Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
11 Jun

What Happens to Your Body When… You Carb Binge?

Carb BingeAnother day, another co-worker’s birthday (and the obligatory cake in the break room). Elaine Benes was right: this is insanity.

You’re into the Primal style of eating, so it’s easy to resist this stuff, right? You ignored the dirty looks when you turned down that piece of fudge-smothered bundt cake offered by your boss’s wife at their employee open house. You don’t mind gnawing on the few anemic carrot sticks left at the annual holiday party. Dessert just isn’t part of your vocabulary.

But would it hurt to indulge this once? This guy’s birthday? Well, you like him well enough, and the cake is a lemon cream after all. And it’s the end of the work day. Seriously, it’s not like you’ll suddenly burst into flame and melt in a fiery, torturous death, leaving nothing but a smoldering spot on the carpet. You’re disciplined. You can more than make up for this later. The worst that can happen is a sugar rush, and you spent half your time at summer camp walking (well, running) around in that state. Those were good times. Oh what the heck, gimme a slice. Yeah, sure, a little ice cream too.

So, what will happen? To your body, we mean. Once the plastic fork (with its spongy contents) hits your mouth. What goes on in there anyway? And why are you suddenly thinking of Willy Wonka and that kid who gets sucked down the garbage chute?

First off, the good news. There’s no purple suited man to pull an ominous lever. Nor is there any other permanent fate awaiting you. You’ll leave work a live, generally functional human being. They’ll be no curse or pox on your house or even truly long-term risk elevation for that matter. Nonetheless, you’ll likely regret your decision.

Within a matter of 10 quick forkfuls, you’ve gone from small doses of quality carbs wisely spread throughout the day to possibly 100 or more grams of pure sugar in one sitting. O.K., some guilt is setting in…. But that’s not all that’s happening.

The Domino Effect

Domino Effect

Within a few minutes, your pancreas kicks into overdrive and sends out a flood of insulin to try to sop up all the excess glucose that’s suddenly rushing through your bloodstream. Remember, while glucose is muscle fuel when it’s in the muscles, it’s toxic sludge when it stays in your bloodstream. Your body knows that and does everything it can to get it out of there. Perhaps you’re feeling flushed, a little high, spastic, or nauseous depending on how much you ate, how big you are, what your normal carb load is, and how acutely you tend to “feel” the effects of sugar and other substances. Ironically, if you were insulin resistant, you might not even notice these sensations, but you’re not. You’re a clean-fuel-burning primal specimen.

And it continues. The gush of insulin now creates a see-saw effect. If your glycogen stores have room, some of the sugar goes into muscles. If there’s no more room, the excess goes into fat cells, where it is stored as fat. In reaction to this quasi-emergency that looks like another life-threatening stress, the body steps up its efforts to achieve homeostasis by releasing both epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol from your adrenals. Your heart is racing, and you’re starting to feel uncomfortable, maybe even sweating. And we’re still likely within the first hour after you finished off that cake!

A bit more time passes. Burnout settling in yet? That’s called a sugar crash – when all the glucose is gone from the bloodstream and you start to feel sluggish, off-kilter, like the internal circuits are all fried after sparking in a heap of now smoldering wires. Hmm. Maybe that spontaneous combustion image wasn’t so far after all.

But there’s more…. The havoc that sugar rush set off – the swing of glucose and insulin, the cortisol and adrenaline – they’ve sent your immune system into a tailspin. Research has shown that the function of immunity-related phagocytes is impaired for at least five hours after intake of simple sugars. Free radicals have their heyday as well within the first few hours after sugar increases oxidative stress on the body. Your blood even thickens as a response to the stressors.

Wait, you aren’t out of the woods yet. You get home and try to sleep it off, but you toss and turn as your heart continues to beat faster than normal. Hmm. Little surprise there. The old hormonal system is confounding in its interconnectedness. You lay there cursing not just that cake but the entire cultural custom of birthday celebration. As the sun comes up and you roll out of bed, you think you should be done with this sugar business by now. Maybe. Maybe not. Unfortunately, a hefty dose of sugar can compromise the immune system for more than 24 hours. Groan. The images flash before you. The flu your daughter brought home earlier this week. The miserable cold (that incessant cough!) your boss has. Passing plans or reports around the meeting room. Shaking hands with the new clients who came by yesterday. Your toddler’s insistence on drinking from your cup last night. Suddenly you’re seeing your week in a new (and dimmer) light. Your immune system might have handled it all quite easily before the sugar incidence/insult. That’s one birthday cake that keeps on giving!

As bad as this sounds, it could be worse. If you follow the Primal Blueprint regularly and the lemon cream was just a detour, you’re a generally healthy person. You’ll experience the effects, and you may feel them more acutely than you did before you chose the low-carb path. (This isn’t a bad thing.) Nonetheless, after the dust settles, the worst thing you can end up with is maybe a cold you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Your system will realign itself pretty readily. Within a couple of PB style days you’ll be as good as new.

But if this is a normal day? Sigh. This presents a much bleaker picture. That see-saw of insulin and glucose? The process breaks down in your body until you develop insulin resistance. That rush of adrenaline and cortisol? That hormonal havoc over time fries your adrenal system. Your body is constantly in a state of “fight,” and inflammation becomes a constant state of affairs. Enough sugar over enough time (with the lack of exercise to boot), and you’ve gotten yourself into quite a pickle. (Maybe a pickle would’ve been a better snack choice….)

The Primal Blueprint offers up a plan to help guide our everyday choices as well as information to help us weigh the compromises we choose to make along the way. How we take care of ourselves each and every day can ameliorate the more taxing damage from occasional concessions we make for personal and social reasons.

And so we conclude the Willy Wonka journey.

Willy Wonka

What are your thoughts on sugar shock? PB compromise? Questions? Stories to share?

I Like, Fanboy30, Paradox Blue Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

On the Question of Sweeteners

The Salt/Blood Pressure Debate

Diabetes is Now a Disorder of the Small Intestine?

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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I am insulin resistant and do feel some effects from sugar. But let me tell you that when I started a healthy eating journey this past January, I was eating zero simple sugars and walking and running every single day. I ended up sicker than I had ever been in my life. I got bronchitis which I never had before and I got every single cold and flu bug that anyone had. I could not understand why when I ate so well that I was so sick. I’ve since fallen off the wagon and have gone back to eating whatever I want and other than gaining the weight back and feeling a little sluggish, I have not been sick since I stopped. I would love to know why!?!!?!?!??!

    Jennifer wrote on June 30th, 2009
  2. Jennifer, how much running were you doing? When you cut carbs dramatically all at once and still stick to a routine of “chronic cardio” you overwhelm your immune system. Adaptation to a lower carb lifestyle takes a few weeks. Trying to hammer carb-fueled workouts during that time could cause an immune-dampening effect.

    Mark Sisson wrote on June 30th, 2009
  3. I don’t know about calling glucose “toxic” as sugar is our body’s (and brain’s for that matter) preferred source of fuel. Though the effects of insulin on large amounts of glucose is true. Well put.

    FitJerks Fitness Blog wrote on November 6th, 2009
    • Your brain prefers, and runs more efficiently, on ketones, not glucose.

      Rachel wrote on January 2nd, 2010
  4. I never noticed the RACING heartbeat until I went primal. Now whenever I give in to temptation and carb binge I really feel my heart pounding. I don’t eat until I’m full, I eat until I’m stuffed. I slip into a “food coma” and usually have to take a nap. All of these things were probably routinely happening to me on the standard American diet, but I just didn’t notice. I thought it was “normal”. Once you clean up and go primal, when you do carb binge, you REALLY notice the negative effects because of the stark difference to how GOOD you feel eating primal. The feeling crappy is is actually a good thing. I notice I carb-binged a lot more in the beginning. I hardly ever do it now because I KNOW how MISERABLE I’ll feel. A couple binges will train you like Pavlov’s dog NOT to do it anymore.

    The one thing I think you left out is ravenous appetite for 1-2 DAYS after a big carb binge. Even when I go back to 100% primal, if the carb binge was really big my appetite is through the roof for a day or more.

    fixed gear wrote on December 7th, 2009
    • Same for me. If I carb binge I find myself feeling hungry at all times. Even when I’m somewhat full from my primal meal, I still feel as if I need a sugar/grain fix to fully satisfy me. Of course, I do not fall into temptation every time, but for the next few days (after a carb binge) I struggle to stay on track. But its the struggle that makes you stronger and really makes you realize how much damage you are doing to your body when you carb binge.

      Trevor wrote on June 2nd, 2010
      • Well put…..and very encouraging. I’m trying not to beat myself up for my binge this afternoon.

        Nan wrote on April 18th, 2011
      • agree

        lynn wrote on August 2nd, 2012
    • Same for me! it takes me a whole week to get my apetite back to normal.

      I must say that IF does seem to help get things back to normal somehow.

      Carla wrote on July 19th, 2010
  5. So what happens when you do a primal binge? Its definitely not as bad as a carb binge, but is it bad to really stuff yourself with so much primal food in one sitting? I ate a hell lot of calories in one day but it was mostly primal foods….

    Johnny wrote on December 25th, 2009
  6. This is spot on. I feel a sore throat coming on as I type. Pierogies, mashed potatoes, and cookies, oh my!

    Kristin wrote on December 26th, 2009
  7. Can this happen if you are on a strict diet of no grains, dairy, sugar, etc., (primal) but then eat a lot of fruit?

    Erin wrote on December 31st, 2009
  8. Succumbed to bread and pie this Christmas. One thing I noticed is that it made me TIRED. I mean dead tired. At 3 pm. Never again.

    Maria wrote on January 1st, 2010
  9. i don’t know what everyone is talking about…..i can kill a box of oreos and sleep like a baby for the next 3 hours. wake up feeling sick and swear not to ever do that again(for at least 2 weeks). I gots to get crazy every now and then(for my sanity).

    chris wrote on January 13th, 2010
  10. Mark,

    You forgot to mention that eating sugar depresses testosterone levels for a number of hours, which is detrimental for maintaining muscle and bone structure.

    Bodyfat (thats what you will get when you eat sugar) changes testosterone into oestrogen. An obese male produces more oestrogen than a regular woman! No wonder they start growing breasts.

    Nice posting!

    Andre wrote on February 13th, 2010
    • moobs

      lynn wrote on August 2nd, 2012
  11. Hi Mark,

    This website has been very enlightening, but I still have a couple of questions. Usually I eat until I stop and my eating schedule varies dramatically depending on how much I eat, from 3 hour grazings to 24 hour fasts due to one excessive meal. However, I realised that while eating sugary things does make my heart speed up, it also makes me quite happy. I’m 24 and under 5′ (~100lbs); I don’t get sugar crashes and I usually eat under 70g carbs per day or less. Is it too much of a carb allowance? Should I give up the cheesecake/ice-cream/cookies etc? Or is it all right to do a weekly indulgence without causing my body to convert everything I eat to fat…

    Daphne wrote on February 16th, 2010
  12. So I need some desperate help. I’ve been doing Paleo for over a month and was doing quite well actually and seeing good result. But, recently things have seen better days. I’m a college student so things are always tight, and I’m a woman, so sweets are my fall back on a tough day. Like today. Where (knowing better and continuing to indulge) I made dinner with ice cream, brownies, and a all natural root beer. Disgusting right? I know, but I keep having these super cravings for something sweet. I try to subdue them with almond/sunflower seed butter but then I can’t stop myself for that either. What is going on here? Any help!!!! Lol, to much work to let it slip away now.

    (I’m going to be feeling all this pain tomorrow I already know it…sigh)

    Lenae wrote on February 22nd, 2010
  13. I once went an entire month with eating nothing else but macaroni and cheese. Drinking water. I became sick and laid in bed for another month. I have never physically felt normal again. What has happened and what would you do. This has been 30 years of feeling “under the weather”.

    Lucinda wrote on February 23rd, 2010
  14. Sometimes I overeat nuts/ seeds and get similar effects, dried fruit/ bananas give me some bad vibes, but I overate sesame seeds this morning (bad bulimia problems) and feel some of these effects.

    If I eat refined sugar, I regret it within seconds, so there’s no chance of me eating more, but for me, the carb-like non-carb foods (nuts, seeds) are the real problem.

    Zhua Zi wrote on March 21st, 2010
  15. I LOVE that you folks are so honest.
    I too, have a binge purge thing going on.
    i can NOT eat bread, dairy, grainy things, but binge on fruit, berries, nuts, shoot,,,fish, meat. water.
    anything to put in my mouth!! i HATE it-gum, lettuce for crying out loud.
    THEN, I run, and run and run or yoga, or lift or P90X. till my head clears…
    But on the upshot, the Paleo diet, binging on that stuff, seems less harmful than sweets, sugary stuff. But the fruit thing. i TRY to do the berries, and less sugary ones. no melons, only one banana after a long hard run…and very unripe plums!
    veggies up the wazoo. but still the dumb binge purge thing. can happen on whatever diet you choose!
    If i eat cake, cookie, i find that i have to have ten more like NOW. I know it is the sugar.
    and then, alas, that lovely crash, and feeling depressed. so not worth it.
    but honey does NOT do this to me:) I only have it in small amounts, but I feel good, fine afterwards.
    I love this site, and you folks have great insight and info. I “eat it up” haha

    beeface wrote on April 6th, 2010

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