Root Causes of Chronic Fatigue, Part 14: Sugar (Yep, Sugar)

Health Tips / Root Causes of Chronic Fatigue, Part 14: Sugar (Yep, Sugar)

Picture a bowl filled with granulated sugar and a can of Coke next to it. How many rounded teaspoonfuls of sugar do you need to scoop from that bowl to equal the sugar in your Coke? Five? Ten?

It’s 16. Yes, 16 teaspoonfuls of sugar in a single can.

But, you think to yourself, I don’t drink Coke. And yet you split a bottle of Cabernet at dinner (3 teaspoons sugar), maybe sharing one more glass to accompany a gooey dessert (don’t even ask).

In 1975, Sugar Blues, one of the biggest-selling self-help health books of all time, (1.75 million copies and still in print) arrived on the scene. Author William Dufty traced the history of sugar through the ages and then went on to attribute virtually all the physical and emotional ills of mankind to sugar.

But Dufty wasn’t a scientist or physician. He was, in fact, the husband of silent film star Gloria Swanson (she of “Sunset Boulevard”), who had first alerted Dufty to the health risks of sugar. Sadly, their work was not taken seriously by the medical profession.

We learned from Sugar Blues that although sugar has been around a long time, it was Napoleon  who industrialized sugar production, first for his troops and later for the public who liked to sweeten their tea. Personal use of sugar then was not the insanity it is today.

In the mid 19th century, according to analysis of shipping documents and grocery store records, Americans consumed 15 pounds of sugar per year. These days, according to the sugar industry itself, each of us consumes 152 pounds annually, roughly six pounds a week. Sugar is everywhere.

We’re affected by sugar in several ways, none of them healthful and all linked to fatigue.

By sugar, I mean cane sugar, beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or any of the countless other terms for sugar in foods. Click here for a list. But when I say sugar I also refer to the innumerable simple carbs (pasta, bread, chips, grains) that quickly break down into glucose during digestion.

Fatigue from low blood sugar

The predominant symptoms of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) are fatigue, headaches, anxiety, irritability (you’re “hangry”), mood swings, inability to concentrate, insomnia, sudden intense hunger, dizziness, and heart palpitations.

Most people have experienced this phenomenon. You’ll definitely be predisposed to these symptoms if you snack on sugary foods or fast carbs throughout the day, eat a lot of junk and processed food, have a low intake of protein and complex carbs (which contain fiber that slows digestion), replace food with alcohol and/or coffee, have a high-stress job, and, with all this, try to exercise.

If you eat and live like this regularly, a lot of the symptoms of this blood sugar plunge can become more-or-less permanent, though reversible when someone educates your hypoglycemic brain.

How this type of fatigue occurs

When your blood sugar is running low, your entire body senses danger. Your brain requires a constant supply of energy, coming from either glucose or ketones. Read more here. With hypoglycemia, a 5-11 alarm is sent to your stress-responding adrenal glands, which cooperate immediately with bursts of adrenalin and cortisol.

These, in turn, mobilize glucose in areas of the body (mainly the liver) where it’s stored, and the ship is set aright once again. If your body could talk, it would say, “What the hell was that?”

Now, it’s not health-threatening for this type of hypoglycemic misadventure to occur once or even twice a week, but several times a week and your adrenals are going to get fatigued. And the main symptom? You guessed it: fatigue.

Also be on the lookout for health issues caused by chronic fatigue + sugar addiction + slow, steady weight gain (especially in the tummy area). You may not even be aware of hypoglycemic symptoms because you’re constantly giving yourself a sugar buzz.

Symptoms of chronic hypoglycemia include chronic fatigue, nervous stomach, irritable bowel syndrome, caffeine dependence, sweet craving, depression, episodes of palpitations, and insomnia.

Saugar addiction

If each time you sense your blood sugar dropping you reach for a quick fix, like a handful of M&Ms or a piece of toast, your blood sugar will shoot back up (ah, relief!), but then start plummeting again. In addition to chronic fatigue and weight gain, the health consequences of sugar addiction are well known:

  • Increased risk of heart disease.
  • Increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.
  • Increased risk of chronic inflammation.
  • Increased risk of acne.
  • Increased skin aging.
  • Increased cellular aging.
  • Increased risk of fatty liver, kidney disease, and gout.
  • Poor dental health.
  • Increased risk of early dementia.

It shouldn’t surprise you that most practitioners of integrative, functional, alternative, and nutritional medicine, myself included, eat almost no sugar. Believe me when I say that, for me, this is not easy, especially when someone brings in a box of something delectable.

But an interesting phenomenon occurs when you stop eating sugar and other fast carbs and start paying attention to the protein and vegetable quotient of your diet. When you actually try something sweet, it’s almost intolerably sweet. You realize you’ve lost your taste for the excess.

Read this simple guide to understand which foods spike blood sugar and how to start a low-carb diet and stabilize blood sugar.

If you think your fatigue is related to sugar issues, schedule with Becca, our nutritionist, or any of our practitioners. We can also look for hidden food and chemical sensitivities and check for adrenal fatigue.

Recommended supplements for sugar addiction and adrenal fatigue:

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD