Beyond diabetes: How blood sugar affects your health

Sweets and desserts are delicious and for many hard to resist. Like cocaine, the neurotransmitter, dopamine, is stimulated to elicit a euphoric feeling. This happy feeling is short-lived and only leaves us craving more.

Higher sugar in-take is correlated with not only diabetes but also cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

All of these diseases are subject to higher oxidative damage from free radicals, which is partly due to elevated blood sugar. Free radicals are a normal part of our body’s biochemistry, and are created when chemical bonds split. Antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and others scavenge the body to clear free radicals. Free radicals can be increased by aging, environmental factors like pollution, cigarettes and chemicals, and sugar. When oxidative damage exceeds the antioxidants’ ability to scavenge, we have tissue damage that can turn into disease.


Sugar, also known as glucose, is a source of energy. Studies have found that many tumors, including those of some types of breast and colorectal cancer, have insulin receptors that use glucose to grow. Recent research is looking further into diet modifications that help prevent and treat cancer.


In the 1970s, diet recommendations supported a low-fat diet for heart health and weight management. With this shift in perspective, people started to consume more carbohydrates and sugar.

Our bodies have a threshold for how much glucose is needed in circulation. When we eat a high-carbohydrate meal, our body takes what it needs and turns whatever is leftover into fat for rainy day storage.

Unlike our primal an-cestors, most of us do not suffer from famine, so the rainy day never comes and we build up fat. This is the fat that contributes to higher cholesterol levels.


Many consider Alzheimer’s disease to be diabetes of the brain. People affected by diabetes have a higher likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Elevated blood sugar causes organ damage, and the brain is not an exception. Whether you have been diagnosed with diabetes or simply have elevated blood sugar levels, risk for dementia is increased.


Cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes are all multifactoral conditions with elevated blood sugar being one piece of the puzzle, but this one piece is extremely modifiable with these diet and lifestyle changes.

Reduce sugar intake. In comparison to the rest of the country, San Francisco is progressive in terms of diet, and many people are cognizant of their nutrition. Even with this heightened awareness, my clients are often times surprised by how much sugar slips into their diets.

The obvious high-sugar foods like soda and desserts are often avoided, but sugar fixes are often shifted toward fruit or fresh juices. Though fruit is healthful and packed with antioxidants, overconsumption can lead to a boost in blood sugar levels.

The American Heart Association has defined these daily sugar limits:

Women: no more than 100 calories per day, which equals 6 teaspoons or 24 grams

Men: no more than 150 calories per day, which equals 9 teaspoons or 36 grams

To give you a measurable concept of these guidelines, two apples have 26 grams of sugar, and one banana has 28 grams of sugar. For women, that is a whole day’s allotment, and it is not too far off for men.

A great way to start observing your diet is to use a diet diary. There are many online and phone apps to easily do this; my favorite is My Fitness Pal.

Implement some stress management techniques. Cortisol is our primary stress hormone that spikes in fight-or-flight responses. In the primal era, this hormone assisted in fueling muscles with glucose from protein to escape a predator. If one survived, these threats were short lived with time for recovery. With our modern day lifestyle, stress is not always life threatening, but little things add up to create chronic stress.

Chronic stress coincides with chronic cortisol elevations, which suppresses insulin, a blood sugar hormone, from shuttling sugar in the blood to muscle and fat tissue. This leads to a condition called insulin resistance, which precipitates diabetes and can affect certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease.

Avoid sleep deprivation. Studies have shown that people who sleep less than five to six hours per night are twice as likely to develop diabetes. Lack of sleep creates hormone — including cortisol — imbalance, and can make a person resistant to the effects of insulin. Sleep deprivation also contributes to increased craving for sugar to maintain energy.

Sleep is our body’s opportunity to repair and consolidate information taken in from the day. It is important to get an average of eight hours of sleep per night.

Reducing sugar intake, following a regular sleep and meal schedule, and implementing stress management tools with deep breathing exercises, meditation, and walking will help manage blood sugar and reduce the risk of associated diseases.

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Thalia Farshchian is a naturopathic doctor at Discover Health. Her background includes both conventional and alternative modalities, and her practice is primarily focused on weight management, hormone imbalances, and gastrointestinal conditions. E-mail: [email protected]