Barbara Roberts, Homeopath

Sugar – the biochemistry

Sugar. It’s found in so many of our foods, and can have physical and mental effects, including spikes of dopamine our reward neuro-chemical.  

In homeopathy there are a few different sugar remedies, which we will discuss tomorrow. First let’s look at sugar itself and what happens in the body. Because this is impossible to keep small and then discuss the remedies well, if you want to skip the Biochemistry lesson, come back tomorrow to learn about the remedies. 

There are different types of sugars. Firstly there are the single molecule sugars, also called monosaccharides- 

Glucose which is a building block for other sugars and starches. 

Fructose which is the type of sugar found in fruit and honey and is sweeter than glucose. 

Galactose is not found as a monosaccharide in nature, but is found in the combination Lactose. 

These single molecules can be arranged in pairs to create disaccharides – 

Sucrose is a combination of glucose and fructose, and is what we use as table sugar. 

Lactose is a combination of glucose and galactose, and is the type of sugar found in milk. 

Maltose is two glucose molecules together and is found in sprouting or fermenting grain. 

You can also get Polysaccharides (poly meaning many), and these are not sweet and don’t form crystals like our disaccharides. (You can also get oligosaccharides which contain 3, 4, 5 or sometimes 6 molecules but they’re not something we are going to go into today). The main ones are starches and cellulose which are both glucose molecules bonded together (although formed differently) and found in the foods we eat, and glycogen which is a form that the body produces in order to store glucose in the body. This is why refined carbohydrate based meals still produce a spike in blood sugar levels like eating sugar, as the body breaks down the polysaccharide into individual glucose units, which then are treated just like any other sugar. 

When we eat, digestion starts in the mouth. As we chew, the saliva mixes an enzyme called amylase with the food, and starts the process of breaking down starches into the individual glucose molecules that can be absorbed. The amylase in saliva breaks starch down into oligosaccharides, and once through the stomach and in the small intestine, amylase enzyme secreted by the pancreas will break up the molecules further into glucose, fructose or galactose that can be absorbed. The pancreas also secretes specific enzymes to break down the disaccharides – maltase to break down maltose, sucrase to break down sucrose, and lactase to break down lactose. A deficiency in any of these enzymes means an inability or reduced ability to process them – and a lack of lactase is the problem for people who are lactose intolerant. 

Once the starches and sugars are broken down into their individual molecules, these are absorbed into the bloodstream. A high blood sugar then stimulates the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin’s job is to facilitate the transport of glucose out of the blood: about 60-70% into muscle cells where it  can be used to provide energy so the muscles can contract and relax, 30% into the liver to be turned into glycogen, our glucose storage, and up to 10% into fat cells where it can create more fat cells. 

A diet too high in sugars does a few different things. Firstly insulin resistance develops, where the cells stop responding to insulin and taking up more glucose, which means the blood glucose level remains high – so the pancreas produces more insulin and the cells respond less, and the blood glucose level stays high. This is the beginning of Type 2 Diabetes. Secondly, there is too much glucose so the amount being converted into fat increases, and there can be the development of “fatty liver” because it too becomes overwhelmed with too much glucose. The Liver also starts to produce too much LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and reduce the amount of the “good” HDL cholesterol. 

There can be other effects in the body also. Immunity is lowered when sugar intake is high – either through diabetes or just eating too many carbohydrates and sweet foods. There can be recurrent infections like Candida which feed on the excess sugar in the gut, but also poor resistance to any infections. Glucose actually blocks the intake of vitamin C into cells, so this much needed immune co-factor is not as available. 

Sugar also has a role to play in inflammation – while the mechanism is unclear, a high intake has a strong correlation with inflammation and flares of autoimmune diseases. 

Now let’s talk about the effect of sugar on the brain. Glucose is important for brain functioning, however, sweet foods can trigger a release of dopamine, which is the reward chemical, and can also mimic the effect of opioid drugs. This means that eating something sweet makes you feel good, but can also be addictive. People in this state will have intense cravings for sugary, high calorie foods. There is some evidence that the combination of sugars and fats (like cheesecake!) – which is not found in nature – is the most addictive form.

Too much sugar affects the brain in other ways also – it can cause hyperactivity or mood swings, and for some people it also can contribute to anxiety and depression. Long term consequences of an untreated high blood sugar level (like in uncontrolled diabetes) include brain atrophy – where it literally shrinks – and cognitive decline like dementia. 

We should also discuss hypoglycaemia – when blood sugar gets too low. This has symptoms like trembling, feeling cold and looking pale, brain fog and anxiety or apprehension, and can also have palpitations or even faint. Low blood sugar can also cause mood swings – and many of us know someone who gets the “hangries” (a portmanteau word combining hungry and angry) when they are hungry. 

There is so much more I could say about sugar, and this is only a very brief discussion of the biochemistry and the physical effects. It is easy to have a diet too high in sugars, they are found hiding in many processed foods as well as in sweet foods and converted from our refined carbohydrates. One way to reduce cravings for sugar is to increase your dietary fibre and consumption of vegetables; a diet in whole foods with less processed food is beneficial on many levels. 

In general I recommend a diet lower in sugars, and also managing the way you eat your food to manage the blood sugar spikes. One way of doing this is to “clothe” your carbs by eating with fibre, protein or fat to slow the absorption of the glucose and reduce the spike. I highly recommend following The Glucose Goddess on Facebook to see the effect of different foods and the way they are eaten on blood sugar levels.

I also tend to be practical, and I realise that in some cases it can be very difficult to avoid sugar completely, and you may not want to! ’Tis the season to be merry after all, and shared lunches, parties and gatherings often have something sweet to finish. This is a time when homeopathy can help manage the effects of too much sugar. Come back tomorrow to learn about the different sugar remedies we have in Homeopathy, and also one you may want to keep on hand at this time of year (and for other celebrations like birthday parties). 

Image credit: Chelsea Sugar Works’ Sugar Mountains from the NZ Herald, photographer Steven McNicholl.  

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