Now that you know what the different blood sugar levels in the body means (if you missed that post, check it out here), let’s talk about how blood sugar is digested! The organs that help regulate blood sugar are your PALs- pancreas, adrenals, and liver. We will start with the P.
The pancreas secretes (releases) the hormone insulin to help sugars in the blood go into the cells for use (this lowers the level of sugar in the blood). All of the cells in the body have little receptor sites on them (like parking stalls). Only specific hormones can fit into specific stalls. Insulin has its own parking stall that it likes to hang out in on each cell. When insulin hooks up with the receptor, it “unlocks” the “door” to allow the sugar molecule in to the cell to fuel it. Interesting tid-bit, the only way that sugar can go into the cells without insulin is by exercising! Exercising magically unlocks the doors to cells to let sugar flow into them with no problem (so, if you have a blood sugar regulation issue, exercising can be one of the most effective ways to help lower your glucose levels and give your pancreas a break). Ok, back on track…When blood sugar levels get too low (like in between meals, or while you are sleeping), the pancreas will secrete a different hormone, called glucagon, to help raise the blood sugar levels.
Next, let’s focus on the L, or liver. Yes, I know I skipped A, but I promise I will get there. The liver is the first main storage space for glucose once the cells have been filled up. Stored glucose is called glycogen. Glycogen hangs out in the liver waiting to be used in between meals. If blood sugar levels are maxed out, the cells are full of glucose, and the liver is full of the stored glycogen, any extra glucose molecules still left will get stored as fat in the body. The human body is incredibly efficient at storing any extra calories as fat, for potential future times of famine. When the cells have used up their sugar, and the blood stream starts to run “dry”, the pancreas signals to the liver (via glucagon) to convert the stored glycogen back into glucose so the body can continue to run (in particular, so that the brain can continue to have a steady stream of glucose). Another tid-bit, fat mobilization (meaning, using stored fat for energy) takes about 20 minutes of exercise to start. So, exercises that are more endurance based rather than short-term, such as power walking or weight lifting, are great for fat mobilization (also called fat burning).
In an ideal world, we would pretty much only need to use our pancreas and liver to regulate blood sugar levels. However, we like to stress out our bodies and not fuel it correctly! Letting our blood sugar levels get too low by waiting too long in between meals or not eating enough will deplete the stored glycogen. The adrenal glands become engaged at this point, secreting cortisol and temporarily and artificially raising blood sugar levels just enough to get by hopefully until the next meal. The adrenal glands help regulate how we manage and handle stress. When a stressor “attacks” us, our body goes into fight or flight mode. Together with the adrenal glands and the brain, the body decides if it wants to stay and fight, or run the heck away from the situation. This is great when an animal is chasing us in the woods, which happens (hopefully) not on a regular basis. But now, we are doing this consistently and regularly. The adrenal glands only need about 24 hours to recover from an episode, but rarely do we give that to them. Properly fueling your body not only gives you longer lasting energy, but it gives your adrenal glands a chance to rest (and prepare for future stressors).
Normally, as said before, the pancreas and liver are the main hard-hitters for regulating blood sugar. The adrenal glands do jump in and help every once in a while, but should definitely not be used too often for blood sugar regulation. Remember back in this post I talked hypo- and hyperglycemia, insulin resistance, and diabetes? The adrenals will definitely kick into gear during hypoglycemia, particularly if that hypoglycemia was initiated because you decided to have that donut and coffee for breakfast. The next step is insulin resistance. During IR, the cells in the body have really become way too overwhelmed with sugar. The pancreas realizes that there is still too much sugar in the blood stream, and kicks out extra insulin to help reduce the glucose levels and put them in storage. Over time, the receptors that accept insulin start to get broken down and damaged. Insulin is still being pumped out of the pancreas, but it becomes less effective. The step after this is hyperglycemia, meaning too much sugar in the blood. The pancreas is still kicking out insulin like it is going out of style, because if a lot of insulin isn’t working, more must be better. Type 2 Diabetes can follow soon after, which means that the blood sugar regulating part of the pancreas (the Beta Cells, to be specific) just poop out. They can’t do it anymore, and give up. T2 Diabetes is potentially reversible with major lifestyle changes. If sugar doesn’t get used the way it is supposed to, it will float around in the blood stream causing all kinds of damage to the body.**
**Note: Type 1 Diabetes is slightly different than Type 2. T1 is considered an autoimmune disease. For whatever the reason, the body thinks that the Beta Cells of the pancreas are foreign enemies and destroy them. A person with T1 Diabetes can never reverse this issue, but with a nutrient-dense, whole food diet, careful monitoring of blood sugar levels, and insulin injections, the signs and symptoms can be well managed. I personally believe that T2 Diabetes can be reversed, but a person has to be very committed to making some potentially huge lifestyle changes.