The Blood Sugar Rollercoaster
Controlling your blood sugar levels is absolutely critical to controlling your mood, energy, and motivation. If you’ve ever known someone that is very “Jekyll and Hyde”, there is a very good chance that they are constantly riding what is commonly referred to as the “Blood Sugar Rollercoaster.”
Signs that a person is riding the Blood Sugar Rollercoaster
- Fly off the handle for no reason
- Take things very personally
- “Don’t wanna hear it”
- If they are not hyper, they are weepy or depressed
- Can’t control their actions and emotions
What Makes Up Our Blood Sugar?
Your blood sugar level is determined by the carbs that you eat. Eating the wrong type of carbs will send you for a ride on the rollercoaster. Eating the right type of carb will keep you safely off the rollercoaster, allowing you to have happy, energetic, and fun moods.
So which carbs are the wrong carbs to eat? Let’s first break down carbs into groups.
For our purposes, carbohydrates can be separated into 3 groups:
- Refined Grains
- Whole Grains
Sugar includes any and all sweets. Candy, milk chocolate, soda pop, flavored coffee drinks, etc.
Refined Grains include white flour, white bread, white rice, and other things commonly used to make baked goods, prepackaged foods, and sweets.
Whole Grains include 100% whole wheat flour, 100% whole wheat bread, 100% whole wheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa, kasha, farro, and other whole grains. For our purposes, fruit can also be put into the complex category because fruit come packed with fiber, which slows digestion of carbs.
Now let’s look at what your body does when you eat carbs:
Any time you eat a carbohydrate, your body digests it, converts it into “glucose”, and sends this glucose into your blood. Glucose is what sugar is called once it is in your blood. If you have ever heard the term “blood glucose levels”, this is the technical term for blood sugar levels. The process goes like the picture below:
This conversion from carbs to glucose happens to all carbs. The difference between sugar, refined grains, and whole grains is how long this takes. Foods with lots of fiber (whole grains and fruit) take longer, foods with less fiber or no fiber (white carbs and sugar) digest much more quickly. See below.
Because they lack fiber, sugar and refined (white) grains are broken down and turned into glucose by your digestive system very, very quickly. This means that when you eat a lot of these carbs, your blood will very quickly be flooded with glucose. The result is a sharp spike in your blood glucose levels, or your blood sugar. A sudden spike in your blood sugar will give you instant energy and make you feel energetic and almost hyper.
But only for a moment, read on…
Your Body Wants Blood Sugar to Stay in a Certain Range
Your body wants to maintain a mid range blood sugar level. In this effort, a spike in blood sugar will cause your pancreas to start pumping insulin into your system to compensate. One of insulin’s responsibilities is to stabilize blood sugar. Insulin’s goal is to take the extra glucose out of your bloodstream and shove it into your cells. This will ensure the proper blood sugar level.
The problem is that your pancreas always overestimates how much insulin to release. Your pancreas sees a huge spike in blood glucose levels, so it starts cranking out insulin as quick as it can to try to catch up. But it has a strong tendency to overestimate the amount of insulin it needs to release, and the result is that too much glucose is removed from your blood. This results in a blood sugar crash, or very low blood sugar levels. This is also known as hypoglycemia. For a good article on the causes, symptoms, and treatments of hypoglycemia, see this article from the National Institute on Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
See below for a graph of this process.
Symptoms of Low Blood Sugar:
- Flying off the handle
The reason low blood sugar causes these symptoms is because sugar is your brain’s only fuel. And if you deprive your brain of it’s only fuel, you are STARVING YOUR BRAIN. When your brain is starving, it starts to malfunction, and causes the above symptoms. Click here for more info on why low blood sugar causes these symptoms.
The Blood Sugar Rollercoaster
Many people, in response to feeling like crap due to low blood sugar, will reach for some instant energy (refined carbs and sweets). And then what happens? We start the cycle all over again.
- We eat large amounts of simple carbs/sweets
- Our blood sugar spikes
- We feel temporarily good
- Our pancreas cranks out insulin
- Our blood sugar crashes
- We feel like crap
- We turn to simple carbs/sweets for more quick energy
- Our blood sugar spikes
- And on, and on, and on…
The Blood Sugar Rollercoaster is shown below:
This is the Blood Sugar Rollercoaster. This is what causes some people to have the Jekyll & Hyde personality. It also causes us to gain weight like crazy.
So how do we prevent ourselves from riding this rollercoaster?
You remove refined carbs and replace them with whole grains.
Why do whole grains not cause the rollercoaster?
Whole grains contain soluble and insoluble fiber. Fiber slows the digestion of carbs, preventing blood sugar spikes (more below). To have a good idea of what fiber does, think of an apple:
Think of the fleshy part of the apple. The part that holds all of the juice. This is the soluble fiber. Soluble fiber will travel down to your stomach and soak up everything like a sponge. This slows the digestion of a meal, regulating hunger and blood sugar.
(This is not critical to blood sugar control, but good to understand)
Think of the skin of the apple. It does not absorb water. When food gets through your intestines, the insoluble fiber will keep things moving, keeping you regular. It also promotes healthy bacteria in your colon, making your digestive system function properly (discussed earlier).
Sugar naturally has no fiber, so it digests very, very quickly. To see how white bread, white rice, etc are processed and how they affect blood sugar, read below.
The Refining Process: Making White Bread
Take a look at the graphic of the wheat kernel at the top of this page. A whole wheat kernel (whole grain) is made up of the endosperm, bran, germ, and brush. During the refining process, the bran, germ, and brush are stripped away, leaving only the endosperm (the white part). The endosperm is the part of the carb that your body turns into glucose.
No fiber means quick digestion of the endosperm. This means a sharp spike in blood sugar, followed by the inevitable crash. Welcome to the Blood Sugar Rollercoaster.
(Side Note: Take another look at the table below the diagram. Notice what items are included in the bran and germ:
When you eat whole grains, the fiber will slow the digestion of the carbs. This means that your blood sugar will rise slowly as a result of eating these foods.
Switching to whole grains will get you off the rollercoaster. You will avoid the rollercoaster, but you will also be adding more vitamins and nutrients in the process. So not only are you stabilizing your blood sugar (which helps control your mood), but you are adding nutrients that will help you focus, think clearly, and control your mood. The benefits are two-fold.
The rollercoaster sucks, get off it…