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Balancing Glucose for Mental Health

Written on June 19, 2024
Balancing Glucose for Mental Health

Glucose and insulin play crucial roles in the body’s energy metabolism, particularly in regulating blood sugar levels, which has important implications for both mental health and substance use recovery. Viewing recovery from a holistic lens means taking into account all of our habits, and nutrition is a key part of this.

Blood Sugar Basics

Both glucose and insulin play a vital role in a person’s blood sugar stability, a key component to emotional regulation. Here’s an overview of how glucose and insulin work together:

  • Glucose: Glucose is a simple sugar and the primary source of energy for cells in the body. It is obtained from the food we eat, particularly carbohydrates. Once ingested, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose during digestion and then absorbed into the bloodstream.
  • Insulin: Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, specifically by beta cells located in the islets of Langerhans. Its primary function is to regulate blood sugar levels by facilitating the uptake of glucose from the bloodstream into cells, where it can be used for energy or stored for future use.

To go into more detail, here’s a step-by-step process of how glucose and insulin work. Understanding this can help paint the picture of the importance of this balance for emotional wellness and ease of mental health and substance use symptoms.

1. Glucose uptake into cells: When blood glucose levels rise after a meal, the pancreas detects this increase and releases insulin into the bloodstream.

2. Binding to insulin receptors: Insulin travels through the bloodstream and binds to specific insulin receptors on the surface of cells, particularly muscle, fat, and liver cells.

3. Activation of glucose transporters: Once insulin binds to its receptors, it triggers a cascade of intracellular signaling events that result in the translocation of glucose  transporters (such as GLUT4) from intracellular vesicles to the cell membrane.

4. Glucose uptake: The translocation of glucose transporters to the cell membrane allows them to transport glucose molecules from the bloodstream into the cell’s interior. This process significantly increases the rate of glucose uptake by cells, thereby reducing blood glucose levels.

5. Storage or utilization of glucose: Inside the cell, glucose can be utilized immediately for energy production through cellular respiration, stored as glycogen (a storage form of glucose) in the liver and muscle cells, or converted into fat for long-term energy storage.

6. Feedback loop: As blood glucose levels decrease due to cellular uptake facilitated by insulin, the pancreas senses this change and reduces insulin secretion. This negative feedback loop helps maintain blood glucose levels within a narrow range, preventing both hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

In summary, insulin facilitates the uptake of glucose by cells, thereby lowering blood glucose levels and ensuring a steady supply of energy for cellular processes. Dysfunction in the insulin-glucose regulatory system can lead to metabolic disorders such as diabetes mellitus, where blood sugar levels are chronically elevated due to inadequate insulin production or impaired cellular response to insulin.

Glucose Regulation and Mental Health

The connection between glucose regulation and mental health is significant and multifaceted. Here are several ways in which glucose regulation can impact mental health: 

  • Brain Function: Glucose is the primary source of energy for the brain. Optimal glucose regulation ensures that the brain receives a steady supply of energy necessary for cognitive function, memory, concentration, and mood regulation. Fluctuations in blood sugar levels, such as hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), can affect brain function and contribute to symptoms such as confusion, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
  • Mood Regulation: Stable blood sugar levels are essential for mood stability. Rapid fluctuations in blood sugar levels, such as those seen with hypoglycemia or postprandial (after-meal) glucose spikes, can trigger mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and even depression. Chronic dysregulation of glucose levels, as seen in diabetes or insulin resistance, is associated with an increased risk of mood disorders, including depression and anxiety.
  • Neurotransmitter Function: Glucose regulation influences the production and activity of neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers in the brain that regulate mood and behavior. For example, insulin plays a role in the transport of amino acids (the building blocks of neurotransmitters) into the brain. Imbalances in neurotransmitter levels, often influenced by glucose dysregulation, can contribute to mood disorders.
  • Inflammation and Oxidative Stress: Dysregulation of glucose metabolism can lead to increased inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, including the brain. Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress are implicated in the pathophysiology of various mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline. 
  • Hormonal Regulation: Insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating glucose levels, interacts with other hormones involved in mood regulation, such as cortisol (the stress hormone) and serotonin (the “feel-good” neurotransmitter). Dysregulation of insulin and other hormones can disrupt mood stability and contribute to mental health problems.
  • Cognitive Function: Optimal glucose regulation is essential for maintaining cognitive function and preventing cognitive decline. Chronic hyperglycemia, as seen in diabetes, is associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. Additionally, hypoglycemic episodes can impair cognitive function and lead to confusion, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating.
  • Reducing Cravings: Dysregulated glucose levels can contribute to intense cravings for addictive substances. Research suggests that fluctuations in blood sugar levels can activate brain regions involved in reward processing and increase the desire for pleasurable stimuli, including drugs or alcohol. By maintaining stable blood sugar levels, individuals in recovery can help reduce cravings and improve their ability to resist the urge to relapse.
  • Managing Withdrawal Symptoms: During the detoxification process, individuals may experience physical withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, headaches, and fatigue. These symptoms can be exacerbated by fluctuations in blood sugar levels. By consuming regular meals and snacks that provide a steady supply of glucose, individuals in recovery can help alleviate some of these withdrawal symptoms and support their overall well-being during the early stages of sobriety.

Overall, there is a complex interplay between glucose regulation and mental health. Ensuring stable blood sugar levels through healthy lifestyle habits, including a balanced diet, regular physical activity, stress management, adequate sleep, and proper medication adherence (for individuals with diabetes or other glucose metabolism disorders), is essential for promoting optimal mental health and well-being. It’s crucial for individuals experiencing mental health symptoms to discuss their concerns with a healthcare provider, as addressing glucose regulation may be an integral part of their treatment plan.


Understanding Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance is a condition in which cells in the body become less responsive to the effects of insulin, leading to impaired glucose uptake. Normally, insulin binds to insulin receptors on the surface of cells, initiating a series of cellular processes that facilitate the uptake of glucose from the bloodstream into the cells. However, in insulin resistance, cells do not respond effectively to insulin, and as a result, glucose uptake is reduced.

Several factors contribute to the development of insulin resistance, including:

  • Obesity: Excess fat, particularly abdominal fat, is strongly associated with insulin resistance. Adipose tissue releases molecules called adipokines, which can interfere with insulin signaling.
  • Physical inactivity: Lack of regular physical activity can contribute to insulin resistance. Exercise helps improve insulin sensitivity by increasing glucose uptake into muscle cells.
  • Genetics: Genetic factors play a role in determining an individual’s predisposition to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Certain genetic variants can affect insulin signaling pathways and glucose metabolism.
  • Hormonal imbalances: Hormones such as cortisol (the stress hormone) and certain hormones produced by adipose tissue can influence insulin sensitivity.
  • Chronic inflammation: Inflammation in the body, often associated with conditions like obesity, can interfere with insulin signaling pathways and contribute to insulin resistance.
  • Dietary factors: High intake of sugary and processed foods, as well as diets high in saturated fats, can contribute to insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance is a hallmark feature of type 2 diabetes, but it can also occur independently of diabetes. Over time, if insulin resistance is not addressed, the pancreas may compensate by producing more insulin to try to overcome the resistance. This can lead to elevated insulin levels in the bloodstream, a condition known as hyperinsulinemia.

Insulin resistance is often asymptomatic in its early stages, but it can progress to prediabetes and eventually type 2 diabetes if left untreated. Individuals with insulin resistance are also at increased risk of developing other metabolic disorders, such as cardiovascular disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

Management of insulin resistance typically involves lifestyle modifications, including regular exercise, a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, weight loss if overweight or obese, and in some cases, medications to improve insulin sensitivity. Early detection and intervention are crucial in preventing complications associated with insulin resistance.


How do we Improve our Glucose Regulation?

  • Balanced Diet: Eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods can help stabilize glucose levels. Focus on consuming whole grains, fruits, vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats. Avoid foods high in refined sugars and simple carbohydrates (white rice, potatoes, pasta, white bread), which can cause rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels.
  • Regular Meals and Snacks: Eating regular meals and snacks spaced throughout the day can help prevent large fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Aim to eat balanced meals every 3-4 hours to maintain steady energy levels. You should eat enough during meals so that you remain satiated for at least 3 hours. 
  • Eat a large breakfast: Aim for 30 grams of protein, plus fiber and healthy fats for breakfast and avoid sugary breakfasts. 
  • Avoid excess caffeine, especially on an empty stomach: try to eat some fat and protein prior to drinking caffeine, and aim to wait 90 minutes after waking before having caffeine. 
  • Carbohydrate Monitoring: Keep track of your carbohydrate intake, as carbohydrates have the most significant impact on blood sugar levels. Different foods effect every person’s glucose levels differently. For example, notice if a particular carb, such as rice, seems to cause you to crash/feel hungry again quickly, even if you eat a lot of it. 
  • Get Adequate Protein: Many experts now recommend eating the number of grams of protein as your ideal body weight in pounds. For example, if your ideal weight is 150 lbs, aim for 150 grams of protein a day. 
  • Fiber-Rich Foods: Include plenty of fiber-rich foods in your diet, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. Fiber helps slow down the absorption of glucose, preventing rapid spikes in blood sugar levels.
  • Regular Physical Activity: Engage in regular physical activity, such as brisk walking, cycling, swimming, or strength training. Exercise helps improve insulin sensitivity and allows glucose to be used more effectively by the muscles for energy. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, as recommended by health guidelines.
  • Take a walk or do moderate exercise after eating: A 20-30 minute walk or other exercise may improve glucose regulation. 
  • Eat some fiber or protein prior to eating carbs: snacking on veggies or having a side salad prior to eating carbs may help prevent a spike in glucose. Try not to eat carbohydrates by themselves without fat, fiber, or protein. 
  • Hydration: Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Dehydration can affect blood sugar levels and contribute to fluctuations in glucose levels.
  • Stress Management: Practice stress-reducing techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation. Chronic stress can elevate cortisol levels, which can lead to insulin resistance and disruptions in blood sugar regulation.

To learn more about how we approach addressing mental health and substance use disorder from all angles, contact us for a no-cost consultation.