Maintaining Blood Sugar: Key to Wellness and Longevity

My love affair with the Pacific Northwest was a slow one, as I've mentioned before. Part of the reticence was that I had to break up, I mean really break up with New York. I was resistant to see a future here in the PNW, in this land of grunge and eccentric artists, and was steadily looking cross country to greener pastures, swearing one day I'd buy that old stone church in upstate New York and renovate it into a cozy home.

I'd been in Seattle for approximately five months in a holding pattern waiting to leave for the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa. I was to be stationed in a tropical rain forest on an ethnobotany inventory project. I was pretty pumped. Seattle was to be a quick blink in time.

There were several new concepts that Seattle seemed introduced to me. One of them was a new form of hippy medicine called naturopathy. I'd never heard of naturopathic medicine, but had heard of and used herbal teas, and just recently purchased my first tincture of Echinacea at a farmer's market in New York before I left. I was intrigued by the idea. On the one hand, you had a form of medicine that went after treating the cause of the problem using natural tools that created little side effects and restored natural balance. Coming from a very long line of hypochondriacs this sounded extremely appealing. On the other hand the conventionally trained scientist (after all I had just spent seven years training and working as a research scientist) in me said, "Nah, this must be some woo-woo Seattle stuff." But why were so many people using it and for so long?

I did eventually leave for the Peace Corps but when I returned my intrigue, and yearning to answer the question had grown. Particularly since meeting people from all over the world that used traditional therapies successfully.

My path took me to Bastyr University, becoming a licensed naturopathic physician, eventually specializing in complementary cancer care. And staying and falling in love with the Pacific Northwest, and culinary nutrition for the past 20 plus years.

Blue Zone Foods and Longevity - Tales of West Africa and taste

In my lectures I include longevity associated with various places in the world where less cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and dementia occur compared to anywhere else. These places are called Blue Zones and they have the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world; These places include Okinawa, Thailand, Greece, Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, Calif.; and Okinawa, Japan.

When we take a closer look at some of the foods that are commonly consumed in these places they include goat's milk, honey, legumes (especially garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, and lentils), wild greens, some fruit and relatively small amounts of fish, bitter melons, tofu, garlic, brown rice, green tea and shitake mushrooms, fennel, fava beans, chickpeas, tomatoes, almonds, milk thistle tea, avocados, salmon, nuts, beans, oatmeal, whole wheat bread and soy milk, plus papayas, yams, bananas and peach palms.

What I notice about these whole foods are that they contain good amounts of omega 3 fatty acid and other good fats, soluble fiber, and low sugar (and no added sugar). These foods along with physical exercise contribute to stable blood sugar levels: very few highs and lows of insulin; and proper functioning of cellular uptake of sugar in the cell to be converted to energy (ATP). This is very important: proper and consistent insulin levels which are affected by the type of carbohydrates eaten, the fiber and fat content of foods consumed.

The myth of Sugar causes cancer/feeds cancer, but why its partially correct

One of the most misunderstood pieces of information on the internet is that sugar causes cancer. Remember, I'm a biochemist so I want the information to be based on what we know from research and physiology.

Glucose (sugar) is the currency of all cells. It makes ATP which is vital for metabolism and all cellular functions in the body. The issue with cancer and other chronic diseases is insulin spikes due to highs and lows of blood sugar levels. This can be correlated to different types of foods in our diet.

About forty five years or so ago researchers noticed that people with diabetes type II had a higher risk of developing a solid tumor/cancer than did people with diabetes type I. The difference between the two diabetic types is insulin production. In type I, little to no insulin is produced, but the cells will react (in general) if insulin is provided. In type II, the body produces lots of insulin in response to glucose in the blood stream, but the cells for the most part are non responsive.

One of insulin's normal functions is to trigger two proteins that signal cells to grow and divide. This is a very important and natural function. Healthy cells will grow at a normal pace and can turn themselves off as sugar is used up. Cancer cells are different. They have higher rates of glucose use (they divide faster) and their turn off 'switches' are broken. Research has shown that insulin spikes are responsible for an increase in some solid tumors aggressive growth.

It is therefore important to maintain a diet that aids in steady blood sugar levels.

What are the foods we are talking about incorporating

In the Pacific Northwest we can grow or find the following regional foods: bitter melon, greens, squash, beans, yams, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and blueberries (chromium), hazelnuts. You might also think about supplementing with lentils and avocados, fermented foods. Make sure that you eat three meals a day, or several meals through out the day. But most importantly, eat a whole foods diet.

The importance of exercise in cancer and other disease processes

One last word that has nothing to do with food or even specifically about the Pacific Northwest. Exercise must be a part of any healthy life style. Several reports out of the National Cancer Institute and other reputable institutions stress the important role of regular cardiovascular exercise to remission and recovery regarding cancer. It also plays a role in prevention and tolerance of side effects during treatment as well. Cardiovascular exercise is any activity that increases your heart rate. Walking is a great way to get out and move. You should always check with your doctor to determine your fitness before starting any routine.