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. Hi Mark, I am a fully paid up member of the Primal Club and have been since January 2011. it’s changed my life as I’ve lost 2.5 stone. I find now tha if I ever carb binge, within an hour or two I am seized with such exhaustion that often I need to take a nap. What I’m not clear about is why before I went primal, did this never happen? have I become more sensitive to insulin?
    Keep up the grea work by the way! and thanks!

    Mauro wrote on August 21st, 2011
  2. Wow, great article Mark! It’s funny that I came upon this today, as yesterday, I went thru EXACTLY what this article describes.

    My boss, being the generous guy that he is, gave me an extra cannoli that his wife brought home for him from a FANTASTIC Italian bakery here in NY the night before. It’s funny, in my mind, I went thru thought that you opened up this article with – rationalizing myself eating it with thinking “oh, well, I eat my low-carb Primal foods every day, so I can eat this one little thing and be ok”…boy, was I wrong.

    Once the delicious taste left my mouth, I IMMEDIATELY regretted my decision to eat it (btw, it wasn’t the small, regular-sized cannoli…it was the big, huge ‘papa’ cannoli…yea…) I started sweating, and get incredibly anxious, with my heart beating out of my chest, and actually had to get up from my desk and go do a lap around the building because I thought I was going to die.

    Biggest. Mistake. Ever.

    Needless to say, I will not be eating any pastries any time soon.

    Also, since I’m writing, I wanted to give you some ‘props’ for this website – I literally live and die by the information on here, and have lost 23 lbs in the past 3 months from a combination of Primal eating, IF, and doing fun stuff in nature. I’m 27 years old, and after years of feeling like total crap, I am in the best shape I’ve ever been in, and will maintain this for the rest of my life.

    So thank you, and Grok on, my friend!!

    Mike Botta wrote on August 25th, 2011
  3. I went looking for information on what happens to the body after an “overindulgence” on sweets (using the term very loosely) after having eaten Paleo for a while – it’s exactly what’s up! I ended up pounding down a quarter of a pie-sized fruit tart at a co-worker’s farewell party today – it was the butter crust that did me in – and MAN! do I feel like crap. I walked for about an hour right after I ate, which really helped, but now that I’m about to settle in for the evening, so, it appears, is the nausea and general gastrointestinal discontent. Thank goodness for the I/F option. :)

    Maggie wrote on September 14th, 2011
  4. I used to have protein bars after workouts. Then I went primal for 2 years. I tried having the same protein bar and I threw it up about an hour or two after.

    Now I know what my body can and cannot tolerate.

    `will wrote on September 19th, 2011
  5. Good thread, but I have a question.

    I have been doing CrossFit for about 8 months and that, along with Atkins I lost about 15lbs and now am where I need to be.

    For last 2 months I have been doing low carb during week and then Sat night and Sunday I eat lots of carbs. Like cookies etc, and don’t experience any of the crashes people have talked about, and still have maintained my 190lbs.

    Is this dangerous or terribly bad for me? Great site BTW!

    Dave wrote on September 22nd, 2011
    • I mostly do the same and don’t seemed to have all these issues. I eat low carb during the week and I eat at a pizza buffet/dessert buffet every Friday. And I eat. Then later that night I go home and have a good old grilled cheese sandwich. No crash, no yucky feeling, it doesn’t even dump. I just gain about 2 pounds and its gone in a few days. My bodyfat% is steadily tracking downward.

      It sounds to me like folks are having panic attacks after eating something they aren’t suppose to.

      Kia wrote on October 4th, 2011
  6. Hello Mark,
    This article is great and your site even better – thanks.
    Can this binge be assumulated to a “water retention” because I have all the symptoms described above + water retention showing.
    How do we cure this crisis: is cardio + water + rest good?

    Helene wrote on September 28th, 2011
  7. I just went out (reluctantly) to Red Robin with my fiancee and a friend the other night. I indulged in a burger (yes, with bun) with some bacon and guacamole on top. Instead of fries, I opted for cole slaw, but I also got a lager with my burger. I didn’t feel too bad. Definitely not as good as I feel after a primal meal, but if you make a few good choices about the meal you can minimize your “feeling like hell” time.

    Lee wrote on September 29th, 2011
  8. The only thing that happens to me when I do this is that I gain a few pounds and its gone in a day or so. But I don’t usually feel bad.

    Kia wrote on September 29th, 2011
  9. While you have a point with the whole insulin resistance thing, this post is ridiculous. One slice of cake is not going to do that to you.

    This actually made me laugh.

    I’m a GP

    WOW wrote on October 18th, 2011
    • I’ve followed Atkins successfully for 20 years and reaped all the rewards of a low carb way to eat for life – not a diet.

      Every single one of the dreadful bingeing side effects posted here has been my experience. Once I de-toxified by eliminating sugar and grain/starch, any lapse would induce my body’s nearly immediate and sometimes violent reactions.

      If I’m tempted to binge, I know that I’ll be sick for 2 days and that there’s nothing I can take. So if I binge, it’s with full knowledge of the consequences of self poisoning – an effective deterrent.

      I found this site through another’s site’s link. What serendipity. Today is #4 of the week-long introductory newsletter series. Besides those superior articles, my additional reading of Mark’s other blogs (including the informative member comments) has opened my eyes to much I didn’t know. I’ll be making quite a few changes, systematically, until I’m proudly PB.

      Thank you, Mark, for the scientific explanations, the open mindedness, and of course the humor.


      Deb Martin wrote on September 2nd, 2012
  10. I feel absolutely no effect, and I’m certainly NOT insulin resistant.

    Hella wrote on October 18th, 2011
  11. Pleacs help me to my school

    Olatunde sina wrote on October 24th, 2011
  12. My mom thinks I eat to much sugar. One tome the sugar went missing and I never ate any and it turns out the rodents got at it.

    Sona wrote on November 15th, 2011
  13. Great article. Very similar point of view to Dr. Phil Maffetone’s book. However he does Advocate running long runs, but ONLY if you can be sure your well below your maximum aerobic threshold. Thinking in terms of Paleo, there are some who are suggesting that we did in fact run for very long periods, albeit slowly, and perhaps with many walking periods. The motivation was ‘persistence hunting’ – running animals to the point of exhaustion.

    Adrian wrote on November 24th, 2011
  14. I’ve been fully Primal yet I ate a basket of french fries at a diner yesterday. About an hour later I went home and sat down to read but I my mind was moving really slow. It was hard to concentrate on the reading material… I woke up roughly 5 hours later. Strangest food “coma” I have ever experienced. I don’t know if this fits in exactly with the refined sugar binge described in Mark’s blog post here but a carb binge is certainly something I won’t be doing in the future. What if I was driving?

    Brandon wrote on December 1st, 2011
  15. I have eaten primal about 90+ % of the time for the past 5 months. Lost a bunch of weight and size. This thanksgiving I had some bread stuffing(love the stuff), 2 small pieces of pie, and a few small squares of pizza. I had no issues other then had to go #2 a few more times over the next few days.

    I find it really interesting that everyone can have such different reactions.

    One other note. I was listening to a Robb Wolf(the paleolithic solution) and he was telling a military person who was going to be deployed to always stay slightly inflamed by eating some sugar and gluten due to not knowing what the food available to them would be. I was thinking once one gets to there genetic potential. Would this be a good option to prevent the major lows from a binge?

    Any thoughts?

    Matt wrote on December 3rd, 2011
  16. after following rule 80/20 for primal living for about 4 weeks now I love it. My body feels amazing.
    On the weekend I treated myself with a baked spud while shopping – you know, the potato, cheese, sour cream with ham and pineapple.
    Well I took it home to eat and lucky, as no more than 30minutes after eating it I was overwhelmed by tiredness that even walking around trying to shake it off did no good so I fell asleep on the couch – FOR 4 HOURS!! I woke up feeling groggy and horrible :( No more big carb spuds for me!!

    I just can’t get over how intense the need to sleep was. It was like my body was sutting itself down so it could digest my meal.

    NewlyPrimal wrote on December 7th, 2011
  17. this just happened to me. I thought I was dying until I looked it up. NO. MORE. CAKE WITH COFFEE. ON EMPTY TUMMY!

    Camila wrote on January 20th, 2012
  18. This scared the crap out of me. I do not want to harm my body like that. I already feel a little bit sick, and the symptoms are too familiar. It’s not worth it at all.

    Wild Child wrote on February 1st, 2012
  19. Mark,

    I have often wondered about the benefits or detriments (physical, not mental) of exercising to burn off an unusual indulgence. Let’s say I have a piece of cake at the office. (“I’m just a social eater….”) When, and how much should I exercise (30 minutes on the nordic track?) to burn it off. When do those sugars hit the blood stream? Does it help to do cardio? When? An hour later? The next morning? Or, does it just not really matter and I should just forget it and go back to a regular routine?

    Stephen wrote on February 17th, 2012
  20. i used to be a marine and i work out not as much as i used to though. i am more educated about proper lifting techinques, sleeping habits, sugars etc.. i want to make an enviroment since i still live with my family i am 22 any advice on making a enviroment of healthy food

    ben wrote on February 28th, 2012
  21. Hi Mark, I love the primal blueprint way of life. I started it October 2011. Right now I feel terrible. For no apparent reason other than testing myself on whether I would, I binged on chocolate for the first time in ages. My head is spinning, my heart is racing. Even my eyes are having trouble focussing. I am also having trouble concentrating….Never EVER again will I do that!!! Back to meat and veggies for me.

    Kylie wrote on March 11th, 2012
  22. I’ve recently discovered Primal style of eating and am soooo intrigued by it. It’s a completely different way of viewing foods and life. And because it makes a lot more sense than my previous diet, i’ve decided to learn more about it and embark in this new journey. And i am so excited by it. I’ve been eliminating sugar, grains, corn, soy and eating a more PB diet for the past two months. Until yesterday that is, when i visited a legendary Italian restaurant on Little Italy in the Bronx. Well this place is incredible. So i told myself “it’s ok – this once in a while experience is to be enjoyed” and boy did i ever enjoy it!!!!. I had tons of crusty bread and butter. Hot antipasto. Fettuccini alfredo and a sweet flaky desert. Everything was oh soooo gooood. And to my surprised when i measured by blood glucose within the hour it was in the low 90’s. So i continued to enjoy the rest of the night, went to a show and headed home.

    As my boyfriend was driving, i was getting more and more car sick and nauseated. I blamed it on my boyfriend’s driving and winding road. Not even thinking it was related to my meal AT ALL. By the time i got home, i was miserable. I threw myself in bed, coat and all (I was the female version of that picture at the beginning of the article). I was physically ill, dizzy, nauseated and had a stomach ache. I just felt gross. I managed to find strength to shower. And oh boy, when i got to the bathroom, it was puke central. I hadnt puked in 100 years. And it was just pure pure torture. How could i be reacting this way to food? Foods i’ve been so used to eating only 2 months prior? And then finally my ordeal was over. Within a few minutes, i felt much better.

    I was taken aback by this reaction. I never expected to become physically ill and miserable like this. I’m very new to all this primal way of eating and did not anticipate for a minute that my former diet would have this affect on me. My boyfriend suggested that, maybe i had eating one particular dish that was spoiled or didnt sit well with me. But instinctively i knew. I knew it was all those carbs and all that sugar. So i started searching online and voilà!!!!!! I stumbled upon this article. And wow it’s a great awakening for me!!!!!

    The one thing that has been lingering since last night is my vertigo. Can vertigo possibly be linked to sugar? I’ve noticed that it’s been getting consistently worse since i’ve been eating primal. Could it be that i’m now experiencing the effects of sugar a little more strongly. The one sugary thing i still have is 2 glasses of wine two or three night a week. I guess i can cut it out and see if this helps. But wine with dinner is such a nice indulgence on those especially harsh days. Please advice.

    liz wrote on March 17th, 2012
  23. Last night I decided to try every single dessert at a fancy dinner while on vacation. I have been following the primal blueprint for the past 6 weeks and feeling amazing. Not only did I try the desserts at dinner I ate a ton of rolls at lunch. I gave myself permission to eat.

    I feel awful. It is worse than the worse hangover I have ever had. I could not sleep though the night, I woke up every hour despite being exhausted. I am dehydrated. I have a pounding headache that won’t stop and I feel awful.

    Thank you for your article, now I see why I feel so bad. It is not worth it to have the sugar at all! I had no idea that one cheat could have such a dire effect on my entire system. Again, thank you.

    Michelle wrote on March 24th, 2012

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