Blood Sugar - The Elephant In the Room (The Pancreas - Gut Series pt. 3)
The pancreas is part of the digestive tract as well as of hormonal (or endocrine) system. It is located behind the stomach and functions as a gland.
It produces enzymes to digest protein and carbohydrates and to start breaking down fats. From our previous articles we know that the liver produces bile to further digest and absorb fats. Also, we already mentioned that the efficiency of the pancreatic enzymes depends directly on the acidity (potency) of the stomach acid.
The pancreas creates and releases the hormone insulin to regulate (lower) blood sugar. It also increases blood sugar in times of stress.
As we already said in the previous article, the liver and pancreas are closely interconnected. What supports and nourishes one, supports and nourishes the other organ in turn. While the pancreas starts the digestion of carbohydrates/sugars with the enzyme amylase, sugar is always metabolized by the liver. The liver also stores glycogen which is converted into glucose for energy when needed.
The Stress Response
When in stress (this is our fight/flight/freeze response), the pancreas produces glucagon which tells the liver to release glucose into the blood stream. This is an ancient protective mechanism. Back in the hunter/gatherer times we didn’t have constant stress. When we needed that boost of blood sugar and blood quickly pumping in our extremities, it was to fuel the energy and stamina to run for life – from a beast that could have eaten us. When we were surviving and running for life, we didn’t need to digest, heal, rest or procreate in that moment. As soon as the thread was over, though, we would switch from high alert to our natural, relaxed state of being.
In our world nowadays, many people are under constant (= chronic) stress. This can be physiological stress (due to lack of sleep or nutrients, or a diet high in sugar and junk), or emotional and psychological stress (that happens in our heads). When we are in that head space and stressing out, our body responds the same as when we needed to flee from a hungry beast thousands of years ago. The only difference is that we get stuck in the fight/flight mode, rather than smoothly returning to a relaxed state. When this happens, our body (especially the thyroid) will downregulate (= reduce its functions). It is a pure waste of energy and resources to be constantly in a state of high alert. It is also totally unnatural from the body’s perspective. From my thyroid article (The Thyroid – Queen of Balance) you already know about being in chronic stress and how that affects the performance of the body. The resting, digesting, healing and procreating functions get greatly diminished.
It seems that the once rare disease of the pancreas, diabetes, is becoming more common. Type I diabetes is chronic – the body makes no insulin or insufficient amounts. On the other hand, type II, also called ‘the lifestyle diabetes’, has everything to do with unbalanced blood sugar levels – due to our diet or chronic stress. Usually the combination of both.
When we consume high amounts of sugar (including carbohydrates), or are snacking and grazing, rather than having 2-3 large meals a day, we are continuously raising our blood sugar. Thus, demanding of the pancreas to be constantly releasing insulin. If this carries on for too long, we can end up with insulin resistance. This is a scenario where the insulin is no longer able to balance the blood sugar levels. The next step after insulin resistance is the full blown disease – type II diabetes.
Functional doctors have come up with a new term recently – type III diabetes. It’s their nickname for Alzheimer's. We used to think it was a neurological problem – mostly to do with the brain. And yet, it has everything to do with blood sugar and insulin resistance. Hmm…
Brain - Sugar Connection
When we think about the brain and blood sugar connection, it makes perfect sense. I mentioned this in my liver article (The Liver - King of Balance). The brain needs fat – mostly saturated. It doesn’t need sugar. Feeding the body a high sugar diet will starve the brain of the fuel it needs. Have you heard about something called ‘the gut – brain axis’? Our important neurotransmitters (sometimes referred to as hormones), namely serotonin and melatonin, are created in the gut, not the brain. Serotonin is our ‘happy hormone’ (lack of which will lead to depression and anxiety) and melatonin is the ‘sleep hormone’ (without which we will struggle with insomnia). More recently it’s been discovered that melatonin is a master anti-oxidant (preventing degeneration and ageing of the cells) and also healing and protecting against radiation.
So if the brain doesn’t get the right fuel (healthy fats), is lacking sleep (the brain greatly regenerates and cleanses in deep sleep) and the gut doesn’t make the necessary neurotransmitters, it’s hardly surprising all this will lead to a severe degenerative disease.
We are only into the 3rd article about the gut health and we can clearly see that a properly functioning gut is absolutely vital to the overall health and wellbeing.
Stating that our society is chronically sleep deprived and overstressed is hardly an overstatement. My favourite health advocate Dr Berg on youtube claims that 65% of the world’s population is diabetic or pre-diabetic. That is a shockingly high number.
Whenever we wake up sleep deprived, we are already in a pre-diabetic (or insulin resistant) state. With the stresses of the day ahead, time pressure on the way to work, school etc. this roller-coaster just carries on till we finally fall exhausted into bed at night.
However, we need to understand that the raised blood sugar and fast heart rate are the body’s protective mechanisms. They are to sustain us while in life threatening danger. They are not our enemy. It seems very illogical to try and medicate high blood pressure or insulin resistance, unless we address the underlying cause – STRESS.
As the pancreas is part of the endocrine system, it hardly comes as a surprise that insulin resistance is often behind hormonal problems, like estrogen dominance (namely endometriosis and fibroids) and high androgens (testosterone in women) leading to PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome).
Blood Sugar - Nutritional Perspective
Blood sugar issues (whether insulin resistance or diabetes) are often linked to low vitamin D levels. I keep mentioning this again and again – the sunshine vitamin is NOT a vitamin. D is our steroid hormone – absolutely crucial for every single cell in the body. It maintains beta cells in the pancreas, which are directly responsible for preserving insulin sensitivity (as opposed to insulin resistance). The other nutrient linked to blood sugar issues and often lacking in diabetics is magnesium. You may remember from the previous articles that lack of vitamin D and magnesium is also linked to high blood pressure and high cholesterol. These two are also common symptoms of chronic stress – whether due to nutritional deficiencies or emotional/psychological stress.
My favourite health advocate, women's holistic psychiatrist Kelly Brogan, has plenty of experience with the connection of blood sugar and difficult psychiatric conditions. She can testify to unbelievable healing stories of women who had been schizophrenic, bipolar, struggling with manic depression and other very debilitating conditions. Every new patient had to go through a month of body reset. This would include a totally grain-and dairy-free diet, void of sugar; naturally high in fats and protein. No ready-made or refined foods. Everything these women ate they would freshly prepare. They also had to commit to get more sleep and practise a form of mindfulness daily (breathing, journaling, visualization etc.). After a month the results were absolutely shocking – in the most positive way. Simply by addressing physiological stress (including blood sugar) and reducing mental/emotional stress, these women were able to start healing - after years of struggles.
Still In Doubt About Blood Sugar?
Although, the pancreas doesn’t get talked about in our society much, I strongly feel the real ‘elephant in the room’ is the blood sugar. Blood sugar is the key to so many vital functions. When overlooked, it will affect the thyroid, liver, pancreas, heart, intestines, kidneys, the brain and nervous system, immunity, hormonal health, levels of inflammation and many others. Many of the so called ‘modern diseases’ in our society could be improved (if not completely healed), simply by focusing on balancing the blood sugar levels.
The body is like a finely-tuned orchestra – it needs every single instrument to be balanced and precision-tuned so they all resonate together harmoniously.
What are the tell-tale signs of blood sugar imbalance?
- absolutely starving within a couple of hours since breakfast
- nervous and feeling low
- brain fog and unable to think clearly or concentrate
- craving sugar – especially after lunch
- having a 'slump' in the afternoon (when we usually crave a sugary treat)
- constantly needing snacking
- in more severe cases – palpitations, breathlessness, fatigue, shaking with hunger
Although the food industry tells us to have cereal or porridge with banana and dry fruit for breakfast, our body tells a different story. It is important to remember that grains are only a fairly recent addition to the human diet. In the hunter/gatherer times people didn’t cultivate grains. If they ate any, those would be a small amount of grass seeds they found. Also honey and dry fruit would be a rare treat, not a daily diet. There is evidence that humans started cultivating grains about 10,000 to 13,000 years ago. However, human origins can be dated back to about 350,000 years or more. The human genome can take thousands of years to change, depending on the internal and external environment.
What does this all mean?
That although all your known ancestors might have eaten a diet high in grains, your body may still not be fully adapted to this diet. Especially if you eat grains 2 or more times a day - like many people do nowadays. You can test this theory in practice, especially if you have any blood sugar imbalances (or you suspect you do). Don’t eat grains for breakfast for the next 2 weeks and see what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised.
What to eat for blood sugar health?
- savoury breakfast or fruits high in water and fibre content (apples, pears, oranges, berries), as long as you balance them with healthy fats and protein
- enough protein and fats for lunch (a small treat if you need it, eaten WITH your lunch)
- no snacking or grazing (even a glass of orange juice between meal raises insulin)
- 2-3 large meals a day that fully satisfy you (rich in vegetables, especially greens, and fats and protein)
- if following a plant-based diet, make sure you eat large amounts of nuts and seeds with your meals (for fats and to create complete proteins)
- avoiding or greatly reducing high sugar fruits – bananas, dates, dry fruit
- reducing grains, and ideally avoiding them for breakfast
From the psycho-somatic perspective, the pancreas is to do with the mother, also nourishment and sweetness in life.
This is fully confirmed by the Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as Ayurveda, where the pancreas belongs to the element of Earth or Kapha. Sweet and pleasantly heavy earthiness is what we want to include in our lives. Through the diet, with naturally sweet and creamy foods (soups, stews, nut butter sauces, warm plant-based milk with a teaspoon of coconut oil etc.). I suspect the reason why most of us women crave sweet treats just before ‘the time of the month’ so much, is to do with lacking sweetness in general. We need to become more yin – to soften and relax, ‘flow’ in order to be able to let go – emotionally, mentally, as well as psychically.
In our kind of world there is little external sweetness (beyond sugary treats) and it requires some effort to cultivate internal sweetness.
We want to consciously slow down in order to feel and feed that internal sweet spot. Especially through regular self-care – being gentle and patient with ourselves, taking an Epsom salt bath, allowing ourselves to rest and have ‘slow, zero-plan’ days, saying an empowered ‘no’ to anything that doesn’t feel right. By saying ‘no’ to demands and actions that are not good for us, we are saying ‘YES’ to staying nourished and healthy. Going for slow walks where we breath deeply and let nature feed our mind and soul is such an easy and pleasant way. Remember, mother Earth offers the ultimate nourishing sweetness.