By Courtney Snyder, MD
...is ragus - an Aran Island's word for 'desire' or 'urge.’ The Aran Islands are off the west coast of Ireland and have little to do with this post, except maybe to help draw in unsuspecting readers.
Like me, you may wonder,... "Who really wants to read about the problems with sugar?"
Over these past four weeks, I considered many approaches:
I’d be inclusive and point out that despite great individual variability in how our bodies react to foods, science is showing that limiting or avoiding sugar makes good sense for...well...pretty much everyone.
I thought I’d be investigative - I’d give an excessive list of names for hidden sugar on food labels. I’d give examples of how much sugar is in “savory” foods - ie. 1/2 cup of tomato soup has 3 tsp. of sugar. For those into calculations, 4 grams = 1 tsp.
Maybe I’d go all conspiracy theory - I’d focus on the seemingly coordinated effort between the US Government and the food and pharmaceutical industries who sit regularly around conference tables discussing effective strategies for destroying human health for profit.
Maybe some would rather fear the fine white crystals themselves - I’d focus on the addictive qualities of sugar - how sugar hijacks the reward centers in the brain - not unlike heroin and cocaine. I’d talk about how if you give cocaine addicted rats, the choice between sugar and cocaine (which you probably won’t do even if you knew any cocaine addicted rats), they'd go for the sugar.
But if you’re reading this while noshing on halloween candy, you already know that the more you eat, the more you crave, the more you eat, the more you crave…..You don't need a rat.
Isn’t research really the most convincing, though? So I started collecting the studies on the relationship between elevated blood sugar and the brain for those who might enjoy excruciating details about how sugar seems to keep brains cells from communicating with one another or how elevated blood sugar levels are well associated with cognitive decline and dementia.
Still, all this can be difficult to focus on, especially if one’s blood sugar is well up there.
Besides, it’s not just about the brain. So I thought I'd broaden the discussion and explain why many are saying sugar and refined carbs are the major drivers not just in dementia, but in most chronic health conditions - ie. heart disease, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune disease, cancer, psychiatric conditions (ie. depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc).
I’d explain how the trillions of gut microbes in our gut happily reorganize themselves to accommodate a diet high in sugar. Certain microbial populations begin to flourish (including fungi like candida/yeast), while others start to shrink...all leading to a microbiome lacking in diversity and if there’s one thing pretty well known about the microbiome - DIVERSITY MATTERS. And that lack of diversity seems to contribute to INFLAMMATION and AUTOIMMUNITY ….(by creating a perfect storm of leaky/permeable gut, exaggerated immune response, nutrient deficiencies and exposure to toxins including those made by some of those pesky microbes).
Weeks in and curious why this post wasn't coming together, I realize ....what I have to say about sugar is annoying ....and worse, ...it's not useful.
In the world of health and nutrition, it's easily forget that sugar isn’t just sweet, it’s something that connects us to our family, our friends and our communities. We celebrate holidays, birthdays and life with sugar.
Avoiding or even limiting sugar is a huge challenge. I know. My own avoidance of sugar has affected my relationships and celebrations. As much as that stinks, the benefits for me have outweighed the losses. Being chronically sick, in pain and exhausted negatively impacted my life and relationships much more than forgoing sugar has.
Many who are struggling with health issues and/or sugar craving already know there’s a problem. Their body is or has been telling them. Though some can benefit from specific interventions for dysbiosis (that imbalance of gut microbes), ....what they and others struggling need is simple... They need a family member or friend or group of people who are trying to improve their own health through nutrition - the most basic of which is avoiding sugar.
Our culture offers little support for those striving for healthier lives. Especially challenged are parents trying to improve their child’s health (and microbiome which may be poor for a variety of reasons including cesarean section birth, antibiotics, etc.) Well intended family members, teachers, coaches and even bank tellers with lollypops can unknowingly create stress (or illness) for that child.
So, perhaps the only thing I really needed to say was,….”If you do one thing to promote your health and healing, or your child’s, make sure you don’t do it alone. Look for ways to connect regularly with another person who is trying to do the same and who wants you to succeed.”
I'm a conventionally trained child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist. My current approach to health is both holistic (pertaining to the whole person) and functional (addressing the root causes of illness). I write this blog to share what I've learned.