Excess Carbohydrates Equals Lightheadedness and Fatigue

by Patrick Nemechek, D.O. on August 4, 2010

Introduction

Many people are familiar with the occasionally sensation of feeling light-headed when getting up out of bed or after bending over to pick up an item or tie their shoes. This lightheadedness can sometimes be accompanied by visual changes such as seeing black spots, burred vision or transient vertigo.

On occasion, the lightheadedness can be so extreme as to cause the individual to pass out completely; this is known as syncope. It is estimated that 20-30% of all adults will experience an episode of syncope sometime in their lifetime.

Although the brain represents only 3% of our body’s weight, the brain requires 25% of all our body’s energy, 20% of our oxygen supply and 20% of our blood blow. As you can see, the brain is very dependent on well-regulated blood flow. And when the blood flow to the brain decreases below our minimal needs, we can feel lightheaded as well as other symptoms associated with orthostatic hypotension.

Lightheadedness and Syncope 

Lightheadedness is most commonly due to a phenomenon known as orthostatic hypotension (OH). The symptoms of OH are due to a transient drop in a person’s blood pressure that occur quickly after standing and often last only a few seconds (20–30 seconds). The symptoms are most common when we stand after laying flat for a prolonged period of time such as when we sleep or after getting up from the sitting or squatting position.

Normally, our body’s blood pressure is regulated by the autonomic nervous system to maintain normal levels of blood flow to the brain in spite of rapid changes in body position. When our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is not functioning properly, our blood pressure mechanism does not work properly. If we can’t effectively regulate our brain’s blood pressure when we stand up, we experience a drop in blood flow to our brain that causes lightheadedness and other symptoms associated with OH..

Fatigue and Poor Concentration 

Lightheadedness and syncope are not the only symptoms related to OH. Sometimes the blood pressure changes are not extreme enough to cause lightheadedness or syncope but can cause more subtle and longer-lasting symptoms such as persistent fatigue, headaches, neck and shoulder pain, impaired balance, poor concentration. Sometimes individuals will crave for salt or processed sugars because eating these can temporarily improve a patient’s symptoms.

Patients may complain of feeling sleepy or tired after eating lunch, can have days of unexplained fatigue, periods of poor concentration, feel as if they are slow to wake up in the morning or have trouble concentrating when sitting for prolonged periods of time.

All of these scenarios are the result of inadequate blood flow to the brain resulting in poor function of our brain’s higher functioning.

Obesity, Insulin Resistance and Carbohydrates 

The increasing rate of obesity is associated with the growing incidence of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is the metabolic disturbance that causes a wide variety of medical problems such as type 2 Diabetes, Hypertension, abnormal cholesterol, heart disease and strokes, Sleep Apnea, many forms of cancer and Polycystic Ovarian Disease.

Insulin resistance was originally thought to be consequence of obesity but its cause seems to be more complicated than simply being overweight. Accumulating evidence suggests that insulin resistance is more the consequence of the type of foods we ate in excess while becoming overweight or obese than simply eating too many calories. More specifically, insulin resistance is caused mainly by the excess of carbohydrate consumption in our diet than to simply being overweight.

Growing evidence suggests the excessive intake of carbohydrates in the American diet is causing insulin resistance and the subsequent development of the dangerous medical conditions. Medical science has been partially correct believing obesity was associated with the development of insulin resistance and its associated medical complications. While obesity was associated with insulin resistance, it is not the cause of insulin resistance. The carbohydrates in our diet are the primary cause of both obesity and insulin resistance.

If carbohydrates are the primary cause of insulin resistance then why does weight loss improve insulin resistance as well as the lightheadedness, fatigue and occasional syncope associated with OH? The reason weight loss helps with these conditions is because people significantly reduce their carbohydrate intake when reducing their calorie intake when they are involved in a weight loss program.

I have many patients who have successfully treated their fatigue and lightheadedness while reducing their carbohydrate intake. Many of these patients didn’t loose a single pound but still had very significant improvement in their lightheadedness with carbohydrate reduction alone.

Countless studies demonstrate the ability of weight loss to reverse Diabetes, Hypertension, Sleep Apnea and the risk of stroke, heart disease and cancer. Again, what these countless studies were seeing was not the sole beneficial effects of weight reduction per say but the beneficial effects of reduced carbohydrate intake associated with a decrease in caloric intake that is necessary for weight loss.

When viewed in this respect, it’s easy to understand why some individuals at a normal weight still develop Hypertension, Diabetes or Heart Disease while some persons who are obese will not. The difference is the amount of carbohydrates certain individuals eat irrespective of their weight combined with a wide variety of genetic sensitivity to the ill effects of carbohydrates. It seems some people can eat more carbohydrates than others and not be harmed as much. This variation in genetic susceptibility is demonstrated with some families showing a greater number of family members with Diabetes or Hypertension.

 

Excess Carbohydrates Equals Lightheadedness and Fatigue

Blood pressure is maintained through a combination of adequate blood volume (mainly red blood cells, protein and salt water), normal heart rate and normal tone or contractibility of our blood vessels. Heart rate and blood vessel tone are regulated by a portion of your neurological system known as the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

The ANS is a neurological network connecting your brain, spinal column and nerves to every organ in your body. Because of this connectivity, the ANS helps regulate the function of every organ in your body. For example, the ANS is responsible for maintaining your blood pressure, helping your digestive tract to function correctly, assists in maintaining various hormonal levels in the body, helping our pupils to dilate and constrict, regulating your body temperature with the amount we sweat as well as coordinating bladder function.

Your ANS changes our blood pressure and heart rate to keep the amount of blood flowing to your brain at a consistent level. When you stand up, gravity tries to pull the blood from your head and torso down to the large arteries and veins of your legs. The body compensates by increasing the strength of contractions in our arteries and veins, this prevents the blood pressure in our brain from decreasing.

When the ANS is not working properly, the blood flow to our brain is often less than we require because our blood vessels do not constrict enough to counteract the forces of gravity when we stand up. This is known as Sympathetic Withdrawal and leads to pooling of blood in our lower extremities as well as a decrease of blood flow to the brain.

Eating a large meal can also cause you to feel tired or lightheaded because eating causes more blood to be diverted into the intestinal tract to aid in the process of digestion and absorption of the nutrients from the meal. Patients commonly complain of feeling tired after lunch and often interpret this as a drop in blood sugar.

The blood that is diverted into the intestinal tract reduces our brain’s blood flow because the normal compensatory mechanisms of the heart and blood vessels are not strong enough to make up the difference for the decreased loss of circulating blood volume. With poor ANS functioning, the normal increase in heart rate and blood vessel constriction does not occur as strongly as required and this results in a decrease in blood flow to the brain.

How Do Carbohydrates Harm Our Autonomic Nervous System? 

The precise mechanism of how excessive carbohydrate intake results in damage to the ANS system is not fully understood but evidence suggests that the high levels of carbohydrates in the typical American diet are in excess of a toxic threshold that the brain can tolerate. Another example of this is the excessive effects alcohol can have on our liver and hearts.

Many studies have shown that drink 1-2 alcoholic beverages such as wine per day is seemingly harmless to our health. But its common knowledge that drinking 1-2 bottles of wine per day more than likely will lead to cirrhosis (permanent loss of liver function) of the liver as well as damage to our heart muscle leading to a condition known as cardiomyopathy.

The growing amount of carbohydrates in the American diet over the last several decades has crossed a toxicity threshold in many individuals. The toxic excessiveness of carbohydrate consumption is resulting not only in the diseases associated with insulin resistance but is also damaging our autonomic nervous system.

Remember, the autonomic nervous system controls the function of all the organs in the body. And when the autonomic system is damaged and not functioning properly, we experience symptoms such as bloating, heart burn, lightheadedness, fatigue, excessive sweating, flushing of our skin, constipation as well as urinary frequency, urgency and incontinence.

How Many Carbohydrates Should We Eat? 

To answer this question we need to look the evolution of our Stone Age ancestors and the amount of carbohydrates they consumed. Scientific evidence suggests that our primitive ancestors ate a diet that consisted predominantly of animal tissue (protein and fat) and plants known as browsing foliage (dark green leafy plants).

During the Stone Age, carbohydrates were very uncommon in the wild and consisted of occasional roots, wild fruit or honey. A small amount of sugar known as glycogen is also present in uncooked animal muscle. Overall, the availability of carbohydrates was uncommon. Other than being on a tropical island, when was the last time you saw some fruit such as an apple or orange when walking in the woods? These foods do not grow commonly in the wild. They are cultivated plants that became more readily available after the agricultural revolution.

It is estimated that the average American now consumes more carbohydrates per day than our Stone Age ancestors consumed in a year. The amounts of carbohydrates available for human consumption didn’t begin to increase until the agricultural revolution (5,000 -10,000 years ago when man learned to grow grains such as wheat, barley and millet. The domestication of livestock and the consumption of livestock milk became an additional source of carbohydrates (milk sugars) as well.

But 10,000 years is a very small span of time from an evolutionary perspective. Although there may have been a few beneficial evolutionary mutation associated with protection from infectious diseases in the last 10,000 years, science has failed to convincingly demonstrate any adaptive genetic mutations that might have changed with the subsequent marked increase in carbohydrates in the human diet.

To put the evolutionary time span into perspective, if the entire span of human evolution is represented by a 100-yard football field, the last 10,000 years of the agricultural revolution would encompass only the final 1/4 inch of the entire 100-yard field. As you can see, 10,000 years is not a significant amount of time compared to the millions of years required for human evolution.

The point of this is to help you understand that we were designed through evolution to adapt to eating predominantly animal tissue (protein and fat) and low amounts of carbohydrates. We did not develop the metabolic ability to handle such large quantities of carbohydrates in our diet and our bodies are suffering because of it.

It is estimated that the average American consumes more carbohydrates in a day than our Stone Age ancestors consumed in a year. That’s why we are beginning to think the amounts of carbohydrates in our diet are having a toxic effect on our nervous system.

Neuroplasticity and Carbohydrate Reduction 

Neuroplasticity is a relatively new scientific concept that our neurological tissue has the ability to bend or recover from mild levels of insult or damage. Neuroplasticity means ‘nervous tissue’ that has the ability to ‘regain its function’ after being altered just as plastic regains it shape after being bent.

After a stroke, patients have the ability to regain some neurological function. After a nerve or the spinal column is damaged by an injury, remarkable degrees of recovery have been known to occur. The recovery in these cases may not be complete in severe cases but can often be complete with mild injuries to the nervous system.

After the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is damaged, it too shows a remarkable to recover from the toxic effects of excessive carbohydrates. I have many patients who have completely recovered from heartburn, erectile dysfunction, lightheadedness and urinary disturbances after reducing their carbohydrate intake.

A general exception to neuroplasticity of the ANS is in patients with long standing type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. In this circumstance, the nerves have been severely damaged by the toxic effects of excessively high blood sugar levels as well as the damaging effects of inflammation associated with insulin resistance. Fortunately, most patients who have worked at controlling their diabetes have a good chance at not experiencing the severe and irreversible ANS dysfunction I am speaking of.

How Many Carbohydrates Are Too Much? 

What should you reduce your total daily carbohydrate intake to? The average American diet now consists of 50-60% of calories from carbohydrates. Scientific studies suggest that you can greatly improved health if you reduce your carbohydrate intake to approximately 25% of your total daily caloric intake. This is equal to about 125 grams of carbohydrates per day for women and 150 grams per day for men.

First start by reducing the larger amounts of carbohydrates from your diet; start with the frequent servings of potatoes, rice and pasta and the sugar containing drinks. Replace these with more protein containing food items.

After a week or 2, count the grams of the remaining carbohydrates in your daily diets for a few days. They quickly begin to realize the massive volume of carbohydrates they were consuming on a regular basis.

Reducing your carbohydrate intake to 25% of your total caloric intake has a dramatic improvement in the diseases arising from insulin resistance as well as improving your neurological functioning. Your triglyceride and HDL cholesterol levels improve, your blood pressure will be greatly reduced and your blood sugar levels will normalize as your body’s response to insulin to improves.

Carbohydrate reduction has been calculated to have 6-8 times greater power of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease (strokes and heart attacks) than do the statin medications that are commonly prescribed to lower a persons LDL cholesterol levels. Why treat these conditions with potentially toxic medications when your can prevent and even reverse these conditions by simply reducing your carbohydrate intake.

Summary 

If you’re experiencing lightheadedness, fatigue or poor concentration, you can reduce or eliminate these symptoms through the simple reduction of carbohydrates in your diet. The improvement occurs slowly but steadily over a few to several weeks.

If you would like to learn more about how to reduce your carbohydrate intake and lose weight while your doing it, simply go to www.ScienceofHunger.com and download the free Science of Hunger Weight Loss Guide. It’s full of more information about protein, carbohydrates, insulin resistance and pointers on changing our diet.

And if you have learned something useful from this article, I urge you to pass it on to 1 or 2 of your friends and encourage them to not only improve their lightheadedness and fatigue but their overall health as well.

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