Can you have high blood sugar without carbs? Well, it’s important to look at common beliefs about high blood sugar first.
“High blood sugar is bad. Carbohydrates raise blood sugar. Therefore carbohydrates are bad.” The theory is simple, and yet incredibly flawed.
The truth is, you can have chronically high blood sugar even while religiously avoiding every starch and sugar in sight. Low-carb forums are littered with posts asking a very relevant question:
Why is my blood sugar so high when I’m not eating any carbs?
The answer is simple, yet often overlooked.
Cortisol Raises Blood Sugar via Gluconeogenesis
If the body were an engine, glucose would be its fuel. Most people think glucose only comes from carbohydrates (sugar and starch), but protein can also be turned into glucose when there aren’t enough carbs around to do the job.
This process is called gluconeogenesis. In layman’s terms, gluconeogenesis is the process in which the body breaks down amino acids (proteins) into glucose (blood sugar).
High stress hormones can trigger gluconeogenesis. (source)
- Stress (physical, mental, or emotional in origin) triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
- Stress hormones trigger the process of gluconeogenesis.
- Gluconeogenesis causes your glucose levels to rise (high blood sugar).
When you have high cortisol levels (from diet, lifestyle, etc.), the cortisol rapidly breaks down protein into glucose, which can raise blood sugar levels considerably. For some folks, this results in chronically high blood sugar–even if they are on a low-carb diet.
Cortisol not only breaks down protein from what you eat… it also cannibalizes amino acids already present in your body. Where are these amino acids from? Well, they can come from lean tissue in your body – including muscle, bone, and organ tissue.
Cortisol Side Effects…
High blood sugar and lean tissue loss aren’t the only side effects of high cortisol. When your stress hormones are high, you can also experience:
- Panic attacks
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
- Lower back pain
- Low sex drive
- Poor memory
- High blood pressure
- Gut flora imbalance
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Suppressed immunity
- Accelerated aging
- and more…
Doesn’t look too fun, does it?
So before you blame carbs for your high blood sugar woes, consider that high cortisol may be the underlying problem. And addressing the root issue (high cortisol levels) can have a pleasant domino effect by preventing or eliminating the issues above as well.
I talk a lot about stress hormones in my book, The Nourished Metabolism.