Written by Kara Collier
The short-term effects of poor glucose control are hard to see and feel but important to correct as early as possible.
Elevated glucose stresses our mitochondria and other metabolic pathways, causing unwanted inflammation, hormone imbalance, and cell damage.
Accumulated short-term effects can compound into long-term metabolic dysfunction and chronic disease, which are hard to reverse.
The short-term effects of unhealthy eating behavior can be hard to quantify. We may feel sluggish or sleepy, but what’s really going on inside of our bodies?
When we experience abnormal changes in our glucose levels after a large meal, our bodies have to work hard to bring our blood glucose levels back to a healthy range. The cascade of chemical reactions needed to achieve this puts extra stress on many systems. One of these systems is our energy production factory called the mitochondria.
Mitochondria are tiny organelles found in almost all cells. They function as the powerhouse of the cell and are the primary site of metabolic reactions such as those turning glucose into usable energy. When we consume something that results in a large glucose spike, it puts undue stress on the mitochondria. By working overtime to convert the excess sugars into ATP, the mitochondria produce more by-products in the form of free radicals. These free radicals can cause oxidative damage to surrounding cells, proteins, and DNA.
The pancreas is another organ that is affected by consistently elevated blood glucose. It is the organ that produces insulin, the hormone that tells our cells to utilize the glucose in our bloodstream for energy. When the pancreas has to produce insulin constantly, two bad things happen. First, the Beta cells in the pancreas become overworked, unable to cope with the constant demand for insulin production. Second, our body builds a resistance to the constantly elevated insulin in the bloodstream. Cells begin to ignore the insulin signal and fail to absorb the excess glucose from the blood. It's called insulin resistance and can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes if left unchecked. The pancreas can also sustain damage, leading to an increased risk for pancreatitis and other complications.
The process of turning food into energy is generally stressful on the body. While our bodies can handle metabolic stress in moderation, they are not designed to do so without breaks. By consistently stressing the system with unhealthy portions of energy-dense foods, we push many of our systems to their limit and run our metabolic engine at redline. Just like a car engine is designed to be run under a sustainable load and RPM range for most of its lifetime, so is our metabolic engine. By constantly pushing it outside of its normal operating parameters, we are causing compounding damage, leading to complex chronic disease states.
Most of the short-term damage can be reversed if intervention is started early. However, these changes can compound without intervention, eventually throwing the body into a chronic state of disrepair. It's the point where our bodies are caught in a feedback loop of damage coupled with the inability to recover completely. This affects the entire body and not just one isolated part. This is why chronic conditions tend to feed off each other, as exemplified by this fact: over 40% of adults have more than one chronic condition.
The long-term consequences of poor glucose control are more apparent than the short-term effects, but they are also much more challenging to reverse. Years of behind-the-scenes damage can lead to metabolic syndrome, excessive fat accumulation, hormonal dysfunction, diabetes, and heart disease. While these disorders are dangerous in their later stages, many begin with poor dietary habits and small everyday choices that are entirely within our control.
It has been shown that the most effective treatment for chronic conditions is diet and lifestyle intervention, which help restore normal hormonal and metabolic function. By monitoring our glucose levels after meals, we are trying to reduce the short-term stresses of elevated glucose and keep our bodies as close to an optimal range as possible.