We hear a lot about the harmful effects of a poor diet on our health. We hear about how it leads to obesity, how it can lead to increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, and how it can mean overall poor health due to lack of nutrition. Another risk of an unhealthy dietóespecially if it includes large quantities of carbohydrates and simple sugarsóis what it does to our blood sugar levels.
Blood sugar is, simply enough, the amount of sugar (glucose) we have in our blood. When we eat, our body breaks down food carbohydrates to produce sugars. The sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream, which carries it to every cell in the body. Blood sugar fuels the cells, providing them with the energy they need to keep us healthy.
It is extremely important that blood sugar levels remain consistent and not be too high or too low. The normal amount of sugar in the blood ranges from 60 mg/dL (milligrams of glucose per deciliter of blood) to 120 mg/dL, depending on when a person last ate.
How It Works
The amount of sugar in the blood is largely controlled by the hormone insulin. When the body recognizes that we are eating and turning food into sugars, the pancreas secretes insulin. Insulin acts like a travel guide, escorting sugar through the bloodstream and then ìknocking on and unlocking the cellsí doorsî to allow glucose to enter. When the pancreas, insulin, and the cells are not working in harmony, the result can be diabetesóhigh levels of blood sugar.
In diabetes, blood sugar levels are too high. There are two reasons for this.
Insulin-dependent diabetes, which is known as Type I diabetes or juvenile-onset diabetes, is caused by damage to the pancreas. Part of the pancreas, beta cells, manufacture the insulin that escorts blood sugar to the cells. If beta cells are not working, or not working well, you do not produce enough insulinóthere are not enough ìtravel guidesî to get the blood sugar to the cells. The result is that the blood sugar remains in the bloodstreamóhigh blood sugar levels.
In noninsulin-dependent diabetes, which is known as Type II diabetes or adult-onset diabetes, insulin is produced, but the cells remain resistant to itóyou might say they keep changing the ìlocksî so that the insulin cannot bring in the blood sugar. This also results in high blood sugar levels. Type II diabetes is by far the most prevalent, accounting for 90 to 95 percent of all diabetics.
Diabetes and high blood sugar result in frequent urination, extreme thirst, increased appetite, unexplained weight loss, dry skin and frequent skin infections, recurrent vaginitis, blurred vision, fatigue, drowsiness, and nausea. Diabetes has the potential for serious long-term complications that can lead to increased risk for atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease, visual problems and blindness, slow healing of injuries, kidney failure, and damage to the nervous system.
Diabetes And Low Blood Sugar
Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) may result from treatment for diabetes. Taking too much medication, missing or delaying a meal, eating too little food for the amount of insulin taken, exercising too strenuously, drinking too much alcohol, or any combination of these factors may lead to low blood sugar levels. This can result in weakness, shakiness, nervousness, anxiety, faintness, and marked personality changes.
Although hypoglycemia is most prevalent as a complication of diabetes, other causes include early pregnancy, prolonged fasting, and long periods of strenuous exercise.
Support For Blood Sugar
Healthy blood sugar levels can be maintained through diet and lifestyle changes. Of special interest are the minerals chromium and vanadium and the herbs bitter melon and Gymnema sylvestre.
Chromium is the major mineral involved in insulin production, and a deficiency in this mineral can interfere with the production and utilization of insulin. Indeed, a chromium deficiency can result in three conditions directly related to blood sugar: high blood sugar levels, an inability of the cells to pick up and use blood sugar (impaired glucose tolerance), and higher insulin levels.
Chromium increases the ability of insulin to bind to cells and leads to increased insulin sensitivity of body tissue. This leads to the body being better able to absorb and use the blood sugar. In other words, chromium helps the insulin ìtravel guideî get to more doors and oils the key that the travel guide uses to unlock our cells to the blood sugar. Studies have indicated that chromium does lower blood sugar and insulin levels in those with Type II diabetes.
The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has noted that current data suggests that chromium supplementation can be useful for people with glucose intolerance, Type II diabetes, gestational diabetes, and steroid-induced diabetes.
Although as early as 1899 it was found that a form of vanadium resulted in a decrease in blood sugar levels, it was not until the late 1970s that vanadiumís insulin-like action was first described. Vanadium may activate insulin receptorsómaking the cell more receptive to the insulinís ìkeyîóand through this exert insulin-like action.
This has been supported in two clinical trials. In one, patients with Type II diabetes received 50 mg of vanadium sulfate two times per day for four weeks. The abstract of this study notes that the vanadium was well-tolerated and resulted in modest reductions of blood sugar and hepatic insulin resistance.
In another trial, patients with Type II diabetes were given vanadium. The authors note that after three weeks, insulin sensitivity was improved.
Bitter melon grows in tropical areas, including parts of the Amazon, East Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and throughout South America. It is used as a food as well as a medicine.
Bitter melon does much the same as chromium: it improves the bodyís ability to use blood sugar and improves glucose toleranceóthat is, the bodyís ability to get the blood sugar into the cells.
In one study, using 100 ml of bitter melon juice was found to improve glucose tolerance by 73 percent in a standard glucose tolerance test. In another study, an aqueous extract of bitter melon fruit was found to decrease blood sugar levels by 54 percent.
Like chromium and vanadium, Gymnema sylvestre works to help increase glucose tolerance. Like bitter melon, it may help the pancreas produce insulin.
Gymnema has been used with patients suffering from both Type I and Type II diabetes. In one study with 27 Type I diabetes patients, the gymnema extract reduced the insulin requirements and lowered the fasting blood glucose levels. The abstract notes that Gymnema extract enhances the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin.
As far as Type II diabetes goes, in one study, Gymnema extract was administered for 18 to 20 months to 22 Type II patients taking conventional medication. All the patients showed a significant reduction in blood sugar levels, and five of the 22 diabetic patients were able to maintain their blood sugar levels without conventional drugs.