Tuesday, March 24 is American Diabetes Association Alert Day—a one-day "wake-up call" asking Americans to take the Diabetes Risk Test to find out if they are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes is a chronic disease linked to a breakdown in how the body processes sugar. Read on to learn more about diabetes and the science behind our bodies’ own “internal sugar-processing plant.”
Fast Sugar Facts:
- Sugar is the only source of energy that can be used by the brain and red blood cells.1
- All cells in all organisms on the planet burn glucose to make energy.2
- Our brain is the major consumer of glucose in our bodies.3
- The human bloodstream normally contains only about five grams of glucose at any one time—the equivalent of just one teaspoon of sugar.4
How the Body Processes Sugar
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that occurs naturally in foods, but can also be added during food processing. While eating too much sugar can lead to serious health issues,5 our bodies need a minimum amount every day to keep working.
We consume sugar in many different forms, but in the end, our bodies digest almost all of the sugar we eat into glucose—also known as “blood sugar.” Glucose is the primary sugar our bodies use to create energy.6
Our internal sugar-processing system starts in the mouth, where saliva begins to break down food into simpler molecules. From there, food travels into the stomach, where gastric juices continue digesting carbohydrates into smaller sugar molecules. Finally, the sugar molecules move into the small intestine, where most are changed to glucose, absorbed into our bloodstream and transported all over the body to provide energy.
As we digest a meal and our blood sugar rises, it signals the pancreas to release a hormone called insulin. Insulin is responsible for moving glucose from the blood into the cells that need it for energy. Generally, the more sugar that is in the bloodstream, the more insulin the pancreas releases. However, there are limits to the amount of insulin the pancreas can produce and—therefore—the amount of sugar our bodies can process at any one time. Sugar that can’t be used right away is stored in muscles, the liver and in fat cells until more energy is needed.
This complex sugar-processing system is always working to keep our blood sugar in a healthy range. However, even people with a healthy sugar-processing system still need to be aware of the amount of food and sugar they intake. For example, if a person skips meals, they may experience transient hypoglycemia (blood sugar that is too low). If a person consumes a large amount of sugar, they may experience transient hyperglycemia (blood sugar that is too high). Blood sugar that is too high for long periods can lead to symptoms including extreme thirst, frequent urination and fatigue; if blood sugar is too low, people may become immediately dizzy or lightheaded, become sweaty, confused or anxious, or experience a faster heartbeat.7
When the system breaks down, it can lead to serious illnesses—the most well-known of which is diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the body’s own immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin (known as beta cells). In the most common form of diabetes—type 2—the pancreas still produces insulin, but it's either not enough to manage blood glucose levels or the body’s cells don’t use it effectively.
Both types of diabetes must be managed carefully to maintain healthy blood glucose levels and prevent serious complications. Having high levels of blood glucose (hyperglycemia) for long periods of time can damage the heart, blood vessels, nerves and kidneys.8,9 Low blood glucose (hypoglycemia) can also occur among people with diabetes; untreated low blood sugar can result in coma and death. Fortunately, there are many treatments and blood glucose monitoring systems available to help people with diabetes more easily and effectively manage their disease and lead healthier lives.
Abbott is a global, diversified healthcare company that provides education, products and tools designed to help people with diabetes live healthier lives.
For more information, check out The Science of Sugar infographic and watch the video below.
5. The relationship of sugar to population-level diabetes prevalence: an econometric analysis of repeated cross-sectional data. Basu S, Yoffe P, Hills N, Lustig RH. PLoS One Epub Feb 27, 2013.