When sugar is being processed properly, it is stored in the fat and muscle cells to be used as a primary energy source. But this processing mechanism can break down for a number of reasons. The main mode of disorder is insulin resistance or insensitivity. Insulin insensitivity occurs when the cells of the body no longer respond to insulin’s signal to keep blood glucose levels in balance. The body, in effect, becomes de-sensitized to excessive sugar levels; the state of damagingly high sugar levels becomes a bad habit, and it requires more and more insulin to do the necessary shuttling work.
I describe in my upcoming book, The Gene Therapy Plan, the role of sugar in a few important nutritional and health settings: the sugar-heavy Western diet, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity. In each of these sites, dysfunctional sugar metabolism (insulin insensitivity) is a main driver of serious illness. And because disordered sugar metabolism is, in turn, typically caused by excessive intake of too-easily digested carbohydrates, one of the core messages of the chapter is to limit carbohydrate-driven sugar intake, especially in its hidden forms.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is one such insidious additive; avoiding it and its substitutes is always a good idea. But HFCS is just one member of an enormous and expanding category of foods with similar characteristics. This is the great range of simple carbohydrates that dominate Western- style eating—snack foods, prepared meals, sugary drinks, and sweet breads that line the center aisles of the grocery store. These easily digestible, highly processed, ubiquitous foods break down into glucose in the body. It is their preponderance in many people’s diets that leads to consistently elevated blood glucose levels, and thus in no small part to the whole downward spiral of insulin-resistance, excess insulin production, insulin-signaled fat accumulation, diabetes, obesity, obesity-induced inflammation, cancer-promotion, inflammation-inspired cancer proliferation, and so on.
Avoiding excessive carb intake is therefore a front-line defense against a range of health problems. But there are also many active steps we can take to strengthen, repair, or otherwise affect our bodies’ metabolism of sugar. The Gene Therapy Plan presents a number of these in the form of ecogenetically useful foods, menu plans, recipes, and dietary supplements.
For instance, magnesium, alpha-lipoic acid, and carnitine have all been shown to promote the uptake of sugars into cells. Cinnamon extracts can decrease fasting blood glucose, body fat, and blood pressure, as well as improve lean muscle mass among people with metabolic syndrome. In India, a plant extract called Gymnema sylvestre has been shown to help regularize insulin sensitivity. Black tea strongly inhibits an enzyme (alpha-glucosidase) that is responsible for the absorption of sugar from the gut. This is the same pathway exploited by many new diabetes drugs; here is a case where the nutritional and the pharmacological sides of ecogenetics are converging on the same target.