Our generation is hooked on counting calories and following the latest fad diets. But it’s natural to crave something sweet from time to time. Let’s be honest – after a long and tiring day of work, it’s hard to resist the temptation of dipping into the cookie jar. If you’ve been told to stay clear of sugar because it’s bad for you, you’re not alone. But perhaps it’s time to put things into context. Inherently, sugar (in the right quantity for you) is not detrimental and you shouldn’t have to avoid it completely (unless your doctor tells you so). You can have your cake and eat it too – as long as you have a basic understanding of how to actively regulate your sugar intake.
What is blood glucose?
Blood glucose, or blood sugar, is the primary sugar in the bloodstream. Your body makes glucose from the food you eat, and it is carried through the bloodstream. The main function of glucose is to supply cells with energy so that they can do their “jobs” properly. Glucose is, therefore, the primary source of energy. However, cells can’t absorb glucose without insulin.
How does insulin come into the picture?
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas to help the body utilise glucose as a source of energy. When you eat, your blood sugar levels rise, and the pancreas responds automatically by releasing insulin to allow glucose to enter the cells. Basically, insulin is important for the regulation of blood sugar levels, i.e., to prevent them from getting too high or too low.
Even though the pancreas always secretes a low level of insulin, its concentration rises as we eat, and occurs in parallel to higher blood glucose levels. When cells don't respond to insulin properly, the levels of blood glucose rise even higher. This is called insulin resistance, and it occurs due to numerous factors such as being overweight or obese, chronic stress, a sedentary lifestyle, diets high in sugar and calories, health conditions such as polycystic ovary disease and Cushing’s disease, amongst others.
What happens when the body accumulates more sugar than needed?
After carbs are absorbed from the food, they are carried to the liver for further processing. In the liver, other forms of sugar are transformed into glucose. Then, part of the glucose is released into the bloodstream while the remainder is stored in the liver as an energy reserve. The liver can store only a limited amount of glucose, so muscles store it too.
Excess blood glucose can create numerous problems in our body, and glucose builds up when insulin doesn't do its job properly. The consequences of blood glucose accumulation are numerous, ranging from weight gain or even obesity to high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease and cardiovascular conditions such as a heart attack.
Diabetes: an increasingly prevalent issue
Increased levels of blood sugar can lead to pre-diabetes and diabetes. Pre-diabetes occurs when blood glucose levels are increased, but not high enough to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. It’s a pre-diagnosis and a warning sign that tells patients there’s still time to reverse blood sugar and prevent diabetes.
Diabetes is a lifelong condition indicated by abnormally high levels of blood glucose, and it occurs due to insulin resistance. Some estimates show that more than 20% of the adult population in Malaysia has pre-diabetes, but the figures for diabetes itself are even more worrying. The chairman of the National Diabetes Institute (NADI) reported that Malaysia has a higher diabetes rate than any other country in Asia, with over 2.5 million people ages 18 and older having diabetes in Malaysia. The International Diabetes Foundation (IDF) reports there were 3.4 million cases of diabetes in Malaysia in 2017 alone.
How does high blood sugar affect your body?
Diabetic patients are prone to having abnormally high levels of blood sugar, medically known as hyperglycaemia. Diabetes can affect the pancreas and prevent it from releasing enough insulin, or even decrease the effects of this hormone. Symptoms associated with hyperglycaemia are frequent urination, blurred vision, increased thirst, fatigue, and headache.
High blood sugar can have dire consequences on your body, some of which include:
- Nerve damage – abnormally high glucose levels damage nerves and disrupt their ability to send signals
- Kidney damage – as a result of damage done to the blood vessels inside the kidneys
- Retinal damage – hyperglycaemia increases blood pressure, which, in turn, narrows and clogs tiny blood vessels in the retina
- Atherosclerosis – the arteries become narrowed and hardened with plaque build-up in the walls. This is due to inflamed blood vessels which slow down blood flow to the area
- Slow wound healing – blood flow is important for wound healing, but high blood sugar levels slow down the process. Blood is unable to circulate to injured areas, thus taking longer to heal properly
- High blood pressure – high blood sugar levels impair blood flow and narrow blood vessels. Since blood doesn’t flow very well, blood pressure rises
High blood glucose makes you susceptible to pre-diabetes and diabetes. In this article, you've had a glimpse into the harmful effects of high blood sugar on your health and quality of life. It is important to take the initiative to regulate your blood glucose levels. There's a lot you can do to keep blood sugar in a healthy range. Learn more about it here. When you experience one or more of these symptoms, do consult your doctor. Your health is in your hands!