Updated: Jul 25
Hormones and blood sugar walk hand-in-hand when it comes to fat loss. If your blood sugar isn’t balanced, you won’t get far.
Dr. Oz, Dr Hyman, Jillian Michaels and many local health celebrities all recommend balancing blood sugar as a key step in kick-starting fat loss and boosting your metabolism.
There is a reason why you hear about paleo and keto diets being so successful for weight loss – they dramatically cut back on sugar sources, balance blood sugar levels and tap into fat stores for energy. Now, keto and paleo aren't for everyone as they can be extreme and you need to do wisely, but the principle of balancing blood sugar to promote healthy hormones and weight loss is based on solid evidence.
Read on to learn more about how refined flours, sugar and even artificial sugar replacements can hijack your hormones.
Symptoms of blood sugar imbalance
Headaches, irritability, fatigue, PMS, peri- or menopausal fluctuations, heart palpitations, abdominal weight gain, “the shakes”, poor concentration, brain fog, weakness, GERD, painful joints, constipation, depression, night waking, insomnia, cold, nervousness/anxiety, feelings of being overwhelmed, the list goes on…
ALL of these symptoms make it very difficult to lose weight.
Insulin resistance and fat
All produce (fruit, vegetables, grains) is a form of sugar. However, whole produce is filled with vitamins and minerals that nourish our bodies. Produce also contains fibre, which slows digestion so sugar is slowly released into your blood as a steady stream of energy.
Problems arise when you feed your body with poor sources of carbohydrates (refined flours, sugars) and you experience a dramatic spike (and crash) in blood sugar.
First, refined sugar is addictive. It tastes great. You crave it. You eat it. But there is little fibre or good fats in refined sugar. Breads and most crackers are included in this list – in fact, a piece of “whole grain” bread has the same impact on your blood sugar levels as 1.5 Tbsp of white sugar. As such, it is quickly absorbed into the blood and causes blood glucose levels to spike. Your brain loves this. It releases dopamine (our pleasure hormone), which is why you feel GREAT after a sugar dose. And then you crash.
To counteract high levels of blood glucose entering our system, your pancreas responds by producing massive amounts of the hormone insulin. Insulin’s job is to shuttle sugar, fat and protein into your cells to be used for energy. However, a rush of insulin also causes a rapid drop in your blood sugar levels. Your body then craves the sugar high it has just lost. You have “hunger” or irritability, and the cycle repeats. Additionally, high levels of insulin sends the message “store fat” to the body.
Over time of repeated sugar highs and crashes, the cells in your body can stop reacting to insulin. This is called insulin resistance and can lead to Type 2 Diabetes.
Like parents who eventually tune out a screaming toddler, your cells “tune out” insulin if it is chronically high. Glucose becomes inadequately stored and you end up with high levels of circulating insulin, high levels of blood glucose (sugar) and other circulating elements like triglycerides and cholesterol. This all leads to inflammation, high blood pressure and fat storage. Not so sweet.
Sugar and your hormones
With growing insulin resistance, your cells do not absorb the nutrients they require to function. Excess sugar can’t access cells and is stored as fat. This in turn, influences the production of the hormone leptin. Leptin regulates your feelings of hunger. Leptin is produced by our fat cells and the more fat we have, the more leptin we produce.
Like insulin, leptin will lose it’s ability to tell the body, “you’ve had enough; put down the fork” when it is overused. You become fatigued, irritable and hungry for more food to feed your cells, prompting you to overeat and under-nourish your body.
The sugar-adrenal-thyroid connection is also quite important to understand. When you have a sugar crash, this places an incredible amount of stress on the body. Your body believes that it is starving – or something else is wrong. Your adrenals glands step up to the plate and send the hormone cortisol (your stress hormone) to the rescue.
Historically, cortisol (and other hormones) are produced during times of “fight” (ie., a sabre tooth tiger is about to attack). It speeds up your metabolism and gives you an incredible rush of energy so that you can run away. When your body releases massive amounts of cortisol on a daily basis (coffee, emotional/physical stress, sugar), the body believes that it is in a constant state of survival mode.
This encourages high levels of circulating insulin and the resulting insulin resistance. Remember what we said earlier? The insulin message is, “store fat,” making weight loss difficult.
After periods of prolonged cortisol release, your adrenals become tired and your thyroid gland will help pick up the slack. Your thyroid is responsible for over 3000 metabolic reactions in the body – in short, it regulates our metabolism. It too, over time, can become tired and inefficient if it’s having to do the job of two. Your thyroid (and thus metabolism) slows down, contributing to weight gain.
And let’s not forget the brain! Remember we talked about dopamine (your pleasure hormone)? Well, serotonin is another neurotransmitter that regulates mood, social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire/function. It too is influenced by sugar!
When insulin is working well, serotonin shuttles all nutrients (sugar, fats, proteins) into brain cells with the exception of tryptophan. Tryptohan is an amino acid (protein) that is the precursor to serotonin. When insulin is working well – and with no competition in the blood - tryptophan it is free to enter the brain and help us feel cool, calm and balanced. When we have a deficiency in serotonin (not enough in our diet or insulin resistance), we naturally seek out other substances that will raise a similar feeling – sugar being an easy quick fix.
And so the cycle continues. Our mood declines. We pack on the pounds. It’s time to break the cycle.
5 Tips to balance blood sugar
There are so many books and diets out there that will help balance blood sugar. Whether you are a cold turkey kind of person, or a gradual rework, here are 5 tips to keep in mind:
No refined or added sugar of any kind
No more than 1/2 cup cooked whole grains per day (or less)
Lean protein at every meal
Half your plate should be filled with vegetables
Coffee and alcohol will also negatively influence your insulin levels
Sugar is addictive.
One piece of bread has the same impact on your blood sugar levels (glycemic index) as 1.5 Tbsp of refined sugar. Combine bread, crackers with healthy fats, protein or vegetables to lower its glycemic load.
Continuously raised insulin levels tells your body to store fat. More importantly, your body stops responding to insulin, leaving sugar circulating in blood and raising your TG levels. This leads to Type 2 Diabetes.
Continuously raised insulin levels also tells your hormone leptin to shut down, leaving you hungry.
Sugar crashes put our body in a stressed state, exhausting cortisol and thyroid hormones.
Continuously raised insulin compromises serotonin - mood, appetite, social behaviour, sleep, memory sexual desire.