Americans consume an average of 20-30 teaspoons of sugar each day. That equals eating a pound of sugar every three days. This over consumption of sugars, including table sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup, has dramatically increased over the last hundred years and correlates closely with a rise in diabetes.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), more than 29 million Americans are living with diabetes, and 86 million are unknowingly living with prediabetes, a serious health condition that increases a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Burnt Out Insulin-producing Cells
Over consumption of sugar puts significant stress on the beta-islet cells of the pancreas. These are the cells that produce insulin, the hormone required so your cells can absorb sugar and turn it into energy. With so much excess sugar to process, the mitochondria of these specialized pancreatic cells are overly stressed, begin to burn out and then die. When this happens, your cells can no longer healthfully process dietary sugars and they begin to back up into the bloodstream.
Insulin resistance, the hallmark of Type 2 diabetes, is at least in part related to the inability of liver and skeletal muscle to process fatty acids at the mitochondrial level. Ongoing damage to mitochondria of insulin-sensitive cells, along with progressive impairment in the mitochondria of beta-islet cells, can lead to both insulin resistance and impaired insulin secretion.
Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UCSF Medical Center, equates the effect that sugar has on the health of mitochondria as similar to the process of brewing wine. Wine comes from the fermentation of sugar. In wine production, added yeast performs the first step of metabolism called glycolysis. But in order for the body to process sugar, it is necessary for us to perform our own form of glycolysis. When the pancreas gets overtaxed, it converts that extra sugar into fat which can collect in the liver and lead to liver inflammation and dysfunction.
Mitochondria Adapt Their Function In Response to Sugar
Most recently, researchers at Yale School of Medicine discovered that mitochondria in a small set of neurons in the brain might even be responsible for the spike in blood sugar levels that occurs after a meal. The team was surprised to find that mitochondria not only “sense” the change in circulating glucose levels, they also make adaptive changes crucial to the body’s ability to handle sugar in the blood.
“We found that when sugar increases in the body, mitochondria in some brain neurons rapidly change their shape and their function is altered. These findings imply that alterations in this mechanism may contribute to the development of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, in which the body is not able to clear high levels of sugar from the blood,” said senior author Sabrina Diano, professor in the school’s departments of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, neurosceince, and comparative medicine.
Protect Your Mitochondria from Insulin Resistance
In order to protect your mitochondria from insulin resistance, it is necessary to limit your sugar intake to less than 10 teaspoons per day. Children should not consume more than 3-4 teaspoons a day, depending on age. Keep in mind that hidden sugar is lurking in many packaged and processed foods. Aside from avoiding sugary drinks and desserts, choosing whole grains is one way to reduce the ill effect of refined carbohydrates. The bran and fiber in whole grains make it more difficult for digestive enzymes to break down the starches into glucose. This leads to lower, slower increases in blood sugar and insulin. In contrast to refined (white) bread, rice, cereals etc., whole grains are also rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that may help reduce the risk of diabetes.
If Type 2 diabetes is in fact related to a burning out of the insulin-generating cells of the pancreas, supporting your mitochondrial health by taking a high potency mitochondrial support multivitamin each day could be helpful.