Why Bodybuilding?

Last night, a friend of mine asked me why I lift weights and build my body. She wasn’t being flip—she was actually intrigued by it, and wanted to understand what motivates me in the kind of training I do. I replied—and here’s what I said.

“HEY! So, why the training? Sorry in advance for writing a really long thing, but I’m getting pretty fascinated by trying to answer the question, because it forces me to step back and take a fresh look at why I do what I do, getting it clear enough to communicate it to someone else.

Really, the WHY varies from person to person, and there are as many different drives finding an outlet in bodybuilding as there are bodybuilders (and many, many different drives finding an outlet EVEN IN ONE bodybuilder, haha). But I can only get into my own stuff, and what I’ve talked about with my coach. (Did you read The Man Who Pulled HIs Own Leg? I don’t want to just rehash stuff from the book to answer your question, but a lot of the basic personal reasons I transitioned from yoga to bodybuilding are in there.)

One of the big things that keeps me with the training is that I JUST LOVE IT. Like, I love the actual moment of lifting a heavy thing. Since I take a lot of joy in the training itself, even if I made little or no ‘gains’ I would still be lifting. I do it because I find it amazing that my body is capable of it, and that keeps me intrigued by progressively discovering just how MUCH MORE my body is capable of. That, and feeling good physically as a result of it—so on a bodily level, basically the same exact two things that kept me with yoga for the past decade, and with martial arts for even longer than that.

I authentically enjoy the physical activity of hard, manual labor, even if that’s something as simple as having to move a pile of boulders from one place to another for some practical reason. Weightlifting is a way to enjoy that kind of thing systematically, for it’s own sake, while developing the ability to do more and more of the work as time goes on.

As for bodybuilding, WHY build bigger muscles and aspire to certain physical aesthetics, for their own sake, distinct from any actual application in physical or athletic work—that’s harder to answer because it has a lot of different motivations simultaneously. I’m not kidding when I say, for me, it is basically sarcastic. I do it with a wink. But at the same time, even though I’m doing it sarcastically, it’s very, very much NOT a joke (I don’t know if that contradiction makes much sense, but the fact that my coach instantly understood what I meant by it is one of the big reasons we get along so well, haha.) What I mean is, I don’t take it that seriously because I don’t derive my sense of self from, say, my biceps, but at the same time, it’s the outlet of a very serious artistic impulse. It’s not any different from the impulse to paint something or sculpt something. Except instead of working with canvass or marble, I’m working with my own genetics and physiology.

My left brain is intrigued because it’s a way to delve into how the body works and explore it on a practical level—practical, because it’s aimed at actually making observable changes—and my right brain is satisfied because the work-in-progress is something deeply artistic, aiming for the creation of a pretty damn powerful symbol. It’s the archetypes that are represented by a jacked body-as-a-symbol that make it compelling to work towards. Just ask ancient Greek sculptors. That’s why bodybuilding poses exist. They’re tools to express an ideal, and since they’re all about being seen, they’re about communicating something with other people.

And on the subject of being seen, the attention that comes with creating an imposing or impressive physique is also satisfying on some vain level, haha. I admitted to Dev a while ago that the bodybuilding progress-shots I was uploading to Facebook all the time while she was far away weren’t coincidence—they were almost entirely for her benefit. 😉

Lastly, for me, bodybuilding is kind of a mental deprogramming from a lot of stuff I’ve worked through in the past, where I glorified feeling shut-down and inadequate by justifying it with deconstructive philosophies—destroy the ego, abandon identification with the body, surrender all attachments, remain emotionally aloof from worldly things, etc, etc. I’m not knocking Eastern religions, I’m just saying I related to those ideas in a way that was basically negative.

And bodybuilding is a way of continuing to turn around from that, because what’s more body-positive, constructive and creative than directly working to get physically bigger? Hahaha.”


Those Who Can’t Do, Teach

You’ve probably heard the old saying that “Those who can’t do, teach.” Maybe you took offense on the behalf of teachers everywhere—maybe you are a teacher, and were personally offended. I can certainly understand that. It’s a crass, infuriating sentiment—it’s used ignorantly by ignorant people who don’t appreciate what a complex and amazing skill it is to effectively teach someone something.

But actually, there’s some truth in it.

Have you ever had a teacher who was naturally gifted at whatever they were trying to teach you? Didn’t it suck? Weren’t they drastically out of touch with the experience of an average student, struggling to make progress in something that feels at every step unnatural or confusing? For instance, if you were a middle-aged, heavyset man with a history of football injuries, just starting to take yoga classes, would you want a slim, flexible 20-something woman who has been doing yoga since she was a teenager—and had never done anything else—as a teacher? If it all comes easily to her, how realistic would her frame of reference be for what an actual struggle it is for you to touch your toes? How safe and clear will her instructions be for you to follow? Wouldn’t someone who had been through the exact or comparable difficulties to yours be much better equipped to give you guidance? Someone who had already bumbled through what you’re bumbling through, and already made a vast stock of observations regarding the pitfalls and benefits associated with everything you’re doing? Probably. Probably, in this hypothetical situation, a heavyset, middle aged man who had used yoga to rehabilitate old football injuries would be your ideal teacher. The man who initially couldn’t do much of anything would, after years of difficulty and gradual progress, be the best possible teacher for you.

So the saying should be, “Those who at first couldn’t do, teach.”

It’s the people who have had to think critically about their limitations and make experienced-based judgments about what is approachable (or even beneficial) for an average person who are the best teachers, because their experience is a resource for them to use in relating to the difficulties of their students. Whereas someone who easily followed along with everything their instructors told them from day one, and who skyrocketed from beginner to advanced to elite faster than anyone else in their class, has no comparable resources to draw from as a teacher. A champion-level yoga-practitioner trying to teach a beginner could easily assume a student working with a limitation is just lazy—because they simply don’t have the experience of a body that doesn’t bend very far even during intense effort. They might tell their students to stop messing around and work harder. Thanks to this in-touch, compassionate advice, the struggling students suddenly morph into a different body-type altogether and enjoy hitherto undiscovered ranges of motion. Whoops. No, I meant to say, “Thanks to this advice, the students promptly hurt themselves doing something that is inappropriate for their bodies.”

Something I draw on as a martial arts instructor, is the fact that when I started training in martial arts, I was very, very light. I only weighed about 100lbs. Ergo, it was essential for me to really understand the body-mechanics involved in generating powerful strikes. I had literally no choice. If I had started to learn Taekwondo weighing as much as I do now, 13 years later, I could easily have relied on brute strength to generate equal or greater levels of power behind my strikes. But since I was instead forced by my small size to use critical thinking, and to devoutly absorb the technical instructions of my teachers, and to develop nuanced skill to generate power, I now have that mental model of the mechanics of each technique to draw upon when instructing my own students. If I had started off being able to deliver strong blows with ease, I would be a less effective teacher.

The same goes for teaching anything. Your struggles in it become the resource with which you can instruct others.


I Wonder What The Deal Is With Essential Oils

It’s a fact that essential oils have been used in various therapeutic applications for centuries, but there has generally been little published clinical research on their use. So we don’t have much hard data on their effectiveness in alleviating or attenuating the various conditions they are utilized in traditional medicine to treat. But this is starting to change lately, as a little spattering of scientific studies on essential oils are being conducted around the world.

There are a quite a few inherent difficulties for any study centered on essential oils. For one thing, that shit ain’t standardized. Unlike with a pharmaceutical drug, medical researchers can’t count on the fact that the chemical constitution of, say, lavender oil is exactly the same in all cases. The chemistry of an essential oil is inevitably going to be influenced by local geographical conditions, and weather conditions, as well as the season and the goddamn time of day when the plants are harvested. Additionally, how they are processed, and how they are packaged and stored, will affect the oils’ constitution. Each plant is unique in its chemistry, so essential oils are never exactly the same—this is obviously different from pharmaceutical drugs that are synthetically reproduced and are identical every time. It throws a wrench in the works when you’re studying something, if you can’t be sure that thing is, on a chemical level, exactly what you think it is.

Another problem is derived from the fact that it is difficult to conduct blinded studies with aromatic substances. Typically, research studies involve testing two groups—one group gets the experimental substance, whatever that may be, and another group gets a placebo substance (this group is referred to as the “control” group).  When using aromatic substances, it is very difficult to conduct a blinded study, for the exact reason you would think. Basically, your subjects in a study are going to know whether you’re giving them a fucking beaker of lavender oil to sniff, or a beaker of saline solution.

But some researchers are finding ways to get around these difficulties, and conducting clinical studies on essential oils.

Preliminary controlled studies indicate that various forms of aromatherapy may have clinical applications in the reduction of anxiety experienced by patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. For instance, one interestingly designed (albeit small-scale) study, a hospital ward was suffused with either lavender oil or water for two hours. An investigator then entered the ward and evaluated the behavior of the 15 residents, all of whom had dementia. (The investigator was unaware of the study’s design and wore a device to block inhalation of odors, because double-blind medical studies require both the researchers and the study-percipients to be unaware of whether the actual substance or the placebo has been delivered.) The results indicated that use of lavender oil aromatherapy modestly decreased agitated behavior.

It’s common, however, for patients suffering from dementia to lose their sense of smell, rendering the application of aromatherapy in dementia patents somewhat limited in its usefulness.

Essential oil of lemon balm has shown promise in this regard; in a double-blind study of 71 people with severe dementia, use of lotion containing essential oil of lemon balm reduced agitation compared to placebo lotion.

In a trial involving sixty-six women waiting to undergo highly anxiety-inducing surgical procedures, ten minutes of inhaling the aromas of essential oils of vetivert, bergamot, and geranium failed to reduce anxiety significantly, compared to placebo treatment. In another study, rosemary oil failed to reduce tension during an anxiety-provoking task, and conversely might have actually increased anxiety.

Another interesting complication involved in studying aromatic substances, is that human beings have a strong connectivity in our brains between memory and smell. Smells pull up a lot of emotional associations for us—it’s such an accepted fact that neurologists even have a pithy name for it: “nasal nostalgia.”  So, if a subject smells rosemary and becomes anxious, how can a researcher possibly know if that’s due to some innate property of rosemary oil, or because that subject has just been reminded of the rosemary perfume his crazy aunt Mildred used to wear—the one who used to chase him around the house with her taxidermy cat when he was a child?

Yet another wrench in the works.

Still, some other clinical trails have actually revealed favorable effects. In one such study, researchers assessed the anxiety-level in three-hundred and forty individual dental patients, all waiting for dental appointments (who were all presumably about to flip their shit.) Those that inhaled the scent of lavender showed lower levels of anxiety compared to the control group. In another study, one-hundred and fifty patients were randomized into one of three treatment groups: control (standard care), standard care plus lavender, or placebo (standard care plus another kind of oil not thought to have any anti-anxiety effects). Those in the lavender group did actually experience an appreciable reduction in their level of anxiety.

Approaching the use of essential oils from a different angle, researchers have evaluated the effects of massage therapy done with essential oils on people suffering from anxiety and/or depression, while undergoing treatment for cancer. The treatment did appear to provide some short-term benefits to those patients. Again, absorption through the skin may have played a role here.

There is weak evidence to suggest that inhaled peppermint oil might relieve postsurgical nausea. Peppermint was associated with the attenuation of nausea symptoms in a small randomized trial of 35 women after nonemergency cesarean section, compared to placebo aromatherapy and standard antiemetic drugs.

Inhaled peppermint oil may also be useful in relieving mucus congestion of the lungs and sinuses—there is, however, only marginal supporting evidence for this application.

There is clinical research showing that an essential oil constituent (perillyl alcohol) has been successful in treating brain cancer. That’s a pretty frigging big claim, and calls for linkage:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=perillyl+alcohol+AND+brain

So we know that in certain circumstances the constituents of essential oils can do big things. But that doesn’t necessarily display the effectiveness of the essential oils themselves—for instance, does inhalation necessarily lead to the same effects as other modes of administration? Maybe. Or maybe not.

In one rat study, bergamot essential oil inhibited the damage caused by “focal ischemia” (the same type of damage caused by stroke). The oil was injected, not inhaled.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19607983

Persistent anxiety is an all-to-common problem in the general population, and the pharmacological drugs used to treat it can often lead to sedation—hence the perennial search for alternative modes of treatment. Since the anxiolytic properties of lavender have already been demonstrated in some studies and small-scale clinical trials, like we’ve been looking at, a controlled clinical study was performed to evaluate the efficacy of “silexan,” an oral lavender oil capsule preparation. The lavender oil preparation was shown to be roughly as effective as pharmaceutical drugs (benzodiazepine) in the treatment of anxiety.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19962288

So what does all this say? Nothing other than what it says. There’s no broad, all-or-nothing take away, like “essential oils work!” or “essential oils don’t work.” (Sorry not to have a magic answer.) As time goes on, more and more evidence will be amassed both to debunk the effectiveness of oils in some applications, and to support their effectiveness in others.


The Myth of Fitness

“Fitness” is a highly coveted state. If you want to know what that state entails, never fear: there are plenty of weekend Crossfit warriors and people who have taken two or three Bikram yoga classes in their lifetime who will be happy to tell you in intimate detail that they have arrived at the one true definition of “fitness,” and then proceed to magnanimously climb down from their high horse and explain to you exactly what you need to do to become, like them, “fit.”

But if, like me, you have a sneaking suspicion that “fitness” is meaningless jargon engineered to sell magazines and keep self-dissatisfied people scrambling after an illusory goal, then I have something you might be interested in reading. Here’s a small excerpt from my book, “The Man Who Pulled His Own Leg,” about my experiences, observations and reflections over the past nine years in yoga, and also in bodybuilding.

“This is a good moment to mention something important: ‘Fitness,’ as most people use and understand the term, is a mythic state. Next time someone says something along the lines of ‘I’m really fit,’ treat them like they just said, ‘I’m actually a unicorn.’ It is a state of being that exists only in their imagination, fueled by desperation to be a happy, beautiful immortal. It’s the plasticized, Photoshopped state of a man on the cover of a magazine, whose shaved abs and percent body-fat demand a constant, obsessive maintenance that his cool, suave expression belie. It’s a non-specific athletic mastery of everything, including things we haven’t tried yet. It’s a symbiotic unity of perfect health, dazzling functionality and sculpted physical aesthetics, carried to an expression of perfection where they’ve all hit critical-mass and perpetually sustain themselves, needing only air and good cheer for fuel—leaving the Fit Superhuman with nothing to do but engage effortlessly in rigorous recreational activities, bask in their own classical beauty and have terrific sex, on and on forever.

The reality is, fitness is always specific. It’s always fitness to do something. It makes no difference if that thing is running or pole-vaulting or lifting weights or doing yoga. By doing that thing, you increase your fitness for it—your body continually adapts to that specific thing, to the detriment of your fitness for other things. A champion Strongman athlete looks and performs nothing like a champion Marathoner—they are both ‘fit’ to the highest degree in their particular sport, but the adaptations that brought their bodies to that high level of fitness were drastically different. This doesn’t mean you can’t be in generally good shape—defining ‘good shape’ as having the strength, stamina and natural mobility to engage in a wide array of activities, enjoy a great quality of life and maintain a high level of activeness for years to come. That is immanently feasible—that’s primal human heritage. That’s how the body evolved to work. But something people don’t acknowledge when they think about fitness, is that such a general state as being ‘in good shape’ necessarily doesn’t veer to any extremes. If you want to engage in specific activities—say, yoga—to a point where your abilities are truly exceptional, you’re inevitably going to take away from your ability to do other things exceptionally. Your body will adapt to yoga so heavily that there’s no room left for adaption to other activities—if you want to shift your adaptation in another direction, you can, but it’s going to come at the cost of your previous extreme adaptation.

Being ‘in good shape’ doesn’t require anything more than a novice-to-intermediate level of ability in any particular thing. For instance, you can progress from being completely sedentary to being pretty good at yoga and see a massive corresponding increase in your general quality of life. But that’s as far as the principle extends, before the returns for your effort start diminishing. After that point, the shifts from intermediate-to-advanced-to-elite will have absolutely no corresponding increase in your general quality of life, because at that point the training you’re doing is specialized. It’s yoga-specific (or anything-else-specific) adaptation that has no practical overlap with the outside world.

Nothing in excess, everything in balance. You know what that is? It’s the fucking slogan of  ‘Core’ dog-food company. Who cares where wisdom comes from. Learn it by heart.”

If you’re interested in reading some more excerpts, here’s my book’s Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/BikramYogaMemoir/timeline


Abs For Days

Next summer, everybody is going to be looking for a fast, easy way to get a flat stomach and six-pack abs.

I’m here to tell you: winter is the time to start. Give yourself MONTHS to undertake your new fitness routine and make steady progress. That way you’ll have real, lasting results to show off next summer when you finally pull the big reveal and take your shirt off the first day it’s warm and sunny again.

I’m also here to share the one big secret everyone who’s looking for a way to melt fat, build muscle and transform their body needs to know: you’ll have to train hard, and train consistently. There’s no magic trick. I have nothing to sell you, and anyone who says they have something to sell you “to make getting fit easy” is lying. You don’t need a miracle, you just need to work steadily and have a critical, intelligent attitude towards your physical conditioning. Don’t take everything everyone tells you about fitness and nutrition at face value. Discriminate. There is a ton of bad advice out there—way more bad than good. Time to tackle some of the long-standing misconceptions surrounding “getting a six-pack,” and maybe arrive at some good ideas about intelligent training in the process.

Forget crunches and sit-ups. They are a lousy exercise for your abs, and they put more strain on your low-back than they’re worth. I realize it might be hard to sever all ties with an exercise that’s been touted for generations, but once you’ve tried a few ab workouts composed of better exercises, you won’t even miss crunches or sit-ups.

Recognize that your abs don’t function alone when you exercise. You don’t get nice abs without having a nice core. Core muscles include everything from just below the chest, down to your knees—front and back. Working abs safely and effectively is going to involve working that whole area.

“Plank” is your friend. Plank is a terrific core-muscle workout. You can’t do too much plank. Start off shooting for a 30 second hold, and gradually try to build to a minute. Then two minutes!

If you’re going to plank, do it right. Hips parallel to the floor. Elbows in line underneath your shoulders.

Is plank getting easy? Make it harder. As it gets easier, try moving your elbows forward from the line of your shoulders. It’ll be way harder!

There are a million and one other plank variations. Do your homework. Find the variations that you like, that work for you, and try them out! Have fun. Play plank.

Try out other core workouts, find what works for you. Have you ever tried knee-raises? L-sits? Why not? Try it. Try new things! Have fun!

L-sits: Space two chairs next to each other, so you can stand between them with your arms down by your sides, hands on the chair backs (make sure they’re chairs that will stay steadily in place as you go.) Lift your feet off the floor, so now you’re holding yourself up with your hands. With legs straight and toes pointed, try to raise your legs parallel to the floor. That’s an L-sit! Hold it as long as you can, even if that’s only 1 or 2 seconds at first. Work steadily! Keep trying, build it up to 30 seconds. Who cares if it takes a long time to develop?

Get a workout buddy. It’s easier to train with a friend than alone.

Try this fun workout with your buddy: Partner A lays down flat on their back, raises feet up vertical to the floor. Partner B stands over Partner A’s head, and Partner A grabs Partner B’s ankles with both hands for stability. Now, Partner B (not too hard at first!) pushes Partner A’s feet away. Just a quick push, directly away—Partner A will get a terrific core workout by trying to keep his or her legs straight up in the air while they’re being pushed away. When you’re tired, switch places and give your buddy a turn!

Knee-raises: Hang straight down from a pull-up bar. Bring your bent legs up until your knees are parallel to the floor. From there, raise your legs up towards your chest, high as your can, then lower them back to parallel. That’s one rep. Do as many as you can! Build up to 12 over time.

Leg-raises: Lay flat on your back—if you want, you can put your hands underneath your tailbone for extra support. Raise your legs two inches off the floor. That’s all. Just hold it! You’ll quickly realize what a good core workout it is. Navy SEALs don’t do this in bootcamp for no reason.

Scissor-kicks: After you’re done with leg-raises, stay in position while you catch your breath. When you’re ready, lift your legs up again two inches off the floor. Now, gently kick your legs up and down, legs staying straight, alternating. One up, one down, one up, one down. Legs never touch the floor as you go, they just keep going up and down a couple inches in the air. Go until your tired, put your lags down and catch your breath, then do another set. What do you have in common with a black-belt? This exercise.

Train with free weights. Do your homework on the proper way to work with a barbell. Get a coach. Seriously. Free weights are way more effective than training with gym machines. Squats, deadlifts, bench-press. They will all work your core in a positive way.

Forget about weighing yourself. Weight is a stupid metric for measuring the success of a health and fitness regimen. Really—muscle weighs more than fat. Also, as you get more fit, other changes in your body composition are going to play into changing your weight. Things like denser bones and stronger joints—they will change your weight. Just going by weight is a really narrow, pointless way to measure your health.

You can do more to change your body with exercise than you can with diet. Forget fad diets. Forget diet “reboots” and “jumpstarts.” Those are short-term results. You want long-term results. You get those long-term results from exercise—as long as you’re consistent and make an ongoing commitment to your fitness training.

Have incremental goals. Abandon the mindset that always looks for sudden, miraculous transformations, and gives up when you don’t immediately see the results you want. Instead of having such broad, extravagant goals that they serve to discourage rather than motivate you—because you always see yourself falling beneath them—have incremental goals that carry you in the direction you want to go. There’s always a next step to take, there’s always progress to make. If your goals are incremental instead of all-or-nothing, you’ll always have the next goal within reach. You’ll always see yourself passing milestones, and that will give you the motivation to keep trudging along the road.

Track your progress. Write everything down. Keep track of your workouts. Track how long your worked in each session, track everything you did. Keep good notes. Give yourself hard data to follow, to see what’s working and to measure your progress.


Let’s Learn Some Shit About Sugar

Sugar is the generalized name for sweet, short-chain, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. They are carbohydrates, composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are various types of sugar derived from different sources. Simple sugars are called monosaccharide and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose and galactose. The table or granulated sugar most customarily used as food is sucrose, a disaccharide. (In the body, sucrose hydrolyses into fructose and glucose.) Other disaccharides include maltose and lactose. Longer chains of sugars are called oligosaccharides. Chemically-different substances may also have a sweet taste, but are not classified as sugars. Some are used as lower-calorie food substitutes for sugar described as artificial sweeteners.

Sugars are found in the tissues of most plants, but are only present in sufficient concentrations for efficient extraction in sugarcane and sugar beet. Sugarcane is any of several species of giant grass in the genus Saccharum that have been cultivated in tropical climates in South Asia and Southeast Asia since ancient times. A great expansion in its production took place in the 18th century, with the layout of sugar plantations in the West Indies and Americas. This was the first time that sugar became available to the masses, who previously had to rely on honey to sweeten foods. Sugar beet, a cultivated variety of Beta vulgaris, is grown as a root crop in cooler climates and became a major source of sugar in the 19th century, when methods for extracting the sugar became available. In a shit ton of ways, sugar production and trade have changed the course of human history. It influenced the formation of fucking colonies, the fucking perpetuation of slavery, the transition to indentured labour, the fucking migration of peoples, wars between sugar trade-controlling nations in the 19th century, and the fucking ethnic composition and political structure of the new world.

The world produced about 168 million fuck-tons of sugar in 2011. The average person consumes about 24 kilograms of sugar each year (33.1 kg in industrialized countries), equivalent to over 260 food calories per person, per day.

Since the latter part of the twentieth century, it has been questioned whether a diet high in sugars, especially refined sugars, is good for human health. Sugar has been linked to obesity, and suspected of, or fully implicated as a cause in the occurrence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, macular degeneration, and tooth decay. Numerous studies have been undertaken to try to clarify the position, but with varying results, mainly because of the difficulty of finding populations for use as controls that do not consume, or are largely free of any sugar consumption.

Glucose

Let’s get lay down some background shit about nutrition, so you’ll have a clearer conceptual framework to keep in mind as we proceed. “Nutrients” are the nutritious components in foods that an organism utilizes to survive and grow. Duh. “Macronutrients” provide the bulk energy for an organism’s metabolic system to function, while “micronutrients” provide the necessary cofactors for metabolism to be carried out. Both types of nutrients can be acquired from the environment (or in other words, from diet). Carbohydrates are a vital macronutrient (and remember that sugar is a generalized term for forms of carbohydrates.) Carbohydrates break-down quickly in a rapid digestive process and are thus quickly available to the body as energy. Consequently, sugar provides a quick metabolic spike—and consequently they are not a stable, long-lasting source of energy. You can easily understand this without needing to consider it in physiological terms. Imagine a kid who wolfed down too much candy: they go fucking wild with a sudden blaze of energy, and afterwards “crash,” and, like a switch has been flipped, become overtired. This is because the sugars they ingested quickly metabolize and become available to the body (and brain) as energy, and, just as quickly, the energy is burned up, the metabolic spike is over and is followed by metabolic depression (i.e., tiredness) if no other, “longer-burning” food energy has been ingested. Proteins and fats are the other two forms of macronutrients our bodies require from diet, and both provide more stable, longer-lasting energy as they are digested.
Glucose is a simple monosaccharide found in plants. It is one of the three dietary monosaccharides, along with fructose and galactose, that are absorbed directly into the bloodstream during digestion. It is an important carbohydrate in biology, which is indicated by the fact that cells use it as a secondary source of energy and a metabolic intermediate. In fact, that shit is used as an energy source in most organisms, from bacteria to humans. Use of glucose may be by either aerobic respiration, anaerobic respiration, or fermentation. Glucose is the human body’s key source of energy, through aerobic respiration, providing about 3.75 kilocalories of food energy per gram. Breakdown of carbohydrates (again, that’s sugars) yields mono- and disaccharides, most of which is glucose. Through glycolysis and later in the reactions of the citric acid cycle, glucose is oxidized to eventually form carbon dioxide and water, yielding energy sources, mostly in the form of ATP (adenosine-triphosphate. Look it up. It’s outside the scope of this article, but it’s fucking interesting.) The insulin reaction, and other mechanisms, regulate the concentration of glucose in the blood.

Glucose is a primary source of energy for the brain, so its availability influences psychological processes. When glucose is low, psychological processes requiring mental effort (e.g., self-control, judgment, decision-making, etc,) are impaired.

Misconceptions

Because sugar is such a general term, it’s natural that many people have only a vague idea of what it is and of its place in their diet. These vague ideas give rise to a lot of generalized misconceptions about it.

“Sugar is evil!” or “I don’t eat sugar,” are familiar slogans for people who follow conventional wisdom regarding healthy diet, and who simultaneously lack a very deep understanding of the term they are using. As a matter of fact, carbohydrates comprise the primary caloric (food-energy) content of plants, fruits and vegetables. A hypothetical person who takes a righteous pride in their healthy, sugar-free diet—who eats fruit for breakfast, a green smoothie for lunch, and sweet-potatoes for dinner—in actuality derives most of their food-energy over the course of the day from sugars.

A fact often cited by misguided proponents of a low-sugar (or, even more misguided, no-sugar) diet, is the fact that glucose in high concentrations in the bloodstream becomes toxic. The body deals with this, as mentioned above, by regulating the concentration through various mechanisms—including, notably, the insulin response. Insulin is a peptide hormone produced in the pancreas, which, among many other functions, serves to force the intake and storage of glucose in the liver, muscle cells, and adipose (fat) cells. This is a negative thing, low-sugar proponents claim, because the pancreas eventually becomes fatigued by the need for insulin-secretion and the body’s cells become gradually more insulin-resistant due to the increased levels of the hormone circulating in the bloodstream. Something to consider, before impulsively following this line of thinking, is that insulin-secretion is also stimulated by the metabolization of amino-acids—amino-acids are the building-blocks of proteins. Ergo, in healthy individuals there is a comparable increase of insulin secretion following the consumption of protein to that which follows the consumption of carbohydrates.

Another argument made against sugar, as mentioned above, is derived from the fact of glucose’s toxicity in high concentrations in the bloodstream. But, as Paracelsus said,

“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”

Glucose in high concentrations is poisonous, granted. So is water in high concentrations. So is oxygen. They are essential to survival, but in too high a concentration, they are toxic. That doesn’t mean that we should altogether avoid the intake of water and oxygen. It simply means we shouldn’t inundate the body with these chemicals in a greater quantity than it can effectively regulate and metabolize in the ways that are vital to the functioning its systems.

The takeaway from all this should not be that taking in copious amounts of sugar is healthy or that a fucking all candy-bar diet would be a good idea. Instead, the takeaway should be that sugar, carbohydrates, are an essential part of a healthful diet, and impulsively following prevalent fashions that state sugar is always “bad for you” is an extreme and misguided action. Closer consideration is needed; magazine articles and fad diets cannot provide you with adequate understanding to make truly informed dietary choices. Look deeper into the science. By default, be skeptical of health and diet gurus. Always consult the studies they cite—suspect them, until it is somehow proven to you that their information is valid—of “confirmation bias,” that is, a tendency to view the conclusions of the clinical research they reference in a way that lends the facts to the confirmation of whatever position they have already decided to hold on the topic. Rarely are things as black-and-white as they are presented in our popular ideas about food. Rarely are the answers as simple as they seem. Generally, if the answer appears to be final and does not allow for any exceptions to the rule, the answer is false.