Well here we are just 14 seconds from the start of January and the chocolate is about to flow back into our lives thick and heavy (the way we like it??) with Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Easter all packing out the calendar and making for a chocolatey scented highlight every month from here until summer. And honestly, cards on the table, we hope to be involved in selling you some of the best stuff out there. But this doesn’t mean we’re not interested in redressing the balance, in treating this delicious commodity as something to be savoured and occasionally indulged, instead of debased into a basic confectionary item. We’ve actually been getting into cacao ceremony lately - yes I know some of you will roll your eyes - but when we look at the bounty of phytochemicals in a bar of pure cacao...well on the food as medicine front it competes with some lofty competition, say manuka honey for instance, in its fight for the Therapeutic Food Oscar... but let’s just be glad it doesn’t carry the same price tag.
We digress. We want to carry on enjoying a little bit of this nectar but there are pitfalls to overindulgence that we should heed. Excess of this sugary substance is the plight of many a Joe Soap, and our vital organs strain under the weight of the repeat assault of sugars, both refined and less so, throughout our lives. So what can we do to stave off the bad bits but preserve our body’s tolerance for the odd breakout.
The metabolism of sugar is a tricky thing, and one we’ve dealt with a fairly boringly exacting detail in our previous blog “Is All Sugar Bad For You” and without wanting to go back over old ground it’s a good idea to drop in the salient points so you can grasp the concepts and journey on with the calm certainty of one of those annoying nodding dog toys you see in car windows.
So we have a series of sugar absorption molecules called GLUT transporters that get glucose and fructose across the cell membranes throughout our body, specifically out of our gut, into our bloodstream and then into our vital organs - brain, heart, kidneys, etc, and once they’ve got all the energy they need the remainder goes for storage as glycogen. This process requires the hormone we’re probably all too familiar with, insulin. When insulin attaches itself to our cell walls in muscle or liver cells it triggers the cell to take in glucose, removing it from the bloodstream and storing it as glycogen for later release.
Your body goes through this process day in, day out (except for during Dry January, Lent and any other sugar holidays you’ve opted into), and the more we wear on the system of insulin metabolism (like most other hormonal processes), the more likely we are to break down its vital role in removing excess glucose from our bloodstream. So just why are we concerned about all this glucose zooming around our bloodstream - sure that’s just extra energy right?? WRONG
Excess sugar in our system is a damaging high energy molecule - it triggers oxidative stress, and the production of AGE’s (Advanced Glycation Endproducts), which are incredibly harmful to our blood vessel walls, and the ultimate reason why diabetics can suffer sight loss and even necrosis of their lower limbs, leading to amputation. In less extreme examples, the mechanism by which AGE’s wreak their havoc - the crosslinking of collagen fibres - means a stiffening of all our connective tissues, reducing elasticity, most notably in our capillary network, which means less blood flow passing through to nourish our organs and peripheral tissues. And with Valentine’s day on the way...well we want all our organs available for the romance set to come our way right?
Excess circulating blood glucose also leads to a triggering of cholesterol synthesis in the liver. Now, we’ve been through this whole cholesterol thing a good bit before, and we know that there’s lots of grey area surrounding cholesterol’s role in heart disease. Unless oxidised, cholesterol is a protective compound, and we always recommend making sure to get your fill of fat soluble antioxidants to prevent this harmful change in the cholesterol you have in circulation. But if you have high cholesterol, don’t take this as the message to go sit on the couch - far from it. We need to look at it in context with all our other heart health markers, and not in isolation, but from a sugars point of view, if it’s elevated, then sugar in the diet needs to be addressed for sure. One night of indulgence isn’t what we’re concerned about here, it’s the regular nightly habit that leads to these regular body processes shifting gear and manifesting as something nasty and getting beyond our control.
So alzheimers eh? Grim topic. A neurodegenerative disease that starts around THIRTY YEARS before we see symptoms. Now there is an extra scare you don’t need. Studies are beginning to look at the onset of alzheimer’s disease as linked to our brain’s ability to handle and metabolise glucose. Over time a protein known as TAU, located in the hippocampus in our brains, starts to form fibrils and eventually tangles (which sounds like what it is), inhibiting synaptic function, in response to degraded sugar metabolism. Based on this discovery, researchers are beginning to refer to alzheimer’s disease as Type 3 Diabetes, so sugar consumption is once again under the spotlight - this time it’s about remembering our lover’s name, and ideally, all their favourite love poems.
So now without us all resigning to chuck the entire chocolate box in the bin, is there a way we can help to buffer ourselves from the consequences of the odd night of bold indulgence? The answer, thankfully is yes.
Let’s start with protein and fibre, as they’re probably the most fundamental of the dietary augmentations that serve to save us from the ravages of our sweet and syrupy lifestyles. In the gut, when sugar is bound to fibre (as in whole fruit), the metabolism across our gut wall is demonstrably different and the fibre slows the release of sugar into our bloodstream, giving our bodies a drip feed of sweets that puts less pressure on insulinemic response, and allows us time to find the required spots to store all the excess energy when it comes, without doing monstrous damage. Likewise protein, which slows the transit time of food through your gut, serves to slow the conversion of carbohydrates into glucose and hence takes some of the weight off your body’s capacity to handle the sugar load. Protein consumption also triggers the production of insulin so it enhances your body’s ability to process the sugar in any meal in which it’s included.
Ok so we know that insulin is a prize commodity in this battle to manhandle glucose. And it’s well known that as a system it starts to break down with overuse as we age. So how can we make the best of what we’ve got? Well one way to support insulin’s effectiveness is to ensure what’s available is put to good use. Enter chromium. Chromium is a mineral that amongst other things, help to stick insulin to the wall of our cells when it’s trying to tell the cell to take in glucose and put it into storage for the next big physical effort. It’s been found to be useful at doses between 400 and 1000mcg. Onions, broccoli, green beans and brewer’s yeast all contain sizeable amounts of chromium too so it doesn’t have to be all pill food.
Alpha Lipoic Acid
Now THIS is an interesting antioxidant. ALA as it’s known, has been shown in studies to have wide ranging benefits from reducing hypertension to protecting cholesterol from oxidation to supporting heavy metal chelation in the brain (as it crossed the blood brain barrier effectively, which puts it in rarified air). But in this case we’re most interested in the potential it has shown for assisting the balancing of blood sugars. It mobilises GLUT 4 transporters (those little guys that shuttle glucose into our cells), and hence maximises the effectiveness of the sugar storage mechanism. A great partner to all the dietary changes we’ve suggested above. Alpha lipoic acid is found in wicked quantities in organ meats...but for those of us not consuming vibrant amounts of those guys - there’s also lots to be found in plant foods such as spinach, broccoli, brewer’s yeast and wheatgerm especially.
Cinnamon is seriously handy in this regard too, it actually mimics the action of insulin, taking some of the pressure off this precious hormone, and enhancing our cells’ sensitivity to insulin too. Studies have shown up to a 25% drop in fasting glucose levels, and cinnamon comes with a host of other related benefits - it serves to prevent the damage from those pesky AGE’s we spoke about before, and helps as an antioxidant to protect our neurons from damage too. Plus it’s delish, tastes sweet and enhances the sweetness of the sugar that we do consume, making it so we need less. Sounds like the caring lover we all need in our lives, maybe just a spoonful away, and hiding in our cupboard!!