Sugar: When Nectar Becomes Poison

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati MB, BS (Syd.)

White sugar is probably the purest and simplest of all well-known edible substances. It is said to be 'pure' sucrose, because it consists of only one kind of molecule - sucrose. Yet it is far from pure in the sense of being a natural product, for the same processes that go into manufacturing petrol for your car are applied to natural sugar in order to make the white crystals you use at the table. Just as white heroin powder is the 'pure' extract from poppy seeds, so white sugar is the pure extract from cane or sugar beet.

Sugar originally came from India. When he invaded India in 325 BC, Alexander the Great found a crude, dark brown substance called jaggery, (gour), which is still used today. Jaggery spread to Japan and China, then to the Middle East. From there European crusaders took it to the Canary Islands, and it was from here that Christopher Columbus took sugar cane to Europe. Europeans processed all the goodness out of natural sugar, leaving only the super-sweet, artificially white crystals, which have since become popular throughout the world.

Sugar is a drug

In Biblical times sugar was used in small quantities by Arab and Jewish doctors as a drug. They regarded it as more potent than alcohol. Today sugar is again being recognised as a drug, just like heroin.

Whenever we consume any substance, the body must make internal adjustments in order to break it down into its usable components and to eliminate toxic elements. Certain enzymes are manufactured, hormone secretions are altered, there are changes in organs such as the liver and in the composition of the blood. Every time that a substance is taken the same cycle of internal chemical reactions takes place and continued use reinforces this cycle, or 'metabolic pathway'. With addictive drugs like alcohol or even caffeine, this pathway becomes fixed. There are permanent changes in body chemistry, such that we must take this drug in order to maintain normal bodily activity. If we stop, then the body sends a sharp protest to the brain and we experience intense desire or craving for that drug. We may experience pain and illness as the drug pathway breaks down and a new internal balance is established. This is not only true of heroin, but also of refined white sugar. Although we do not think of it as such, white sugar is a drug and most people are sugar addicts.

If you do not think this applies to you, then make a record of how much sugar you eat in one day. Don't forget that there is not only sugar in your tea or in sweets, but also in jams, fizzy drinks, cakes, pastries, baby foods and most canned products from puddings to meat and vegetables. Try to cut out sugar from your life and see how soon the craving begins. In our sugar-restricted ashram, many people feel the pinch, and cravings for sweets appear soon after newcomers arrive. In time this passes, but new aspirants have a slightly painful experience that makes it very clear that their bodies are addicted to sugar.

Today the average American eats over 100 pounds of sugar per year, and this, together with fat, makes up two-thirds of his diet. Unfortunately this trend has become world-wide.

Sugar refining

Sugar is extracted from sugarbeet or, more often, from cane. Sugar cane is a variety of grass that thrives in tropical climates and can grow as high as twenty feet. After harvesting, the cane is shredded and crushed to extract the juice. This is clarified with lime to remove impurities and the residue is boiled until a mixture of crystals and syrup is formed. These are separated into:

  • syrup or molasses, which is further refined into treacle and golden syrup.
  • crystals of 'raw sugar'. This is the brown sugar preferred by naturalists and health food advocates.

However, we should not be misled; this 'raw sugar' is already ninety-six percent sucrose. The other four percent is only water, inverted sucrose, dirt and sugar lice. This raw sugar is then cleaned and polished, giving white crystals that are completely devoid of health giving nutrients.

Sugar in the body

Carbohydrates are energy producing foods, and so are an essential part of our diet. White sugar is a carbohydrate, but is not our only source of energy. Honey, fruit, vegetables and all grains (especially rice) contain natural sugar together with many other vital elements essential for health. The tragedy is that as people eat more sugar, which has taste and energy value but nothing else, they eat less of these other carbohydrate foods and so deprive themselves of important nutrients. They are actually suffering from malnutrition as a result of addiction to sugar.

The level of sugar in our blood must be kept constant. This requires expenditure of energy and work by the body. When we eat natural carbohydrates these substances are gradually and slowly broken down by the processes of digestion and then enter the blood stream. The level does not rise excessively and can be easily handled by the body.

If we bombard our system with excess sugar we quickly raise our blood glucose level. This places a demand and stress on the body. The pancreas must release more insulin and at just the right time. A healthy body copes with this situation with no trouble at all. However, constant use of large amounts of refined sugar eventually causes the body to become unbalanced and diseased. The effects are lethargy, tiredness, inability to concentrate, adrenal gland dysfunction and diabetes. It is excessive, continued and prolonged use of sugar which leads to this situation.

Lethargy results from imbalance in the endocrinal glands which affects the chakras and the pranic level in our bodies. Strain on the pancreas and adrenal glands is registered by the gland controlling nervous and endocrine systems. One master endocrine gland, the pituitary, adjusts the other endocrine glands accordingly and thus the whole system is affected by this stress. Inefficient breathing is also a cause of lethargy, because oxygen is needed to burn up glucose for energy. If there is not enough oxygen the glucose energy cycle will produce large amounts of waste acids such as lactic acid and pyruvic acid. These acids create muscle and joint pains and stiffness. We tire and feel fatigue more easily.

Too much is dangerous

Anything in excess is detrimental to health of body and mind. So it is with refined sugar. Today research is proving the link between sugar and illnesses such as headache, skin disease, acidity, tooth decay, obesity and diabetes. Sugar consumption has also been implicated in such deadly diseases as coronary heart disease, circulatory disorders and cancer.

How much refined sugar can we safely eat? Is a little, too much? One thing is certain, 100 pounds of sugar per year is too much. Each individual must use his awareness and discretion in deciding how much sugar can be taken, and this awareness is refined through yogic techniques.

The amount of sugar consumed by each person will vary from day to day and according to individual need. Some people eat no sugar at all. In this ashram we consume approximately four teaspoons per day, divided between two cups of black tea, and we eat sweets only rarely. To decide what is a healthy amount of sugar, we must first understand the following points:

  1. Excess sugar is not healthy.
  2. We do not need to eat refined sugar, but we want to. We can get carbohydrates from natural produce such as honey, fruits and grains.
  3. It may not be healthy to completely remove all sugar from our diet. Many of us have experienced cravings for sugar in one form or another, and suppression of these urges can create neurosis. The point to keep in mind is that it is not the occasional indulgence that kills us, but the daily bad habits, which insidiously build up and poison our system.

Thus we suggest that you become aware of just how much sugar you use daily; the number of spoons of sugar in each cup of tea, how many sweets, how much cake, how much sugar in its hidden forms. Add up the amount and ask yourself whether you are indulging yourself or not. Some people do not care about their health until it is too late. Then, when they contract diabetes or some other disease they repent and seek help. Prevention is better than cure.

Yoga is the ideal system to help in this situation as it prescribes asanas which help balance the endocrine glands, and which massage the internal organs removing waste acids and other impurities. Pranayama gives the body extra oxygen to burn up excess glucose, plus impurities. Techniques such as the shatkarmas help to remove diabetes by cleaning the whole digestive tract, by resting the glands and associated structures and by infusing prana. Yoga is therefore an excellent way to overcome the bad effects of sugar.

In yoga, you do not have to give up your indulgences; just become aware of them, their effect on you and your needs, cravings and desires. Regular practice of yoga will increase your awareness and discriminative faculties to the point where your life balances out to a natural, harmonious and healthy level. Sugar consumption will then be regulated naturally according to your need. At the same time some of the bad effects will be eliminated while the good effects are enjoyed.