Recently I was enjoying a performance of Mary Poppins in which one of my students was playing the role of Mrs. Banks. Halfway through the first act I started to get a bit of a headache in my temple and my eyes started becoming painfully sensitive to the light, especially when the gentleman started to record and the bright screen of his smart phone assaulted my eyes. This was the all too familiar beginning of a flare up of uveitis. Uveitis is an inflammation of the iris and membrane surrounding the eye. This led to a sleepless night in emergency to get the proper medication. There was a time in my life that the frequency of flare-ups got up to 2 or 3 a year. The treatment requires an aggressive course of prednisone eye drops. Now this all stopped about six years ago when I cleaned up my diet going plant-strong and sugar-free. In fact, all my inflammatory issues went away after that.
So why the flare up now? In my opinion it was a combination of two things. First, I had a virus a few weeks ago. The second was that I consumed sugar. I didn’t mean to. I had a rehearsal to go to and popped into the organic health food store to pick up some Zinc Lozenges. Only later did I discover that they contained sugar - after I used the whole package over the next couple of days. Then there were the couple of glasses of very sweet sherry at a party. It all adds up.
Now the uveitis wasn’t the only thing that flared up with my unsettled immune system. I also got a mouth full of canker sores. Another recurring problem before I changed my diet. Not pleasant when you’re trying to sing.
Ok, the virus – sugar connection may just be a correlation and not necessarily causation, but I have been meaning to write about sugar for a while and this really brought it to mind.
So let’s talk sugar. There has been a lot of buzz about sugar in the last few years and more and more scientific evidence piling up about the health risks of sugar consumption. One of the things that is coming to light in study after study is that sugar and refined carbs like white flours cause inflammation in the body. (Carbs contain fructan, which are chains of fructose, so when they hit your blood stream they are another source of fructose). They increase the production of c-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker in the blood.
Inflammation can be a natural response to acute injury to clear away the cause of injury, dead cells and to promote the healing process. However, chronic inflammation is another condition altogether. There have been some well known diseases of inflammation such as asthma, Crohn’s disease, arthritis, Ulcerative colitis; well basically anything ending in –itis means it’s an inflammatory condition. However, long-term chronic inflammation has now been linked to many diseases including Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, cancer, acid reflux, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.
Now that’s not the only problem with sugar. Sugar is also suspected of causing an upset in the appetite hormones leptin and ghrelin, which regulate satiety and hunger respectively. Sugar can cause leptin resistance, so that your brain will not get the message that you are full and can cause you to overeat.
Then there is the blood sugar issue. When highly refined sugar foods are consumed they make their way quickly into the blood stream for a blood sugar spike. The liver has to work overtime to convert the fructose into glucose, the body’s main source of energy. When there is more sugar than needed to meet current energy requirements it is sent to storage and becomes fat. Your body also overproduces insulin to take that sugar out of the blood and over does it on shuttling the glucose off to cells. This causes you to experience a sugar crash, that feeling of low energy.
This low energy can lead to more sugar consumption to give you a boost and, in fact, sugar also affects the brain by stimulating pleasure centers in the brain the same way hard drugs such as heroin do. This can actually lead to sugar addiction.
So if you find yourself unable to kick the refined sugar and refined carb habit, it really may not be your fault. There is also a huge lack of education on the effects of sugar. It is pervasive in our diets without our even knowing. Almost all processed foods contain a refined sugar or wheat product. The World Health Organization recommends no more than 10 gram of sugar a day in adults, yet the average American is consuming 35 gram of sugar a day. If you’ve been sugar-free like me for an extended time, you may not be able to tolerate even small amounts of sugar as your body now sees it as a foreign invader.
As a singer who cares about your health and the care of your instrument it would be advised to minimize if not completely eliminate refined sugar and carbs from your diet. If you suffer from any inflammatory conditions it may be critical that you do eliminate it. Aside from overall health, which every singer should be concerned with, conditions of particular concern to singers that can affect performance can include acid reflux, canker sores, irritable bowel syndrome and irritable bowel disease.
Now all these effects are not found in fruit, even though fruit also contains fructose. The whole food matrix of fiber and phytonutrients slows down the absorption of fructose through the intestinal wall, so there is no excessive blood sugar spike, no over production of insulin, no fat storage, no overtaxed liver and no inflammation.
So next time you are at a post performance reception, steer clear of all the pastries and desserts. Satisfy your craving for something sweet by seeking out the fruit platter instead.
If you are interested in learning more about eliminating sugar from your diet or just want to be part of a community of singers who take their health seriously, then join the FREE Diva's Ditch the Sugar 5-Day Detox.