Natural compounds that taste sweet are called simple carbohydrates. Sugars are simple carbohydrates. Of the several kinds of sugar, the one we’re most familiar with is sucrose, or common table sugar—also called “refined sugar.” But far more important to us than table sugar is its close cousin, glucose.
Glucose is the fuel that keeps our bodies running. Combined with oxygen, it provides the energy for every cell in the body. We need a great many other things to remain healthy, but none are any more important than glucose. If the supply of glucose to our brains was suddenly cut off, we would die as quickly as if we had no air. It’s that important!
Glucose isn’t normally found running around loose. It is manufactured by our bodies in two ways: from simple carbohydrates and from complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates (carbs) include such things as bread, pasta, potatoes and rice—the foods we call “starches.” Simple carbs are converted to glucose and pass into our bloodstreams very rapidly, at a rate of about 30 calories a minute. The glucose is carried by the blood to every cell in our body. Complex carbs convert much slower—at a rate of about 2 calories a minute. This is important, as we’ll see.
When our brains don’t get enough glucose, they stop working properly. We often get a headache and usually become irritable. We may feel as though our mind is “fuzzy.” Our ability to make decisions suffers. Since our muscles as well as our brains are fed by the glucose in our blood, we get shaky hands. Our facial muscles become rigid, making it difficult for us to smile—not that we’d especially feel like it. We may have minor visual disturbances. It may become difficult to control our temper.
Think back to the last time you were hungry and, instead of having a meal, ate a candy bar or had a cup of coffee and a donut. You felt pretty good, pretty fast. But about an hour later didn’t you feel even worse than before you ate? Didn’t you have some—if not most—of the symptoms listed above? If you did, you were suffering from low blood sugar—hypoglycemia.
“Subclinical hypoglycemia” refers to lowered levels of blood glucose that can affect mood and general physical wellbeing, but that do not meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical hypoglycemia. Everyone’s body and brain chemistry is unique. With thousands of hormones, neurotransmitters and other chemicals circulating throughout our bodies, varying diets, states of health and other variables, how could it be otherwise? That being the case, some of us react more readily to lowered levels of blood glucose than others.
How does eating a candy bar or donut and drinking coffee cause low blood sugar? You’d think it would do just the opposite—and if you’re diabetic, it would. But in most folks, here’s what happens…
The simple carbohydrates are absorbed quickly, and they cause the blood glucose level to rise very quickly—just as you’d expect. But our body pays close attention to such things. When it notices the blood sugar going up rapidly, it causes the pancreas to produce a hormone called insulin—lots of it. Insulin is the chemical that enables our cells to absorb glucose. The big jolt of insulin in response to the big jolt of sugar causes our cells to absorb glucose very rapidly. It’s like stepping on the gas: suddenly our cells have lots of fuel. We feel energetic and can even get a sort of “high.” But it also causes our blood sugar to plummet…lower than it was to begin with.
In addition to the sugar, we had a jolt of caffeine with our coffee. It caused our adrenal gland to release adrenalin, which caused a release of brain chemicals that made us feel even better, and also signaled our liver to release a chemical called glycogen—which rapidly turns into glucose and causes the blood sugar to rise (“spike”) higher yet. This may trigger the release of even more insulin.
The eventual result of all this chemistry will be a condition of hypoglycemia. We will realize we don’t feel very well, and may also realize that another candy bar will help. It will help, for a short time, but the process will be repeated and we will end up with our glucose even lower than before.
You can begin to see that food—especially sugar and caffeine combined—can be a potent agent for mood alteration. Unfortunately, when we use it as was described above, we always end up feeling worse after the temporary “high.” Recall, also, that the result of the low blood sugar is that we feel lousy, are irritable, don’t make good decisions, and are easily made even more irritable by things that normally wouldn’t bother us all that much.
Alcoholics and addicts often use when we feel the effects of hypoglycemia, and we train ourselves to interpret the need to eat as a need to mood alter in other ways!
Low blood sugar is one of the most dangerous conditions that a recovering person can be in, because it creates uncomfortable symptoms that we are accustomed to treating with a drink or a drug. Either will work. Alcohol causes a release of glucose, among other things, and other drugs make us feel better in other ways—or at least they make us feel different. Does H. A. L. T. begin to make more sense now? Yeah, it did to me, too.
So how do we deal with the problem? Well, number one, we don’t eat sweets all by themselves. We eat them after a meal, not instead of a meal. And we don’t let ourselves get too hungry. We learn to change our eating habits to control our glucose level and avoid the problem altogether, if we’re careful and a little bit lucky.
We eat a good-sized breakfast: toast, eggs, cereal, biscuit, fruit, etc. We need the food. Our body hasn’t been refueled for a long time. Even if you don’t usually eat breakfast…well…learn to. It can change your whole day for the better. But DON’T load up with Sugar Frosted Flakes®, or donuts and coffee. (In addition to the sugar, donuts are loaded with saturated fats!)
At about 9:30 or 10:00 we have a snack of maybe some cheese and a few crackers…just a snack. We don’t want to spoil our lunch. Again, we avoid sweets and concentrate on complex carbs (starches) and protein, with occasionally a little fat. We than have a moderate lunch. If we eat too much, it will make us sleepy, and our society doesn’t support siestas like some of the more civilized countries. A trick is to eat slowly. It takes about 25 minutes for our bodies to realize we’ve eaten and send the signal that we aren’t hungry any more. You can pack away a lot more than you need if you stuff yourself until you aren’t hungry. Eating slowly helps.
We have another snack about 3:30, and eat a nice dinner. We have our sweets for dessert. Then before bedtime we eat another snack—complex carbs again, with maybe a little protein, NOT ICE CREAM! (Sorry.)
And that’s the “secret.” Three snacks and three meals a day. By avoiding simple carbohydrates and concentrating on complex carbs, dairy, veggies and protein, we avoid the blood sugar spikes, the ups and downs. We can eliminate hypoglycemia altogether—if we work at it a little.
Now you might say, “If I eat all that, I’ll gain weight!” Not necessarily. If we cut down our meals a little bit—we won’t be as hungry, because of the snacks—we may find that our total calorie intake is less than it was when we were eating “three squares,” and fewer calories and exercise are the secrets to avoiding weight gain. Not avoiding carbs, or proteins, or eating nothing but grapefruit washed down with asparagus juice, just fewer calories. All the rest is bushwah made up by diet docs to sell books. (Eating better and feeling better may make it easier to go out and get that exercise, too.) A decent diet, a little exercise, avoid fats and sweets between meals…simple.
Disclaimer: the writer is knowledgeable about this subject, but is not medically-trained. If you try these simple remedies and fail to experience immediate relief of your symptoms, you should follow up with a licensed medical practitioner.