Tuesday, October 31, 2017

What About Sugar?

What do we want to know about sugar? Let's start with, what exactly is sugar? Carbohydrates are sugar. They are broken down to the very basic form of sugar, which is glucose. Our brain, blood and muscles need glucose to survive. So, sugar is not a bad thing in this context, it just gets a bad rap.

To simplify our understanding of carbohydrates as sugars, we can break them into two groups: simple and complex. Simple sugars are monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides consist of glucose, fructose and galactose. Disaccharides are comprised of two monosaccharides: maltose is glucose plus glucose, sucrose is glucose plus fructose, and lactose is glucose plus galactose. Of the disaccharides, sucrose (table sugar, corn syrup, etc.) is the "bad stuff." Lactose is our milk and maltose is our beer. The complex carbohydrates are polysaccharides: starches, fiber and glycogen. In food terms, starches are our grains, legumes, tubers and root crops ("GLoaTR"). Fibers are all plant-derived foods. Glycogen is the storage form of glucose, which we eat a very small amount of in meats.

So, if all digestible carbs breakdown to the monosaccharide, glucose, which our body needs, why does sugar get a bad rap? Well, to understand this, we need to understand how our carbohydrates are digested. The simpler the carbohydrate, the quicker it is digested. Complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides) take longer to digest because they need to be broken down to disaccharides and then to monosaccharides. This breakdown process begins in the mouth via the enzyme, amylase. After that, since stomach juices don't contain enzymes to digest carbohydrates, the majority of the work takes place in the small intestine. Now, here's the catch! Fibers linger in the stomach and delay emptying into the small intestine. That's what prolongs digestion and gives us a feeling of fullness. Digestion of simple and complex carbs takes about one to four hours. Only fibers enter the large intestine. Soluble fibers - oats, barley, legumes and citrus fruits ("OBLoC") - can be broken down and used as energy by the colon. These fibers lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels, good news for our heart and insulin levels! Insoluble fibers - whole grains (bran) and vegetables - exit our body. The bad rap part of sugar comes from the fact that when simple sugars are digested rapidly, we get a surge of the hormone, insulin. Insulin is a fat storage hormone. If our muscles, brain or blood don't need the glucose for energy, it goes to our fat depots. 

So, what's the message here? Well, I don't think we can completely avoid the simple sugars - I know I can't. But, what we can do is have an understanding about how much simple sugar we are putting in our body and try to balance it by eating sugars that contain fiber and slow down the digestive process.

We can understand how much simple sugar we are eating.

Whitney | Rolfes. "Understanding Nutrition." Cengage Learning, 2011.
Newby, P.K., ScD, MPH, MS. "Nutrition Myth Busters: Fact or Fiction?" IDEA Health and Fitness Association, 2017.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Female Change: A Brief Overview

Migraines? Weight gain around the middle? Hot flashes? Mood changes? Bloating? These are all symptoms of our declining hormones. Given that estradiol, our predominant form of estrogen during our younger years affects more than 400 tissues, it's no wonder we feel the effects of hormonal changes!

In our reproductive years, estradiol is produced by our ovaries and is responsible for the maturation of a few to a few hundred eggs in their follicles. When we ovulate, releasing one egg, the ruptured follicle produces progesterone in order to prepare our uterus for possible implantation of our fertilized egg. As we age and lose our eggs, our reproductive system slows, ovulation stops and we no longer produce progesterone from our ovaries (even though menses may continue). This is when we enter phase 1 of perimenopause, also known as "estrogen dominance." This phase is characterized by a constant feeling of PMS with bloating, mood swings and tender breasts. In phase 2, estrogen also declines leading to symptoms such as hot flashes, memory problems and migraines. In the third phase, estrogen and progesterone decline to near menopausal levels and many of the unpleasant symptoms disappear. In phases 2 and 3, menses has most likely ceased. Estrogen and progesterone are like yin and yang; they counterbalance each other. When there is an imbalance between the two hormones, we experience the unpleasant side effects previously mentioned.

As we travel through the phases and no longer produce estradiol from our ovaries, we start to produce estrone (another estrogen) in our fat cells via conversion of our androgens (male hormones). This is one reason why women with more fat cells might experience a greater degree of estrogen imbalance (hot flashes, etc.). We see an increase in fat in our stomachs because abdominal tissue contains more androgen receptors. Progesterone, on the other hand, is produced from cholesterol in our adrenal glands when we no longer ovulate. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is also produced in our adrenal glands. If we are overly stressed and constantly release cortisol,  we will inhibit the production of progesterone, which also exaggerates and prolongs an imbalance between the two hormones.

As we go through these changes, there are a few things we can do to minmize some of the more unpleasant symptoms of hormonal imbalance and decline. One, we can exercise to reduce stress and weight gain. Two, we can eat more foods containing phytoestrogens (soy). Three, educate ourselves on the types of supplements that will boost our progesterone, and Four, enjoy some dark chocolate which contains magnesium and improves our mood!

It's no wonder we feel the effects of hormonal changes!

Lee, John R., M.D. "What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause." Hachette Book Group, 2004.
Corio, Laura E.,  M.D. "The Change Before The Change." Bantam, 2002.
Dalton, Katharina, M.D. "Once A Month." Hunter House Inc., 1999.