Sugar is in almost everything we consume – both healthy and unhealthy – in our culture. It’s in healthy foods like protein bars, kombucha, smoothies, and yogurt as well not-so-healthy foods like candy bars and sodas. The amount of sugar we eat increases when we consume processed foods and sweets.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate about 20 teaspoons of sugar a year. Today, the average person consumes about 19.5 teaspoons of sugar a day! How does all of that sugar affect our bodies, specifically our hormones? It affects us more than most of us know or suspect. Sugar has a profound impact on the production of the hormones insulin, glucagon, cortisol, testosterone, and estrogen.
Two of our most important hormones – insulin and glucagon – are produced in the pancreas and work together to control blood sugar levels, which tell how effectively our bodies use glucose. Insulin hormone release is a tightly regulated function and acts like a key that unlocks the door to the cells, allowing the glucose in. Insulin allows the cells in the muscles, fat, and liver to absorb glucose that is in the blood. When insulin rises, the liver absorbs glucose and changes it to glycogen. When blood sugar levels drop, glucagon goes into action and signals the liver to convert glycogen back to glucose, making the blood level go up to maintain energy supply in between meals and during sleep so our blood sugar levels don’t fall too far below our needs for the proper functioning of our metabolism.
Over time, when we continually over consume sugar, our body simply cannot produce enough insulin to keep up. Not only does blood sugar build up in the body, but the key to unlocking the door for sugar use no longer functions, and the much-needed fuel is not getting into the cells. When cells do not get the energy they need, sugar builds up in our bloodstream and we are left feeling sluggish and fatigued. Over time, the increased blood sugar can lead to the development of type 2 diabetes.
When a person has diabetes, glucagon is released when they eat. So, with compromised insulin production and untimely glucagon release, blood sugar rises and none of it gets into the cells for energy. Too much sugar in the blood can lead to depression, inflammation, heart disease, and stroke.
Cortisol, produced in the adrenal gland, is another hormone that is released in response to stress and low blood-glucose concentration. It also increases the amount of sugar in our bloodstream for fuel. Cortisol’s functions range from regulating metabolism to increasing memory. In the body, cortisol makes cells resistant to insulin and allows for higher blood sugar levels. High cortisol levels, along with high glucagon levels, lead to high levels of sugar in the bloodstream. If insulin production is already compromised due to type 2 diabetes, we have yet another mechanism for creating serious health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, as a result of consuming too much sugar.
Lastly, production of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone – our sex hormones – are all disrupted by sugar consumption and spikes of insulin. Insulin directly affects the production of a protein called sex hormone-binding globulin, which maintains the balance of the sex hormones in our system. These hormones help keep our moods balanced. When these ratios are off, we feel irritable, fatigued, and restless, which can lead to anxiety and insomnia.
Our bodies are both sophisticated and delicate. In a society driven by consumption of processed and sugar-laden foods, we are unwittingly disrupting the balance we need for optimal performance, both physically and mentally. Understanding the many effects sugar has on our hormone functioning is a huge step in creating a more balanced approach to our health.