Chemistry, Behaviors, and Health: Sugar and Sodium in Type II Diabetes


Home / Chemistry, Behaviors, and Health: Sugar and Sodium in Type II Diabetes
Addictive behavior in diabetes type II

Sugar and neurotransmitters are intimately related. Image by John A. Jaksich, all rights reserved.

All foods contain substances that can affect our emotions. As the holiday season arrives, being vigilant about over indulgence may prevent more than a growing waistline.

Substances as commonplace as sugar and salt can change our lives – but how?

There’s a chemical story behind calling sugar a drug, and encouraging healthy people to avoid potassium-based salt substitutes.

A Drug Known as Sugar?

To many of us, table sugar is a necessity of life. We add sugar to our cereal, to our coffee, and to our food when we cook… there is sugar in practically every meal we consume.

Sugar is a staple – however, there is growing concern about health effects of sugar. Some of these concerns are worse than many may imagine, and result from evidence of fundamental chemistry occurring in the brain.

In a study released at the end of October 2015, researchers found evidence of an excess of dopamine being released in the brains of individuals who are diabetic. These individuals release excess dopamine because of, in part, an over-consumption of simple carbohydrates (sugar). As the pancreas secretes more and more insulin over time, the biochemistry of diabetics becomes resistant to the effects of insulin.

What happens in the brains of the individuals over time, as they continue to consume sugar, is much like which happens in the brains of drug addicts. Greater amounts of insulin act in the brain to induce the release of greater amounts dopamine. The dopamine acts to make the individual feel good (dopamine is one of the ‘feel-good neurochemicals’).

This results in behavior where the individual eats greater amounts of  simple sugars so they can feel better… This is cause for worry.

However not all individuals are alike, so the characterization should be viewed cautiously. What we can safely state, based on this research, is that Type II diabetics who tend to binge upon simple carbohydrates are prone to the negative effects of sugar. Science is now characterizing the negative effects more precisely.

Some in the medical profession describe sugar as being as addictive as heroin, but the debate is far from settled. However, the numbers of publications are slowly mounting in favor of neurochemistry contributing to carbohydrate binges.

Perhaps the scenario may be thought of as the ‘chicken-and-egg’ – sugars and carbohydrates are a necessary part of survival. Why the brain responds by  ‘encouraging’ addictive behavior is a question which may fit into an eventual, larger picture of epidemiology.

Potassium and Sodium: Essential?

Potassium and sodium are chemically similar, and they have been used interchangeably in kitchens around the globe. Mankind has used sodium chloride (table salt) for centuries. Salt’s implications in hypertension, however, have many looking for alternatives-is there a viable alternative?

Looking at potassium chloride as a first approximation is easy-or is it? However, we should ask the question: Is it healthy to interchange one chemical with the other?  It is an important question to answer since the pair are often crucial for individuals with Diabetes. Kidney function in diabetics is often compromised (leading to potential blindness and amputations) due to hypertension and high blood glucose levels.

Sodium and potassium are chemically similar but biochemically are dissimilar. Copyright Image by John A. Jaksich. All rights reserved.

Sodium and potassium are chemically similar but are biochemically dissimilar. Copyright Image by John A. Jaksich. All rights reserved.

Sodium and potassium are biochemically classified as electrolytes-the classification is meant to address how the body regulates metabolism. A body without sodium or potassium is a body without balance. An over-abundance of either in your plasma will be ruinous to your health, as well.

Potassium lies underneath sodium on the periodic table; it has many similar chemical properties to sodium. However, biochemically speaking, the two elements are dissimilar.

The reasons for the differences between sodium and potassium in biochemical systems pertain to their roles in metabolic pathways. In one biochemical pathway, the pair are regarded as the ‘yin-and-yang’ of hypertension.

Currently, most studies point to an excess of sodium affecting kidney function which in effect can lead to high blood pressure, and potassium as a way to alleviate hypertension. When there is an excess of sodium in one’s plasma, adding potassium will eventually cause the kidneys expel sodium.

In the healthy individual, supplanting potassium for sodium is problematic, at best. In those suffering Diabetes, maintaining a correct balance of electrolytes is imperative. Despite many years of research on sodium and potassium, more research findings on sodium may lead to its replacement.

A Chemical Path for Healthy Living

Are there paths of healthy living-chemically verifiable paths? Aside from having good genes, can we boost lifespan or improve memory or intelligence via self-administered diets?

Most scientists answer no; once we reach the mid-twenties the bodies and minds are carved for the next couple of decades. However, certain factors of nutrition and exercise can help one stay healthy. Understanding the interplay of genetics, exercise and diet is best left to the research community.

Exercise and good nutrition are always positive-but not everyone is thriving at 100 years of age. Can we blame it all on chemistry?

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