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 puts stress on 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 due to a large meal, our bodies have to work hard to bring our blood glucose 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 which is affected by consistently elevated blood glucose. It is the organ which produces insulin, the hormone which tells our cells to utilize the glucose in our bloodstream for energy. When the pancreas has to constantly produce insulin, 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. This is called 'insulin resistance' and can eventually lead to Type 2 diabetes if left unchecked. The pancreas itself 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, and 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 are pushing many of our systems to their limit and running our metabolic engine at redline. Just like a car engine is designed to be run under a sustainable load and RPM range for the majority of its lifetime, so is our metabolic engine. By constantly pushing it outside of its normal operating parameters we are causing compounding damage which can eventually lead to complex chronic disease states.
Most of the short-term damage can be reversed if intervention is started early. However, without intervention, these changes can compound, eventually throwing the body into a chronic state of disrepair. This is the point where our bodies are caught in a feedback loop of damage coupled with the inability to completely recover. This affects the entire body and not just one isolated part. This is why chronic conditions tend to feed off of each other, as exemplified by over 40% of adults having 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 difficult to reverse. Years of behind-the-scenes damage can lead to metabolic syndrome, excessive fat accumulation, hormonal dysfunction, diabetes, and heart disease. While all of these disorders are very dangerous in their later stages, many of them begin with poor dietary habits and small every-day choices which are completely 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 in as close to an optimal range as possible.