With the annual choc-fest-cum-pagan-fertility-festival-with-a-thin-veneer-of-Christian-piety-on-top, Easter, impending, I thought I would share my thoughts on the current public-enemy-number one – sugar. You may have read the recent calls from a group of high profile scientists and doctors (organised as the Action on Sugar campaign) to cut the amount of sugar in food and drink by 30 per cent in order to stem the obesity and diabetes epidemic. But perceptually this is a tricky area – after all, virtually all of us alive today grew up gorging on the stuff, and many of us are still in reasonable health – so where’s the problem? Modern nutritional and naturopathic approaches to medicine tend to strongly emphasise the negative effects of sugar, perhaps reflecting the extreme effects of excess sugar consumption on greedy and sedentary affluent Western populations. Paul Pitchford, the author of the seminal Healing with Whole Foods states that sugar subjects humans to just about every chronic disease state available, as well as making them anxious, unhappy, negative, irritable and lazy.
Perhaps predictably, given my profession as a Chinese medicine physician, my basic position on this matter is that sugar (i.e. the refined white stuff, sucrose, Tate & Lyle and all that) is more usefully viewed not as a food, but as a drug. Human beings are simply not designed to run on refined sugar. Of course, the equation that ‘sugar=bad’ is facile and overly simplistic. Like oxygen, sugar is needed by every cell of the body. Indeed, the Chinese character for qi is primarily composed of a picture representing a carbohydrate – a ‘grain’ or ‘rice’. Eating plenty of sugar provides plenty of energy in the form of calories (and the increase in its availability was widely agreed to have facilitated the industrial revolution). However, if this energy is not used, it will be stored as fat, and its effect on the human body tends to cause chaos in the endocrine and metabolic systems.
To understand the effects of refined sugar it is useful to look at it from the perspective of Chinese medicine. Sugar is actually part of the Chinese herbal medicine pharmacopeia. The famous 16th century Chinese physician Li Shizhen described the effects of ‘sha tang’ (brown sugar) in fairly positive terms – he stated that it harmonises qi, strengthens the digestion and calms the Liver, moistens Lung qi, strengthens the major internal organs and produces body fluids. The sweet taste in Chinese medicine is said to slow things down, build and strengthen the body, and harmonise physiological process. These are all good things to happen in the human body, but dosage and context are all important – too much ‘building’ or ‘slowing’ in the wrong person at the wrong time will simply create obstruction (imagine building and slowing happening in Piccadilly Circus – no good). The harmonising effect of the sweet taste (in its intended format – i.e. as it appears in nature) can make us feel pleasantly calm, whereas in the wrong format (the ‘crack-cocaine’ sweetness of refined sugar) tends to make the body’s energy stagnant and disorderly.
From the perspective of Chinese medicine, the result of excess sweetness inhibits the digestive system and contributes to the formation of gunky ‘phlegm-dampness’, which makes the human system heavy, sluggish and poorly functioning. The damage to the digestive system also puts in motion a pathological cycle of the body craving more of the same taste to kick start it into action. In affluent societies there is an enormous supply of food and a tendency to over-consume calories in the form of sugar. Whereas in the past our work lives would involve a lot of activity, many of us now sit at a desk prodding a computer. This means the muscles don’t move to transform and move such phlegm-dampness. In addition, the obstruction caused by the phlegm-damp causes the production of heat due to the energy being unable to flow freely. This combination of phlegm-damp and heat constitutes the heady cocktail that is the source of many chronic modern diseases.
With all of this said, the notion that refined sugar is essentially a drug does not preclude its occasional use in the name of pleasure. Save it for your celebrations and enjoy it. Have a ball. Get high. (And then check in with your acupuncturist and check you haven’t knackered your digestive system!) The human body is generally hardy enough (if you look after it) to indulge now and again. Unfortunately many humans seem to act like laboratory monkeys hooked on cocaine, and keep hitting the ‘NEXT CHOGLID’ button for their next fix until their poor metabolism collapses in on itself. The key, as in all things, is balance. The addiction aspects of sugar consumption – physical and mental/emotional – is a subject in itself, which I may cover in a future post. In the meantime, keep things sweet (but not too sweet)!