teacher counted as correct was C. In 2008 I knew this was a bunch of baloney, but I had no idea where to look for studies and research showing negative health effects of sugar. In 2019, I do.
First let me clarify - every edible thing you can put in your mouth turns to sugar through a series of chemical processes, and we need sugar for energy. However, there are different types of sugars, some examples you may have heard of are lactose, fructose, glucose, and sucrose (which breaks down into both fructose and glucose). Refined white sugar comes from beet or cane sugar, which is sucrose, and breaks down quickly in the body to give people energy right away. This is great if you may need to run away from a sabre-tooth tiger, but can prose problems if you’re not physically active and don’t use the energy.
When your energy is getting low, your body sends signals to your brain that it needs sugar - this is one reason why people crave sweets. If you do reach for that donut, the white flour and sugar break down quickly into easily accessible energy, and you feel better. The sugar gets into the bloodstream, where it triggers cells in the pancreas to release insulin. The insulin helps put sugar into the body cells - especially liver cells - where it is stored as fat. When a large amount of sugar leaves the blood, you “crash” and crave more donuts. You may have heard of the blood sugar roller coaster?
The insulin process is supposed to keep blood sugar within a healthy range, but when the body is regularly bombarded by high amounts of sugar, and requires large amounts of insulin to compensate, it can present three problems. One, if there is constantly a high need for insulin, the body can become insulin-resistant (think type 2 diabetes), two, when the body is constantly storing sugar as fat, people not only gain weight, but the extra fat impacts organ function - and in the liver this can be particularly dangerous, and three, having excess amounts of glucose in the bloodstream causes stress on the body, which triggers the adrenal hormones.
When we have low blood sugar, our adrenal hormones are called on to release cortisol, which is a hormone wearing blinders. It has many effects, but one main purpose: to get our blood sugar higher so that we don’t get confused, weak, or pass out completely. If used in a healthy way, cortisol can be lifesaving, however, our modern fast-paced lifestyles require most of us to be busy for long periods of time before we can rest, and this is one reason why people often, unconsciously, abuse their cortisol. This hormone works by supplying our muscles with quick energy, and it does that by breaking down our body’s stores of glucose and getting it into the blood, as well as preventing insulin from putting the glucose back into body cells. Does that sound familiar?
Other ways that cortisol gets the body ready to protect itself is to make us hungry for sweet, high-calorie foods that will give us instant energy, keeping us on a vicious cycle of the blood sugar roller coaster. Cortisol also suppresses the immune system, which makes us more susceptible to illness. In fact, research shows that 3 teaspoons of sugar can lower immunity for up to four hours at a time. Additionally, the notorious white powder also compromises digestion, and paves the way for cardiovascular problems and fertility issues.
Unfortunately, the bad news doesn’t stop at cortisol; let’s go back to digestion and the gut. The GI tract contains absolutely ga-zillions of bacterial cells, both beneficial and opportunistic - some scientists say that bacterial cells actually outnumber our own body cells ten to one! The beneficial bacteria help us digest food, absorb the nutrients from digestion into the body, help the body direct the nutrients to go where they’re needed, and has several other non-digestion jobs (that we’ll come back to later). There are also opportunistic bacteria in the gut, and these little sociopaths are all about their own survival - they eat, they repopulate themselves, and they expel harmful wastes that cause health problems. There’s only so much space in the gut, and if the bad guys overpopulate, the good guys get crowded out. Guess what those evil little suckers like to eat?
Another one of the jobs that good bacteria help out with is making serotonin. This neurotransmitter helps balance our moods - keeping us even tempered and making sure we don’t get manic or depressive. That’s right - serotonin is mostly made in the gut - and this is yet another reason to keep the bad bacteria in check. In fact, there is *so* much connection between the GI tract and the nervous system that the term “gut-brain connection” has begun to be used quite a bit in medical science.
Talking more about the gut-brain connection, let’s visit dopamine. Dopamine is one of your feel-good chemicals that is released by food, sex, and nurturing, to reinforce pleasurable behaviours so that we can survive as a species. Unfortunately, dopamine is also hacked by drugs, coffee, chocolate, and sugar, and can lead to addiction and abuse. There are four major components of addiction: bingeing, withdrawal, craving, and cross-sensitisation (one addictive substance predisposing someone to become addicted to another). All of these components have been observed in animal models for sugar, as well as illicit drugs, like cocaine and opiates. No wonder my naturopathic doctor calls sugar “the other white powder.”
Now let me take a moment to address vitamin and mineral stores. Remember that sugar, or sucrose, breaks down into glucose and fructose? Research has found that a high intake of fructose increases the expression of an enzyme that breaks down vitamin D, and at the same time decreases expression of an enzyme that helps to make vitamin D. This results in reduced vitamin D levels, which can lead to lowered immune function, poor liver function, and a higher risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases. Click this link to read more about how important vitamin D is to humans.
Another function of vitamin D is to help regulate calcium metabolism in bones, muscles, and the small intestine. When vitamin D levels are low, calcium absorption from food and calcium content in bones and muscles is lowered as well. This can manifest as muscle weakness or wasting and a greater risk of osteoporosis.
Magnesium is another mineral affected by high sugar intake. A raised blood sugar level as well as elevated insulin levels cause the kidneys to excrete more magnesium in the urine. To make matters worse, magnesium and chromium are used to help regulate sugar levels, so lower levels of these minerals pave the way for poor blood sugar regulation, which further depletes magnesium and chromium.
And finally we come to vitamin C. Both glucose and vitamin C use the same mechanism to enter human body cells. When blood glucose is higher, it takes over said mechanism, keeping vitamin C from getting into the body cells where it can help us, and thus it gets excreted from the body.
Hopefully you’re still reading by this time, because there is an up side to the story. I promise, it’s coming. But before I get to that happy land, I’d be remiss if I didn’t shoot one last arrow into the sugar bowl. That arrow is fertility. Let’s go back to the hormone conversation above, we talked about how sugar intake can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is known to prevent the body from ovulating, to prevent egg maturation, to contribute significantly to PCOS (women with PCOS are 4-5 times more likely to miscarry), and to encourage yeast infections. Moreover, continual release of insulin and cortisol uses up vitamin and mineral stores - particularly copper, magnesium, vitamin B6, and vitamin E. Lower levels of vitamin E have been linked to miscarriages.
The good news, at last!
When I say “sugar,” I’m generally talking about white table sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar and corn syrup. These are completely stripped of nutrients and offer no health benefits at all. Fortunately, there are several sweeteners that are easy to substitute in moderation. Here are my top nine (in no particular order):
1 cup of sugar = 1 cup of coconut sugar
1 tablespoon of sugar = 1 tablespoon of coconut sugar
1 teaspoon of sugar = 1 teaspoon of coconut sugar
2. Maple syrup
1 cup of sugar = ¾ cup of maple syrup
1 tablespoon of sugar = ¾ tablespoon of maple syrup
1 teaspoon of sugar = ¾ teaspoon of maple syrup
Note: Reduce liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons and add ¼ teaspoon of baking soda for every cup of syrup you add. Plus, decrease the oven temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Rice syrup
4. Pure honey (best purchased from a local farmers market)
1 cup of sugar = ¾ cup of honey
1 tablespoon of sugar = ¾ tablespoon of honey
1 teaspoon of sugar = ¾ teaspoon of honey
Note: Decrease the liquid in your recipe by 2-4 tablespoons, add a pinch of baking soda, and reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees Farenheit.
5. Dates (blended or whole)
6. Date syrup
7. Blackstrap molasses
8. Stevia (some say it tastes like an artificial sweetener, but it's 100% natural)
1 cup of sugar = 1 teaspoon of stevia
1 tablespoon of sugar = 1/8 teaspoon of stevia
1 teaspoon of sugar = a pinch of stevia
9. Banana puree
It’s important to remember that in some eating programs, such as the sugar-control diet, the yeast-balancing diet, and any diet supporting cancer treatment, even these sugar substitutes will be too much sweetener. However if you need to use one of these diets, it is highly advisable to contact a qualified nutritionist to help you with testing, food and supplement protocol, and on-going support.
But let’s be realistic for a minute - it’s damn near impossible (and, let’s face it, not much fun) to swear that you’ll swear off sugar forever and ever, amen. So how much sugar should people be eating? Well, consider saving sugary treats for special occasions like birthday parties and festive celebrations, and leave it out of the day-to-day. If you find that the cravings are really getting to you, here are a few handy tips:
Remember that cravings will naturally die down in a few days to one week. In the meantime, you might try using a practitioner-grade chromium supplement, which will help to balance your sugar levels.Watch out for alcohol - it's loaded with sugar.Never go hungry - snack often and make sure to include enough healthy fats and proteins in your meals (such as avocado, butter or ghee, olive oil, tahini or hummus, nuts and seeds, nut butters, lean meats, eggs, and seafood - especially wild salmon).Drink plenty of pure water, 1-2 litres per day.Eat at least 1-2 servings of greens per day (chard, spinach, collard greens or spring greens, beet tops, broccoli and kale are some good examples). Make time in for relaxation, be it yoga, tai chi or qi gong, meditation, relaxing epsom salt baths, or even a 30-minute stroll in a natural area.Get out in the sunshine for some vitamin D if possible, or look into supplementation.
Here are some of the common health benefits you can look forward to on a sugar-free diet: Your mood will improve, you may feel less irritable, you’ll probably lose weight and keep it off while not eating sugar, your breath may smell better, your complexion and skin may improve, you may have more energy and not hit a mid-afternoon slump, your sex-life may get sassier, and you may sleep better.
Challenge: Go 2 weeks with zero sugar - or for a weight-loss challenge, go 30 days. Keep a diary of what changes you notice - irritability vs. calmness, good mood vs. depression, headaches vs. none, weight loss, energy levels.
****Make sure to read labels on all the foods you buy!****
For advice on controlling sugar intake or a health issue that may be related to high blood sugar, contact me via the form below, or email email@example.com
For supplements to help control sugar cravings, just ring up the friendly staff at Bare Health, Congleton on 01260 408413 (if you’re UK-based) and they’ll be more than happy to make some suggestions.
To your good health!
Sugar & Hormones https://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/type-1-diabetes/what-insulin
Sugar & Cortisol https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml
Beneficial and opportunistic bacteria https://biologywise.com/helpful-harmful-types-of-bacteriaSugar addiction https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/Sugar addition https://www.iflscience.com/brain/here-s-what-happens-your-brain-when-you-give-sugar-lent/
Sugar addiction https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1038/oby.2002.66
Sugar and vitamin depletion https://www.thepaleomom.com/5-nutrients-youre-deficient-in-if-you-eat-too-much-sugar/?cn-reloaded=1
Sugar and Vitamin C https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16011461