Tippling Point

When I was a medical student, “going viral” was something really bad.  If a patient “went viral”, you’d feed them pancakes (because that was the only thing you could slide underneath the door).  You didn’t open the door until you sent in the SWAT team in plastic coveralls.

It was that bad.

Nowadays,, “going viral” is regarded as something good.  As in “the video clip went viral.”  The SA restaurant rage videos currently doing the rounds are one such example of “going viral”. Although they are probably as bad for our minds as the old “going viral” was for our bodies.  I truly hope they don’t spur on any further instances of restaurant rage.

As everyone is pointing fingers and moralising about what is happening in the clips, I’d like to step back and look at rage from a biological angle.  Few people realise that rage is largely the result of two molecules in a kind of see-saw balance:

Glucose and insulin

If glucose goes up (courtesy of what we eat), insulin follows some time later (courtesy of the pancreas). This nudges glucose out of the blood into the cells. Glucose then drops again.  Some time later, insulin drops in response to the lower glucose levels.

Pure harmony.

Fair enough.  But how are food and mood linked?

The brain runs mainly on glucose.  If blood glucose drops too fast, or too much, the brain gets anxious.  A low blood glucose level is a threat to survival.  Therefore, all the “fight or flight” responses are activated by low blood glucoe.  Anything that gets in the way is pushed out of the way. No explanations. No niceties.

“Hand over that chocolate cake and no one will get hurt.”

If one person behaves rudely, all those around also start behaving rudely in defence.  It’s a kind of chain reaction.  Not long afterward and it looks like a fight scene from Asterix.

When does blood glucose drop very fast or too much? I’m glad you asked.

From my description above, you may have noticed that there is a lag in insulin response, both when glucose rises, as well as when it drops.  It is that lag which causes the problem in a modern society eating modern foods.

But before we get there, a little fact that will change the way you understand sugar.

If I took ALL the glucose from the blood of an adult and purified it, how much glucose would I get?  The answer is … one level teaspoon. About 5 g. That’s it. All the fuss about glucose levels fits into one teaspoon.

So… If I add a teaspoon of sugar to my tea or coffee, I basically double my blood sugar in a matter of minutes.  This is not good news for the body’s balance.

In the olden days, when food technology was mostly limited to a wood fire, sugars came with plenty of fibre attached.  True, you could suck out nectar from flowers, but you’d have to do this for an hour before getting to a teaspoon of sugar. And your fellow cave dwellers would probably give you some strange stares. Honey? Yes, but at a price that stings.

The pancreas liked that mellow life.  Up the insulin a little, drop it a little.  The range of blood glucose levels was pretty stable most of the time.  On the low side (compared to our modern ‘normal’ levels), but stable.  And the brain was happy.

Fast forward 150 years.  Or a bit more.

Nowadays, it is possible to ingest 8 teaspoons of sugar in less than 10 minutes.  By eating a medium sized pizza, nogal. Or by drinking one of the many carbonated drinks on store shelves.  Without fibre, the sugar superdose is absorbed in minutes to supercharge the brain. It feels good.  You feel like the Top Primate all over again.

It’s a bit like taking our cave dwelling ancestor for a spin in a Ferrari.  You’re gonna need some serious soap to clean his seat afterwards.

The pancreas, likewise, is in a flat spin.  It does not have the reserves to cope with such a load. It starts up the factory and pushes out all the insulin it can.  The smell of burning pancreatic rubber goes mostly unnoticed as we bask in the happiness of a brain stuffed full of glucose.  We’re on the nutritional highway to glory. Who cares what is happening below the hood?

But while the glucose rabbit falls asleep at the wheel, the insulin tortoise crawls past secretly.  It takes about two hours, give or take a nose hair.  At this point, the glucose rabbit gets pipped at the post and has to retreat into the cells. Order is restored.  But that pancreatic factory isn’t so easy to stop. It just keeps running at full tilt for some time to come.

What happens next is nicely depicted in Greek mythology.  The newly-freed Icarus flies too close to the sun, his waxen wings melt and he plummets to the ground.  In our case, insulin does the melting.  After that glucose overshoot, there’s an insulin overshoot, followed by a rapid glucose-drop that will make your head spin.

It is at that tipping point when even a tiny irritation can set off a firestorm.  Road rage incidents often happen around meal times, when glucose levels are low.  Drunkards get abusive when all the sugar has left the building but the alcohol keeps on shouting.  But the true triggers happened some hours previously, when too much sugar started the ticking time bomb.

For decades, we’ve been conditioned that sugar gives “energy”.  It’s an easy sell.  Our cells burn sugar for energy, sugar makes us feel good, so why not boost sugar levels whenever we need a lift?  Athletes swear by sugar.  Students swear by beer caffeine sugar.  So it must be good, right? Wrong!

Moral of the story?  Avoid refined sugar like the plague it is. That way, you are much less likely to end up “going viral”.

To your health!

Doc Frank