This is part 2 of a series of educational nutrition topics that I’m putting together. This time, we are talking blood sugar regulation. In my opinion, this is the biggest reason people have losing weight and keeping it off!
In the past few years, as low carb diets have gained in popularity, blood sugar regulation has gotten more attention. I think this is in part because more of the general population have realized just what a big deal it is to our overall health and weight loss goals. It seems crazy that people can drop hundreds of pounds and heal their bodies in numerous ways all through better blood sugar regulation! It just goes to show how powerful this particular function is in bringing our bodies back to hemostasis (balance).
Have you ever wondered what parts of the body make this magic happen the way it should? If so, read on because its about to get a little nerdy! First, the brain and central nervous regulate our blood sugar using some key organ systems that can be remembered using the acronym “PAALS”. This stands for pancreas, adrenal glands, adipose tissue, liver, and skeletal muscle. The part of the brain that starts the communication chain related to blood sugar is the hypothalamus which is the control center for our autonomic nervous system (unconscious body functions) . The hypothalamus communicates with another part of the brain called the pituitary. The pituitary is often referred to as the “master gland” (medicinenet.com) since it produces hormones and sends messages to other glands in the body as well as the PAALS. The graphic below does a great job of summarizing the various functions of the PAALS and giving you a visual as I talk through the rest of the organs.
The pituitary communicates with the pancreas in regulating the creation of two key blood sugar hormones: insulin and glucagon. When blood sugar levels are too high, the pancreas releases insulin which lets glucose and fat into our cells to store the excess energy. When blood sugar is too low, it releases glucagon which lets glucose and fat out of our cells to release stored energy for the body to use. As a side note, on top of this critical function, the pancreas also performs functions to aid in digestion (secreting pancreatic juice and digestive enzymes).
On to the 1st “A” of the PAALS – the adrenal glands. These little glands are responsible for producing a number of hormones. Most notably are epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol, as well as a few others like our sex hormones. In relation to blood sugar regulation, cortisol is a key player. When blood sugar gets too low (or if stress is high) the adrenals release cortisol, a steroid hormone. Cortisol acts in much the same way as epinephrine but with a slower response time. Epinephrine is that flight or fight hormone that triggers when you are under acute stress – folks like to use the ‘chased by a tiger’ analogy because it’s a good one. When epinephrine is released it stimulates glycogenolysis, lipolysis, and gluconeogenesis in the liver. These are all big words to say that your body pulls out stored glucose from your cells, and creates glucose from non-carbohydrate sources into energy in order to prepare your body to run FAST! Well, its crazy to think, but when your blood sugar drops, your body sees this as a similar type of stress and therefore it triggers the same processes. As blood sugar rises back up, signals are sent back to the hypothalamus and pituitary to regulate and back off the release of these hormones.
The adipose tissue plays a part in blood sugar regulation as well by secreting a number of hormones, along with a key hunger signaling hormone – leptin. Leptin hinders hunger signals (higher leptin means less cravings). If you want higher leptin levels and fewer cravings, blood sugar regulation is key!
Finally, the skeletal muscles help regulate blood sugar a few key ways. When the body receives excess glucose (you eat too much sugar or carbohydrates than you are burning), in order to prevent high blood sugar, the body converts the glucose into glycogen and then stores it in either the liver or your muscles. On the flip side, when you blood sugar is low, your body can pull the stored glycogen from the muscles and convert it back to glucose to be used for energy. This is why you can tolerate more glucose when exercising, because your body is utilizing it right away. If you eat a bunch of sugar and then sit at your desk, its going to get stored. If this is a chronic scenario, it can lead to a host of health issues.
As you can see, the PAALS are a symphony of organs and glands which all work in harmony to keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day. By balancing your intake of all of the macronutrients, you can keep your blood sugar more even so if you graphed it, it would look more like rolling foothills and not the peaks and valleys of a mountain pass! Every time your body sees those high peaks (spikes) in blood sugar, it sees it as a stressor and your hormones react accordingly. Over time this stresses your HPA axis and can cause dysregulation. This is why finding a macro balance that feels good to your body is key to long term health.
If you want to learn more, Im currently taking clients and I’d love to help you with your nutrition goals! See my Work With Me Page for more information!