Not All Sugar Is Bad: Glucose for Your Brain, Nerves, Heart and Muscles
Written by Michael Tierra, East West School of Planetary Herbology
Could you ever imagine yourself as being 'sugar deprived?' Do you find yourself unable to sleep soundly throughout the night, getting up frequently to urinate, feeling exhausted the next day with frequent memory lapses – or what about instead of feeling a boost of energy from a reasonable aerobic workout, you find yourself dragging through the rest of the day?
You could be glucose (i.e., sugar) deprived and suffering from that denied hit of fast energy necessary to power your nervous system, heart, and muscles. This can affect not only your quality of life, but also your health.
Both the heart and the brain require a substantial amount of glucose (sugar) to function well. A constant pumping action of the heart means that it needs a steady supply of energy. Many runners who suddenly die of cardiac arrest at a comparatively young age could be because they ran out of fuel to keep their hearts working.
The primary metabolic substrate for the heart is fatty acids. However, up to 30% of myocardial ATP is generated by glucose and lactate, with smaller contributions from ketones and amino acids. Although glucose is not the primary metabolic substrate in the heart at rest, there are many circumstances in which it assumes greater importance such as during ischemia, increased workload, and pressure overload hypertrophy. The brain is so rich in nerve cells that it is the most energy-demanding organ, using half of all the sugar energy in the body.
Many know the wisdom of having at least a piece of fruit before beginning a strenuous workout. The same is also true when undergoing long hours of intense thought. The greatest demands for fuel mainly come from our muscles and nervous system, especially the brain. We know that glucose is one of the few substances that readily passes the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and like the heart, the brain works throughout the night, including during sleep. We need energy in the form of a steady supply of glucose to the brain to sleep soundly. When it runs out of fuel (i.e., glucose), the result is insomnia, disturbed sleep, being unable to get back to sleep, and not feeling rested when awakening in the morning.
The liver is in charge of processing sugar into glucose through a process called glycogenesis, in which glucose is formed through the breakdown of glycogen (the stored form of sugar). Glycogenesis is what prevents us from experiencing hypoglycemia when we run out of fuel during the day. It is possible to run out of stored fuel (glucose) when we are asleep or if the liver is underfunctioning. Thus, a liver imbalance is one of the most common causes of insomnia and sleep disturbances.
Whole Sugar and Insomnia
Of course, by sugar or glucose, I'm not speaking of refined sugar which robs our body of nutrients and which is unfortunately present in practically everything and is added to foods to get us to want more. Refined sugar is a pro-inflammatory substance that many believe to be toxic and one of the primary causes of alcoholism and addictions generally. (Anyone who finds it difficult to control a sugar habit should consider using honey or sucanat, a commercially available brand of clean, evaporated sugar cane juice. These sugars have real nutritional value when consumed in moderation.)
Refined white sugar is bad, but there are beneficial uses for whole, unrefined sources of sugar such as honey and pure unrefined evaporated sugar cane such as Indian jaggery which in Central and Latin America is called panela. This sugar has all the vitamins, minerals and enzymes from the whole sugar cane plant.
Honey is a well-known remedy for insomnia. Composed of equal parts glucose and fructose. It is the glucose that helps us to fall asleep and then the fructose which is later transformed by the liver into bioavailable glucose that feeds and satisfies the energy demands of our brain for the second half of the night. It is recommended to try taking two tablespoons full of raw honey before retiring, alone or with tea or warm milk. Honey contains the amino acid tryptophan, which helps sleep and this, in turn, converts to serotonin, the happiness neurotransmitter which helps us to awaken refreshed.
Powdered herbs mixed with honey is one of the simplest and most efficient ways to take herbs and are used in traditional cultures throughout the world. I often recommend this way to take herbs. Unfortunately, the antisugar phobia applied to all sugar including honey and whole evaporated cane juice keep people from using herbs mixed with honey, called an 'electuary,' or in syrups.
Asian Fruits Before Bedtime
Certain 'power fruits' taken before retiring are also extremely useful for insomnia and taken during the day, counteract sudden mood shifts and depression which often is accompanied by a drop of energy. I recommend you purchase a pound of these three dried power fruits. Experiment using them in different dishes, soups, cereals, or boil them (first remove the pits from the jujube dates) and render them into a syrup using sucanat brown unrefined sugar and honey. Take by the spoonful.
My favorite is longan berries (Dimocarpus longus pericarp; Chinese: Long yan ru). These are closely related to litchi fruit which probably has similar properties. They are commonly called 'dragon eyes' because of the dark pit in the center of the translucent fruit.
Longan berries have a long history of use for nourishing the blood, calming the spirit and helping to overcome insomnia. This is because they are high in readily available glucose which feeds the heart and quickly passes the blood-brain barrier to fuel the brain. I like to keep a bag of these handy and soak about 10 and taken them before retiring as an alternative to honey.
Another Asian fruit that is fast growing in popularity in the West is goji berries (Lycium chinensis). Like longan berries, this fruit is a blood tonic, and is especially good for the eyes because besides its natural sugar content is loaded with beta carotene. They work almost as well longan berries as a treatment for insomnia. However, goji berries are also a fruit I give to my diabetes patients to snack on throughout the day. They not only tonify Qi and Blood but also help regulate fluctuations in blood sugar for people with type 2 diabetes.
Finally the last super fruit that helps satisfy the body's need for bioavailable glucose is jujube date (Zizyphus spinose; Chinese: da zao). These are commonly used in Chinese herbal formulas. They are eaten as a fruit and are popular throughout China as a confection. Jujube dates especially nourish and tonify Qi but they are also a treatment for insomnia and depression.
One of the simplest and most effective antidepressant formulas commonly used clinically is called 'Gan Mai Da Zao' taken either as a tea or convenient pills ('wan' in Chinese products). It consists of only three simple botanicals: licorice, sprouted wheat, and jujube dates. Simple but safer and far more effective than many pharmaceutical antidepressants, this formula is taken three times daily to relieve anxiety, depression, insomnia, hot flashes in menopause, and manic depression. Many companies sell this formula. My current favorite is Active Herb which markets it under the apt name of "MooDelight."
Dried Longan, Red dates, and Goji Berry Drink
Combine the following:
15 dried longans
30 dried red dates
a handful of goji berries
boil in 2 cups of water
Add honey to taste and have a cup twice daily, especially before retiring.
Oh, and one more perk many experience from taking longan berries or honey before retiring at night is less or no calls to the bathroom to disturb your sleep.