During the 1990s, I was the director of the nutritional therapy department of a holistic hospital in Tucson, Arizona. The facility mainly treated substance abuse rehabilitation patients—and did so with natural healing treatments. We were so successful that we were often the harbor of last resort for desperate multiple rehab survivors. In fact, we won a national award for being the most successful rehab facility in the country. Out of the thousands of heroin addicts and alcoholics we treated, what addiction do you think was the one we found most difficult to treat? A clue—it’s in that cookie you’re daydreaming about . . .
The sweet tooth—part of being human
Our bodies run on sugar. Glucose, or blood sugar, is the fuel that gives our cells the moment-to-moment energy they need to keep us alive and healthy. Sugars differ in their molecular structure, which determines how quickly they are digested and absorbed into the bloodstream.
The average American consumes 137.5 pounds of sugar annually, more than half of that from packaged products, making sugar the number-one food additive in the United States. That’s forty-one teaspoons of sugar per day. Soft drinks add up to one-third of all simple sugars that Americans guzzle. Just one soda pop contains seven teaspoons of sugar. People ages eighteen to thirty-four get almost 20 percent of their calories from refined sugars.
The blood sugar cycle
The body is designed to maintain a fairly constant blood sugar level. Rapidly absorbed sweeteners cause blood sugar levels to climb, stimulating the pancreas to secrete insulin. Insulin lowers blood sugar—but excessively in certain people, sometimes producing a “let-down” feeling. After the inevitable crash, the body craves a quick “pick-me-up” snack to boost energy, resulting in an unhealthy spiral.
Low blood sugar levels cause the adrenal glands to secrete the hormone cortisol and the pituitary to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone. These hormones stimulate the liver to release stored glycogen, converting it back into glucose (blood sugar) and releasing it back into the blood.
In healthy people, this blood-sugar-balancing system works beautifully. But when it is imbalanced, these swings (between low and high blood sugar) can create problems. Too much or too little of either hormone stresses the body. Mood and energy fluctuate. When adrenals overreact to falling blood sugar by producing excessive amounts of adrenaline and cortisol, hypoglycemic symptoms (anxiety, hyperactivity, panic attacks, shakiness, and excessive or unexplained sweating) can develop.
The rate of absorption of dietary sugar is determined by the type of sugar eaten and the foods eaten with it. Consuming simple sugars between meals tends to produce a “boom/bust” cycle in susceptible people. Eating sugars at the end of a meal or in combination with fats and proteins allows them to be absorbed more slowly. The more complex (starchy) a carbohydrate is, the longer it takes to digest. Slow-absorbing complex carbohydrates, such as those found in beans, fruits, vegetables, and unrefined grains, tend to produce a more sustained sugar supply and stable blood sugar levels. Even the conservative American Council on Science and Health agrees that a whole-foods diet is the best way to eat.
Sugar has two main pitfalls. In addition to the blood glucose boomerang it can cause, sugar often takes the place of more nutrient-rich foods. White table sugar contains no additional minerals and vitamins that occur in whole foods.
“Since refined sugar contains virtually no vitamins or minerals at all, it dilutes our nutrient intake, resulting in an across-the-board 19 percent reduction in all vitamins and minerals in our diet,” says Alan R. Gaby, M.D., a professor at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. “Thus, because of our high intake of sugar, we are getting less magnesium, folic acid, vitamin B6, zinc, copper, manganese, and other nutrients that play a role in maintaining healthy bones.”
Sugar is delicious. It’s easy to overeat those calories, leading to obesity. Sugar may also lead to tooth decay and may play a role in hypoglycemia and diabetes. Although natural healing proponents have speculated that excess sugar consumption stresses the pancreas, progressing to hypoglycemia or diabetes, there is no conclusive evidence proving this. However, people with these disorders are advised to moderate sugar intake to avoid severe reactions and long-term health risks.
Recent information suggests that ingesting sugar may actually deplete the body of calcium. Scientific studies have demonstrated, in animals and humans, that consuming sugar increases the urinary excretion of calcium, zinc, and sodium. Ninety-nine percent of the total-body calcium is in the bones, so this upping in calcium excretion probably represents a leaching of calcium from bone. A study on hamsters fed a diet containing 56 percent sucrose found that the diet caused osteoporosis, despite adequate calcium intake. In addition, sugar promotes cortisol secretion. Increased cortisol levels promote osteoporosis.
Not all conventional authorities concur with how sugar affects health. Depending on your interpretation of the scientific literature, sugar isn’t directly linked with any illness, aside from tooth decay. Although a diet high in carbohydrates may exacerbate adult-onset diabetes, some experts argue that sugar is no more responsible for increasing the risk for that disease than starchy foods such as potatoes or rice.
Say it’s not sugar
Sweeteners create a pleasurable sensation that early humans probably relied on in making food choices. Most sweeteners are simple carbohydrates derived from plants. There are a few exceptions, though, that come from other sources and offer sweet taste with low calories.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), called yashtimadhu (“the sweet stick”) in Ayurvedic herbalism, is extremely sweet. Use it as a tea to satisfy cravings. Or add a bit of powder or a strong tea solution to foods as a sweetener. Licorice is somewhat stool-loosening, so be cautious at first.
Stevia leaf (Stevia rebaudiana) originally came from the rain forests of Brazil and Paraguay. South American natives used stevia mainly as a sweetener, a practice adopted by European colonists. It is more than 200 times sweeter than sugar. Indigenous peoples also used stevia to treat diabetes. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved stevia’s use as a sweetener, only as a dietary supplement. However, it is widely used as a nonsugar herbal sweetener in all corners of the globe, especially in Japan. Apparently, it does not have any of the side effects of sugar and is not broken down by heat.
Erythritol, a linear four-carbon sugar alcohol, could be the next generation low-calorie sugar substitute. It’s used in beverages, baked goods, and candy. This new sweetener is very safe—fifteen different studies evaluated erythritol, and every study found it to be harmless. Erythritol occurs naturally in alcoholic beverages, soy sauce, some fruits, and even in small amounts in human plasma. It has 60 to 80 percent of the sweetness of sucrose. Produced from corn or wheat starch, erythritol is well absorbed. Excreted unchanged in urine, it has been shown to be well tolerated and safe in human studies.
Blunt the sugar taste
An exciting herb, gymnema (Gymnema sylvestre), well-known in Ayurvedic medicine, is just beginning to get serious attention here. It is particularly appropriate for American audiences because it may help treat diabetes, which is increasing in epidemic proportions in the United States.
Gymnema is a woody, climbing plant that grows in the tropical forests of central and southern India. The leaves, when chewed, interfere with the ability to taste sweetness, which explains its Hindi name, gurmar, which means “destroyer of sugar.” This herb has been used in India for the treatment of diabetes for more than 2,000 years. Used primarily for adult-onset diabetes, it continues to be recommended today in India. Gurmar leaves raise insulin levels when administered to healthy volunteers. The leaves are also noted for lowering serum cholesterol and triglycerides. Gurmar tends to be a blood sugar normalizer, yet it has been shown to lower glucose significantly in hyperglycemic people. It is not yet clear what specific constituent in the leaves is responsible for the action of lowering sugar and blood fats. Some researchers have suggested gymnemic acid as one possible candidate.
Traditionally, 6 to 12 g of the powdered leaf is used per day. Studies recently performed in India have used 400 mg per day of a gymnema leaf extract. In adult-onset diabetics, ongoing use for periods as long as eighteen to twenty-four months has been successful. In juvenile onset diabetic patients, a similar amount has been used as an adjunct to ongoing use of insulin. My experience shows that gymnema will reduce sugar cravings over time if taken daily. Take it in capsules—the herb is extremely bitter.
Beat the sweet
Sugar, in and of itself, is not the problem. After all, we are sugar-fueled machines. It’s the excess of refined sugar, and the roller-coaster ride, that is the predicament.
Carbohydrate cravings are a common complaint, especially among women. These urges can be stimulated by a complex brew of physical and mental factors, but the bottom line is that the body is out of balance. Sugar is everywhere; that’s one of the reasons it’s so seductive. I’ve found that white-knuckling it doesn’t work for most people. The craving is just too overpowering, and the relief just too available.
Using natural medicines to stabilize blood sugar and hormone levels works a lot better. I usually tell people to be conscious of the fact that they want to be sugar-free and to eat sugar only if the craving becomes unbearable. A piece of cake now, when the craving is small, beats three pieces later, if the craving goes unsatisfied. Gradually, with diligent effort, the cravings will subside, and living sugar-free will be second nature. Ultimately, after the withdrawal period—which Gaby says may take three to five days—it’s probably best to “just say no” to sugar for a while. Any amount is likely to start the downward spiral spinning. After a few sugar-abstinence months, many people can resume the occasional snack as a treat without much consequence. But be careful. Sugar is tasty, and it’s all too easy to hop on the “sugar buzz” cycle.
For the best bet in healthy eating, reduce total sugar consumption by reading labels and choosing packaged foods low in sugars. Better yet, concentrate on preparing whole foods with little refined sugar. Select sweeteners high in maltose or fructose to avoid blood sugar ups and downs, and experiment with alternatives such as stevia.
Generally, herbs that fortify the endocrine system and enhance stamina will help break the sugar-craving cycle. They support balanced blood sugar levels and help heal the sugar-processing mechanism.
Licorice root. Rich in both saponins and flavonoids, licorice root is anti-inflammatory. The structure of the saponins resembles adrenal hormones. This herb also enhances immune system functioning. Additionally, licorice is a potent liver herb, assisting the liver’s role in hormone balance. Licorice is considered an adaptogen, which enhances the effects of other herbs in a formula, so it is widely used. The dose is about 500 mg per day.
Ashwaganda root (Withania somnifera). Often called “Indian ginseng,” this adaptogen is used in Ayurveda as a tonic and sedative. Although unrelated to the true ginsengs, it appears to share their many properties and actions. In fact, studies show ashwaganda to be superior to ginseng as an antistress adaptogen. Ayurvedic practitioners consider ashwaganda to be a “grounding” herb—one that nourishes and regulates metabolic processes. A typical dose of ashwaganda is about 1 g per day, taken over long periods for up to many years, as a rejuvenator. But because ashwaganda is very safe, larger quantities are often used short-term.
Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus). This herb has become known mainly as an immune enhancer, yet in Chinese medicine it is considered a major tonic. Used regularly, it helps to support stamina over time and helps reduce sugar cravings.
Ginseng root (Panax ginseng or P. quinquefolius), the ultimate stamina herb, helps to stabilize energy and blood sugar levels. As a long-term builder, the balancing effect will be gradual. A typical dose of moderate-quality ginseng powder in capsules is 4,000 to 6,000 mg per day.
Chromium is a mineral that helps regulate blood glucose levels. In a study, 180 people with Type II diabetes were divided into three groups. Each used a supplement twice daily with either 100 mcg chromium picolinate, 500 mcg chromium picolinate, or a placebo. The subjects maintained existing eating and lifestyle habits. After four months, fasting and two-hour glucose levels were significantly reduced in the 500-mcg group, while fasting and two-hour insulin values were significantly reduced in both chromium groups. In my clinical experience, a daily dose of chromium (usually 200 to 1,000 mcg daily) helps to minimize short-term cravings.
Vitamin B6 often helps quell cravings. Amounts up to or above 1,000 mg per day, for a short duration, often are the most effective. Check with your health-care practitioner for the proper dose.
At the turn of the twentieth century, sugar consumption in the United States was about ten pounds per capita annually. And people did just fine. In centuries before that, it was zero. Still, they were okay. All things considered, it seems like there is little to lose and probably a lot to gain from abstaining from sugar. Perhaps have it as a special treat once in a while. These tricksof the trade should help, and I’m willing to bet that, a year from now, you will be feeling a big difference. Sweet taste or sweet life? Your choice.
The big question—does sugar make kids hyper?
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa is an adjunct faculty member in the botanical medicine department of Bastyr University. He is hard at work on a new book on Ayurvedic herbalism.