Sugar, insulin and your blood glucose levels
Despite all the bad press that sugar has received lately, as human beings, we do need small quantities of it to survive. This is because sugar can be broken down into glucose, which can be used by your cells as an energy source. Insulin, a hormone produced by your pancreas, attaches itself to glucose molecules and transfers them into your cells where they can be stored as glycogen and used later if need be.
Provided you are getting the right amount of sugar, the system works, however, nowadays the problem is that our diets are saturated with far too much sugar. Generally, according to NHS guidelines, added sugars shouldn’t make up any more than 5% of your calorific intake, which works out at around 30g of sugar a day for those aged 11 and over.1
To put this into perspective, if you order a grande pumpkin spiced latte from Starbucks, it’ll contain around 49g of sugar, or 12 and a bit teaspoons!2 A lot of companies also sneak sugar into their foods so the substance can crop up in unexpected places – bread, pasta or your morning bowl of low-fat cereal. With this is mind, it’s easy to see why sugar is such a problem but how is this affecting your insulin levels?
Does insulin have an impact on your hormones?
Well, it stands to reason that if more sugar is being pumped into your body, your blood glucose levels will spike and your poor pancreas will be forced to release more insulin. Eventually, the cells in your body will start to become resistant to the effects of insulin or your pancreas will struggle to keep up with the demand.
When this happens, excess sugar is left in your bloodstream causing surges in your blood-glucose levels that can have a number of unhappy effects on your health. If your body is unable to metabolise sugar properly, then it will be stored in your tissues as fat which is why obesity and blood-glucose problems often go hand in hand.
However, while repercussions of sugar on your weight are well documented, the effect that sugar can have on your ovaries is not as well-known. If your pancreas is releasing more insulin, it can sometimes impact your ovaries, causing them to produce more androgen hormones such as testosterone.
This can influence the development of the follicles in the ovaries which can subsequently affect ovulation as well as trigger symptoms such as acne, irregular periods or unusual body hair growth. It’s been estimated that insulin resistance affects around 65-70% of PCOS sufferers hinting that hypoinsulinemia could be a major cause of the condition.3
PMS is another issue that may be influenced by a spike in your blood-glucose levels. Cravings for sweet, sugary foods often cause a significant spike that can result in the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. However, progesterone is needed to produce cortisol, so this can mean that your levels of progesterone may be lowered, leading to an imbalance that may worsen many of your symptoms, including cramps as cortisol is often linked to inflammation.
An increased blood sugar level is the inevitable crash, which can also affect your appetite, exacerbating any food cravings you may be experiencing. When your blood sugar levels rise rapidly, they will eventually plummet, sometimes falling to levels that were lower than before you ate. This in turn makes you crave food again and the cycle continues.
What about men?
Okay, so PMS and PCOS are conditions that mainly affect the female population so what about men? Is their hormonal landscape changed any by sugar?
While women are thought to be more predisposed to insulin sensitivity4, certain issues such as acne (which can be triggered by excessive sugar consumption) can affect either gender. For more information, please read our skin advisor, Mandy Ward’s, blog entitled ‘The bitter truth about sugar and your skin.’
However, while insulin might increase testosterone production in women, it’s thought that insulin resistance in men can have the opposite effect. One study found that glucose may induce a significant reduction in testosterone in men5, which, in addition to obesity, can mean that many men experience low libido and some symptoms of erectile dysfunction.
It’s also important to note that insulin can affect the human growth hormone, which has repercussions for men and women alike. You rely on the human growth hormone to maintain muscle mass, body fat and bone structure. Excessive consumption of sugar and spiking insulin levels can inhibit your production of the growth hormone, which affects all of the aforementioned factors in addition to your testosterone levels.
As our sleep advisor Marianna also recognised in her blog, ‘Is your lack of sleep causing you to overeat?’ food cravings can disrupt your sleep patterns, affecting your production of the hormones that regulate your appetite, ghrelin and leptin.
Leptin is a hormone produced by your fat cells and it’s responsible for telling your brain when you feel full. When there’s too much insulin in your system, your brain can’t recognise the signals that leptin sends off to let it know that your full and thus you continue to feel hungry even when you really should feeling full up.
So how can you monitor your sugar intake?
Cutting out all sugar from your diet might be attainable for celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, but for the rest of us, such a drastic change probably isn’t that achievable so I’m not about to say that you should completely ditch chocolate and by-pass any seasonal lattes that might be on the horizon in December.
Instead what I would ask for is moderation. The odd speciality latte isn’t going to dramatically affect your hormonal health but if you’re in Starbucks everyday then the results will inevitably take their toll. It’s also important that when you do experience a craving for sugar, that you don’t immediately respond by tucking into a bar of chocolate.
Opting for natural sources of sugar might be healthier option so think dried fruit, or you could even try opting for complex carbohydrates that offer a slow stable release of energy. We have a number of delicious and healthy snack recipes on the food section of our website. Below are just a few of my favourites!
Salted Caramel Bliss Balls
Cinnamon and Chia Seed Energy Balls
Cherry & Almond Snack Bars
Cinnamon & Almond Banana Bread
You should also try to be a bit more aware about the unexpected foods that may contain sugar – your breakfast cereal, white bread, sauces and fruit juices. It might surprise you the foods that sugar is hidden in but once you’re able to recognise them, you can start to eliminate them from your diet.
It may also be worthwhile considering other aspects of your lifestyle too – poor sleep, low mood and some menopausal symptoms can cause sugar cravings so it’s important to analyse every angle. In general, try to go to bed at the same time consistently and think about tackling any sources of stress in your life. Getting some gentle exercise can help with both of these issues, especially low-impact forms such as yoga or tai chi, which teach deep breathing techniques to help you cope better with stressful emotions.