Article by Su-lin Sze
Su-lin is a Medicinal Herbalist, Iridologist, Nutritionist & Holistic Movement Instructor
The European ships carry from hence sugar, tobacco, either in roll or snuff, never in leaf, that I know of: these are the staple commodities.”
Sugar! Yes it’s in just about everything. In many forms and guises this temptation-filled additive is found in virtually all processed foods. Although I will focus on refined sugars and carbohydrates in this article, even sugars found in fruits can be a problem if they are eaten in excess. But what we are really interested in, when we talk about epidemics of obesity, behavioural disorders, metabolic and other conditions, is the simple carbohydrates.
The evolution of sugar brings to my mind our every increasing dependence on thrill and stimulation.
In primitive time we used to get our adrenalin rush by dashing through fields and jungles grunting and sweating, the threat of mortality ever near….we have now turned to the diet to stimulate us, because there is little else in the modern lifestyle that resembles our primal heritage. The result of an ever-more sedentary lifestyle and too much dietary sugar is exacerbating many common health conditions such as fatigue, poor immunity, toxicity, hyperactivity, cancer, cystic conditions, skin problems and much more. This is a kick-start lesson in Sugar – which should be a part of everyones education.
Learn how sugar is limiting your health potential right now.
The Basics about Sugar
There are a few home truths that are crucial to your education in sugar:
1. Sugar weakens Immunity
Eating too much sugar stimulates an immune reaction in the body and triggers inflammatory processes. This reaction can be felt as a buzzy high or nothing at all, but regardless, the energy required by your body to constantly keep this immune reaction going will wear down your immunity in the long run.
2. Sugar doesn’t beat fatigue
Unfortunately that is a complete myth; sugar actually causes fatigue. And this really is the basis of many dis-ease conditions. Looking at your sugar intake is a good first step to boosting vitality. To help you better understand the role of sugar in energy and vitality I have created a diagram called the ‘Sweet-Peak” cycle below. Notice how energy levels rise and dip swiftly in reaction to a high sugar meal. What this means in the long term is that it becomes difficult for your body to remember how to metabolise sugar normally, resulting in blood glucose dys-regulation, a precursor to more chronic and serious conditions such as acne, candidiasis & intestinal dysbiosis, type II diabetes and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
3. Sugar causes inflammation
Sugar causes a natural bodily process that is implicated in the first stages of all diseases – inflammation. Inflammatory skin conditions, tissue damage, sluggish digestion and recurrent colds and flus, even cancer all relate to excess sugar in the diet, because there is such a high degree of inflammation involved in these conditions.
4. Sugar isn’t fat
Not initially anyway, but when refined sugars are ingested in excess and your body doesn’t know what to do with it all, it will store it as fat. In some conditions such as Metabolic Syndrome, your body will automatically convert sugar to fat because it’s become used to this over a long period of time. This is sad news for most of us but vitally important news for anyone under chronic stress who just can’t seem to lose weight. There is a strong proven link between high refined sugar intake, chronic stress and weight gain.
The Role of Sugar in Health Conditions
Sugar impacts many different conditions, and here we will look at a selection of these that I most commonly see in clinical practice.
Acne can appear in various severities and is most common in adolescence but in clinic I see it more and more in stressed out twenty or thirty-somethings. The actual spots or pimples can range from small red spots to cystic balls under the skin that may worsen pre-menstrually.
There is a bounty of information about the causes of acne, so I will focus solely on the impact that refined sugar has in this skin condition. High intake of sugars causes inflammation, poor immunity, intoxication and imbalances the hormones – these all cause acne! So if you think about it, it makes perfect sense why acne is called Skin Diabetes by health professionals. But there is another important link between sugar and acne, and that goes straight back to the trusty Sweet Peak cycle. When there is an abnormally high presence of refined foods in the diet over a long period of time, the ability of your body to correctly manage glucose becomes impaired. The body has been on a rollercoaster ride for too long. This makes you prone to developing Insulin Resistance, which causes acne. Insulin resistance mis-manages sugar, increases fat deposits and raises testosterone production. Don’t be fooled by processed foods that call themselves natural and sugar free. Always check the labels. The modern diet has a lot more sugar than one would expect, and this is why acne sufferers need knowledge rather than drugs, to achieve their health goals long term.
Poor Mental Focus & Mood swings
If you suffer from irritability, depression, low mood, peevishness, anxiety, insomnia, confusion and clumsiness, sugar may be involved.
Want more energy? Exhausted? I’ve got some inspiration for you to help you boost your energy levels. The key to optimising your energy is to level out your glucose levels. You know now through the Sweet Peak cycle that a high sugar intake causes fatigue by peaking and then dipping very quickly. So you need something that gives sustained energy right from the beginning of the day. This is where most of us go wrong. We think that cereal and milk is enough to sustain us through hours of mental and physical effort until lunchtime, but that is another myth. Most commercial cereals are loaded with, you know it….sugar. Add to that a bit of milk and some fruit and you have yourself a completely sweet based breakfast. I have my hubby to thank for getting me out of a sweet breakfast cycle; he introduced me to toast and bitters and I’ve never looked back. It’s delicious, add a slab of fried tofu, scrambled eggs or avocado, and you’re set for glory. If that doesn’t work I have another suggestion – Herbs! Herbs will boost your digestive function, help your body manage sugar better and sustain your energy levels.
Polycystic Ovaries & Insulin Resistance
Polycystic Ovaries is a well known condition comprising many symptoms, thus it is known as a ‘Syndrome’. The involvement of Insulin Resistance in this condition is commonly recognised by health professionals, and the main drug for polycystic ovaries ‘Metformin’ dispensed by doctors is the same drug dispensed for the treatment of diabetes type II. The link is…sugar.
There’s not a lot of attention paid to the role of sugar in PCOS, but there should be. This condition is becoming more and more commonplace. It is a well known fact that insulin resistance is a key distinguishing feature of PCOS and used to confirm its diagnosis. But did you know that PCOS is considered a risk factor for diabetes mellitus. The link again is Sugar metabolism. Furthermore, obesity is known to worsen PCOS so is it important to get some control over sugar management. Symptoms of PCOS are acne and excess hair growth (both due to high levels of androgen hormones), obesity (due to excess sugar levels), excess fat levels and hypertension (from insulin resistance). The menstrual cycle is irregular, often missing, and infertility may result. Another symptom is elevated circulating oestrogen levels. Herbs are marvellous for helping women with PCOS to manage sugar better and address all of the associated symptoms listed above. They would always be my first choice in treatment. You can start with liquorice root tea as an absolute basic and from there consult an herbalist. There is a world of herbs that will help.
Diabetes Type II
Of the two types of diabetes, we are looking at the diet-induced type II Diabetes mellitus or NIDDM (Non Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus). The risk factors for this slow onset lifestyle disease include obesity, sedentary lifestyle, heredity, sugar dysregulation, high blood pressure, PCOS and high levels of fat – particularly triglycerides (fats) (>250mg/dL).
Diabetes type II is directly related to abnormally high blood glucose levels. It is perhaps the most relevant disease to our growing dependence on sugar and the rise of Insulin Resistance in western societies. In this condition instead of being converted into expended energy, sugar is being converted into fat. 90% of NIDDM patients are obese, and along with weight gain there is also excessive thirst, fatigue, food cravings and over-production of urine.
Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
PMS is a collection of symptoms that may appear 3 – 7 days before the onset of a period that cause discomfort, angst , irritability and digestive symptoms. Poor hormonal health is implicated in this syndrome, which is further divided into different groups – see below.
Women friends, do yourselves a favour and go completely Sugar-Free for the week before your next period. Trust me, there’s nothing that will send you on a PMS magic carpet ride than a whole lot of sweet! Sugar can cause or exacerbate PMS symptoms, particularly chocolate. I’ve heard some pretty outrageous statements like “Chocolate helps reduce period cramps….” But alas I must reveal that chocolate worsens period cramps. It’s also a no-go zone for anybody with menstrual-related acne. It’s not just sweet that will worsen these symptoms, so will fatty foods and hormonal imbalances such as a sluggish liver that cannot clear excess oestrogen fast enough. The main types of PMS affected by high sugar intake are PMS-A (Anxiety), PMS—B (Mood swings), PMS-C (sugar-related) and PMS-D (Depression).
A High oestrogen, anxiety, nervous tension, low mood
B High Progesterone, aggression, irritability,
C Sugar related, headaches, fatigue, moodiness
D Low oestrogen levels, irritability, depression, insomnia
H Hydro-related, water retention and swelling
Candidiasis & Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth
This is an important condition that exists in many of us without our knowledge. I will keep it short and sweet. Levels of gut flora in the intestines determine how healthy our immunity and digestion are. When they become out of balance, overgrowth of certain unhealthy bacteria can develop such as in the case of Candidiasis – an overgrowth of Candida albicans. Candida loves sugar and anything sweet, so when you eat a lot of sugar you are feeding the disease. If you have any digestive complaints such as flatulence, bloating, cramping, diarrhoea or constipation then sugar intake is likely to be involved.
Over the last ten or so years the rising prevalence of Metabolic Syndrome (Syndrome X) has been astounding. The risks for this lifestyle condition are obesity, heredity, a diet high in refined carbohydrates and the big nasty – stress! Preventive measures are the best approach here, as once the syndrome sets in it takes time to resolve. If you do suffer from the symptoms of metabolic syndrome – weight gain, fatigue, adrenal exhaustion, heat flushing and anxiety symptoms – then consult a qualified herbalist to start helping you manage blood glucose levels and calm down your hormones, which are triggering the weight gain.
Tips on alternatives to Sugar
It’s no fun having to cut out all the naughties from your diet. I know that and from my clinical experience I would say that there is a better way to approach managing sugar intake rather than cutting it out completely. What you really want to do is reduce your desire for refined sugars. The way to do this is with herbs.
Try these herbs and spices in your food, as a tea or better yet, in a herbal tincture from your herbalist:
|Herb||Action||Conditions it is good for & Cautions|
|Anti-inflammatory, anti-androgen excess, adrenal tonic||Polycystic ovaries, acne, sugar cravings, PMS, metabolic syndrome. Always use under professional supervision. Do not use if cortisol levels are raised|
|Goats Rue |
|Hypoglycaemic||Any condition with excess sugar levels such as diabetes mellitus. Always use under professional supervision. Do not self-prescribe|
|Hypoglycaemic, antidiabetic, anti-obesity||Metabolic syndrome, sugar cravings, obesity, excess fats in blood, insulin resistance, high triglycerides|
|Oestrogen modulator, antimicrobial for the digestive system||Candidiasis, with liquorice for sugar cravings, PCOS, oestrogen imbalance|
|Aromatic, Hypoglycaemic, hypolipidaemic, hypocholesterolaemic, anti-inflammatory||Reduces sugar cravings, excess fats in blood, acne, candidiasis|
|Hypotensive, hypocholesterolaemic||Useful in conditions like diabetes mellitus or PCOS where blood pressure is often elevated|
*Important note: If you are on medication for any of the conditions discussed in this article, consult your doctor before using these herbs. Your usage must be monitored for safety reasons. A Hypolipidaemic action will reduce the levels of fats in your blood stream. A Hypotensive reduces blood pressure. A Hypocholesterolaemic action will reduce blood cholesterol levels. An adrenal tonic improves stress response and reduces stress symptoms.
– Haslett C, Chilvers E, Boon N, Colledge N, (2002) Davidsons Principles and Practices of Medicine 19th ed, Churchill Livingstone, USA
– Pizzorno J, Murray M, Joiner-Bey H (2002) The Clinician’s Handbook of Natural Medicine, Churchill Livingstone, UK
– Bone K (2007) The Ultimate Herbal Compendium, Phytotherapy Press, Australia