The term "Essential Sugars" seems to be a bit of an oxymoron when it comes to a discussion of nutrition and health.
After all, how can a substance like sugar, which gets the blame for many modern health issues, be considered essential, much less, healthy?
Well, according to one Medical Doctor, the discovery of the roles that complex sugars play in the support and functioning of our body, represents "the greatest breakthrough in medicine since the discovery of penicillin".
Who would ever imagine that sugar would become the next frontier in biological science? In fact, this area of study has grown so fast that it has been bestowed with the official title, "Glycobiology".
"Glyco" means sugar and, of course, "biology" is the study of life. So this relatively new science deals with the study of sugars in life. Thus is was that a class of sugars became "essential sugars".
In reality, "glycology" has been alive and well and growing rapidly for the last 38 years or so. It is often referred to as glycomics.
The big discovery that gave impetus to this emerging science was in how certain cells of the immune system communicate and the role that certain essential sugars play in cell structure and function.
Essential sugars are nutraceuticals, that is, a nutritional substance that seems to have health bestowing properties. Ongoing research in numerous university glycobiology research facilities could lead one to believe that complex polysaccharides and oligosaccharides will have a huge role in the future of natural health.
The whole foundation of natural health is that the body can build, defend, repair, regenerate, regulate, reproduce and heal itself if it is given the right tools; meaning the right nutrition.
If so, why does it seem to have such a problem in doing all those things? One reason may be that we are immersed in environmental toxins, under constant stress, take too many medications, and consume food deficient in many essential nutrients. The body is not getting "the right tools" to do the job.
And that is where the essential sugars, come in.
Let's be very clear that we are not talking about the simple, refined sugar that we put in our coffee and tea or sprinkle on our cereal. We are talking about complex sugars known as polysaccharides and oligosaccharides.
To further close in on the subject, we know there are over 200 sugars occurring naturally in nature but we are concerned with eight or nine specific bio-active sugars.
The term "essential sugars" could be up for debate since the body can make some of the sugars from other carbohydrate building blocks, at least for a short period of time; more on that to follow.
By the way, carbohydrates are another name for sugars and the term may be used interchangeably herein as required by the content.
The essential sugars are a class of major nutrients that have been among the missing, AWOL, at least until 14 years ago.
Carbohydrates and especially compounds from the Aloe Vera plant had been under study at least since 1952 when a study was published detailing how fresh aloe gel healed radiation burns on rabbits but aged gel didn't.
By 1970 glycobiology was becoming a recognized science and 500 papers on the subject had been published.
By 1980 that number had grown to 1500 and by 1990, had hit 4000. That same year Oxford University in England published their Journal of Glycobiology.
By 1992 the active substance in the Aloe Vera was isolated
and it turned out to be a bio-active sugar. More specifically, it was an acetylated polymer which was given the name acemannan by the U.S. Adopted Names Council.
The problem was that acemannen was a very delicate substance; it lost its efficacy in the presence of oxygen and sunlight. It took a full 40 years after the first radiation study on rabbits to find a way to stabilize acemannen and give it a "shelf life".
In 1994 the discoveries being made in glycobiology began to be commercialized and in 1996 a nutritional supplement based on the Aloe Vera research was brought to market. From there, the numbers and brands of products containing extracts of aloe vera gel have grown dramatically.
Processing of the gel is critical in that it is delicate and rapidly loses its efficacy when removed from the plant.
In 1996 Dr. Robert K. Murray wrote the definitive chapter on Glycoproteins for Harper's Biochemistry focusing on eight sugars necessary for cellular communication. The 28th edition is in print and you can have your own copy from Amazon.com by clicking the banner link below.
By the year 2000, over 8000 papers on glycobiology had been published. As of 2010-11, who knows what the count is up to but a google search on "glycobiology" now yields almost half a million hits.
The year 2001 was a very good year for glycobiology; Dr. Emil Mandoa published his landmark book, "Sugars That Heal" and the March 23rd issue of Science magazine featured "Carbohydrates and Glycobiology" discussing the functional and structural uses of eight critical sugars in cellular physiology.
Dr. John Axford, M.D. and past president of the Royal Society of Medicine wrote on the importance of the sugars in "The Impact of
Glycobiology on Medicine" in Trends in Immunology, Vol 22, No. 5 May of 2001; and the NIH granted $34 million to a consortium of universities to study cell-to-cell interactions relative to glycobiology.
More important articles were published throughout 2002 and by 2003; yahoo listed over 63,000 entries for mannose, and in 2005 Google had 324,600 entries for glycobiology and glycoscience.
OK, as a teaser, here's two reasons why getting a daily input of essential sugars is vital.
First is that the 100 billion neurons in our body require an insulating cover on those nerve's axons. That insulation, called a myelin sheath, is composed of 80% fat and 20% protein.
The 80% fat is a glycolipid and galactocerebroside. Those are complex molecules of fat and sugars, joined to produce the myelin that wraps around every nerve's axon. Know what characterizes multiple sclerosis?
It's a breakdown of the myelin sheath. If we don't get enough of the essential sugar to build the insulation, might we be setting the stage for MS?
Second is that the surface of every cell is covered with structures composed of one or more of the bio-active sugars combined with a protein or lipid backbone. Under a scanning electron microscope, those structures look like a forest of branching trees extending from the cell surface.
The function of those structures (glycoforms) is to identify invading organisms, mutated cells and toxins and to communicate with (signal) the immune system to come dispose of the threats.
What if we don't get enough essential sugar to build those glycoforms? Might we be setting the stage for all types of threats to go unrecognized and cause all types of disease and damage to our health?
There are many, many more reasons to have bio-active sugars included in our daily diet as will be covered in the following sections.
Looking back, the fact that an innocuous sugar from the gooey gel of a fleshy, water retaining succulent plant had health benefits was startling enough. But researchers reasoned that if there was one sugar that healed, maybe there was more.
A few more years of research and experimentation revealed that there are eight unique, actually nine, sugars that the body combines with proteins and fats to build structures (glycoproteins and glycolipids) having critical functions within the body.
Years of research conducted by J. C. Spencer, CEO of the Endowment for Medical Research, brought the ninth sugar, Trehalose, to the forefront.
Photo: Glycoforms on cell surface
It took quite a few years for the importance of the discovery to sink in since the traditional thinking was that sugars were used for energy production in the cell; period, end of story.
This very shortsighted view still persists today in some circles in spite of a huge body of contradictory evidence.
Consider that Dr. James Lind, a ships surgeon in the Royal Navy published his Treatise on the Scurvy in 1753 showing the relationship between a lack of fresh fruit and scurvy.
It wasn't until 43 years later that the Royal Navy accepted Lind's findings and started putting fresh limes aboard their ships. The attitude of, "by God, I know what I know and facts aren't going to change me", still infects too many people who should know better. Pure Arrogance!
The simplest explanation of how essential sugars work is to swallow them, either in natural food or by supplementation. They are absorbed into the blood stream through the intestinal tract and carried to every cell in the body.
Within the cell, organelles take the various sugars and produce structures called glycoforms on the cell surface. These glycoforms can be thought of as antennas by which cells communicate with each other.
When everything is working right, the cells have the ability to differentiate between invading bacteria, viruses, mutated cells, toxins and the body's own cells. When an invader or damaged cell is detected that needs to be destroyed, the appropriate defenders in the immune system are summoned to take care of the problem.
The eight sugars we have been referring to and which have proven to have huge implications for how the body works are:
The last three in the list are called acetylated glyconutrients because the sugar part of the substance is attached to acetic acid, as in vinegar. The addition of the acetic acid gives them some unique health benefits as opposed to the other five.
The problem arises from the fact that it has been shown that most of the aforementioned sugars are missing in today’s modern diet. The sugars are relatively delicate and can be damaged or depleted from commercial food processing, particularly heating and the addition of preservatives.
Our bodies need all of these sugars but the problem is that only two, Glucose and Galactose, are abundant in our modern diets.
Photo: Eight essential sugars: six missing
While these sugars are deemed essential, our bodies do have the ability to make the missing sugars for short periods of time and under emergency conditions. Biological manufacture of these sugars from glucose is not part of the master plan of our bodies, at least not as an ongoing activity.
The science behind a new development is always good to know but it's all pointless unless we can put that science and knowledge to some practical purpose. Is making sure that the body receives all the nutrients it needs to perform its many functions in the best possible manner a good enough purpose?
Since their discovery, essential sugars and the breakthroughs in glycobiology research have been commercialized into a number of specific formulations available on the market as "dietary supplements" and an incredible amount of research funded by the pharmaceutiacal industry is underway to create a new class of sugar based drugs.
Without getting into product names or brand names, the applications of bio-active sugars to our personal health fall into three distinct categories.
First is that the early research on gooey Aloe Vera gel and its essential sugars, and techniques in refining and handling them, have evolved into a variety of products available in all sorts of packaging.
It is the essential sugars by which cells communicate with each other. If communication breaks down, health breaks down.
Second is that certain of the essential sugars have been combined with other natural nutrients, herbs and phytosterols to support the endocrine system.
Third is that the essential sugars have been combined with certain vitamins and phytonutrients to produce various powerful antioxidants.
If the body can't rid itself of free radicals, it will literally "rust" away, resulting it a whole host of health issues...autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases and degenerative health issues.
In addition to the three general applications described above, essential sugars have been incorporated into numerous supplements from many sources and focused on every specific issue imaginable.
The one caveat when buying any dietary supplement is to do your research on the manufacturer, the ingredients, how those ingredients are obtained, quality control, manufacturing practices and labeling. If rigorous controls are not maintained, the buyer could end up with a worthless, degraded product or worse.
Also beware of any manufacturer or seller making outlandish cure, mitigation, prevention or treating any disease or health condition. First of all such claims are illegal unless backed up by clinical studies and approved by the FDA and the fact is that very, very few dietary supplements have such FDA approval.
The reasons are that the approval process is extremely expensive and since dietary supplements are usually made from natural ingredients found in nature, they cannot be patented almost guaranteeing that the manufacturer would never recoup their investment.
All we can do is hope that the FDA will one day wake up and realize that supplements really do some amazing things for the human body and stop trying to lump them in with drugs.
Now let's get back to the science and current state of research in the field of glycobiology.
Past and ongoing research is continually updating the available information on how the body uses plant carboghydrates to maintain proper communication, structure, protection and adhesion.
It is through cellular communications that our body is able to function normally and essential sugars play a key role. For health and proper immune response, cell-to-cell communication is needed to identify invading organisms such as bacteria, viruses and parasites.
Immune cells also need to be able to identify mutated cells in order to isolate and destroy them before they grow into a tumor.
It is also good if immune cells can distinguish between the invading cells and self cells or those that are part of our body. Failure to communicate in this area is the source of autoimmune diseases.
The first discovery was that the essential sugars are used by the body for intercellular, or cell-to-cell communication. The first implication of proper cellular communication is in immunology.
The sugars are bound to protein "backbones" that protrude from the cell like a miniature forest.
These external cellular glycoforms have specific patterns that are recognized by other cells in the body while invading cells, or non-body cells have different sugar combinations that are not recognized by the body's own cells.
This allows the foreign cells to be tagged for elimination by the immune system. While the structure of nerve cells is different from other body cell types, receptors in the synapse (the communicating end of a nerve cell) have specific sugar "codes" that are only activated by the appropriate neurotransmitters if constructed properly.
Four of the most prevalent autoimmune diseases are multiple sclerosis, diabetes, fibromyalgia and asthma and allergies.
If the immune system attacks the body's pancreas cells we have diabetes; if the target is connective tissue it is lupus; if nerve cells, we have MS; attacks on the digestive tract are Crohn's disease.
In each case we have an overactive immune system that has lost the ability to distinguish friend from foe. There is some controversy here in that some researchers believe that if the immune system is up-regulated, it would make any autoimmune disease even worse. Thus there is one camp that vigorously opposes the intake of these sugars for anyone with an autoimmune disease.
On the other hand, research shows that the essential sugars do not always up-regulate; they modulate. In other words, if the immune system is underperforming, then it would be up-regulated; if it is overactive, then it would be down-regulated. In either case, the inter-cellular communication would be enhanced.
Blood typing is another area where the sugars are vital. The only difference between blood types is the presence or absence of one of the sugar molecules.
Type "O" is changed to Type "A" by the addition of one molecule of N-acetylgalactosamine; and is changed to Type "B" by adding one galactose molecule. (See diagram below)
Try mixing up blood types in a transfusion for example and the body will quickly know it is not getting the right blood. The results can be life threatening, possibly fatal.
Essential sugars also have a key role in the proper functioning of insulin receptors, antibody binding with pathogens (bacteria, viruses, allergens, and anything else that doesn't belong), and even the joining of a sperm cell and ovum in reproduction depends on the presence of the sugars.
Glycoforms are critical in the building of many body structures. Connective tissue needs various bio-active essential sugars as building blocks to bind connective structure to bone as well as slow the spread of pathogens.
Many people supplement with chondroitin and glucosamine for good joint health, both of which are polysaccharide structures.
Glutathione is an antioxidant used by the body to combat free radicals that can damage healthy tissue. It is utilized more effectively in the presence of certain essential sugars but it can't be supplemented directly.
Another vital function is the transport of protein and a saccharide component of the transport proteins binds the package and determines its destination.
Essential sugars have a crucial role to play in keeping invading organisms out of the body. Cell membrane sugars can block viruses and bacteria from binding to and penetrating the cell.
In addition they are used in the circulatory system where they also bind to pathogens thus preventing penetration.
If located on the outer cell surface, essential sugars can act as a barrier, protecting the cell from the environment.
For example, they can block the adhesion of toxins and foreign invaders while allowing nutrients and harmless molecules to bind and absorb in the mucosal lining of the GI tract.
To expand on adhesion, there is direct linkage between essential sugars and platelet aggregation or clotting and restoring stability of tissue.
One saccharide structure called heparin is important in halting the clotting cascade. Clotting is necessary to stem bleeding but a deficiency in heparin can lead to hypercoagulation, blocking vessels and leading to stroke or heart attack.
Most current research is clinical in nature. The objective is to discover the inner workings of essential sugars in specific disease pathologies in normal function of the body's systems.
The flip side is to discover what structures, or glycoconjugates, do not get assembled properly and various classes of disease result. One set of defective glycoforms are inherited and are called Congenital Disorders of Glycosylation and are responsible for yet another set of pathologies.
Deficiencies or changes in glycoconjugates are suspected in the onset of numerous diseases, some of which are the leading cause of death.
Many inflammatory disorders have been linked to either a deficiency of essestial sugars or sending false inflammation signals. Inflammation is closely linked to autoimmune disease.
Essential sugars have a role in the identification of mutated cells in the body. Without such identification and marking, the immune system is handicapped in disposing of them. Even a healthy human body produces many mutated, damaged or deformed cells on a daily basis which are disposed of by the immune system in the normal course of events.
If the immune system fails to dispose of mutated cells there is the chance that they will replicate and possibly begin their growth to a full blown tumor. Faulty glycoconjugate construction is being investigated as a possible cause of the failure of immune cells to recognize cancer.
Many other disease conditions are being studied in conjunction with saccharide deficiencies or improperly constructed glycoforms. Such diseases include cardiovascular disease, allergies, neurological conditions, hypersensitivity and gastrointestinal tract disorders.
Since much, if not most, of the clinical research is funded by
pharmaceutical companies, the focus of the studies are to find
ways to synthesize these natually occuring sugars so as to incorporate them into therapeutic drugs and thus become patentable.
Over the last few years, every university worth its salt has established a glycobiology research department. Worldwide, very deep scientific courses on glycobiology and glycomics are appearing in the curricula of most major universities. Just a few are listed below:
In conjunction with the establishment of the science in universities and research institutes, Glycobiology Associations and conferences are springing up every year. A short list of glycobiology and glycomics
conferences since 2003 are shown below:
A quick internet search on "glycobiology conferences" will show that such events are scheduled or in the planning stages for every coming year into the forseeable future.
Earlier we said that by 2000, there had been over 8000 scientific papers published on glycobiology and related subjects. The trend continues unabated with the number of research papers increasing exponentially. Each conference such as those listed above generates a multitude of new research papers.
A cadre of giants have emerged in the field with more and more researchers coming on the scene every year. These are the giants upon whose shoulders future researchers will stand. Their names appear with regularity as key speakers and presenters on conference agendas; names like:
...and many others.
Dr. Gerald Hart is well known for his quote in the NewScientist article "Sugar Rush" (vol 176 issue 2366, 26 Oct. 2002, p.34) as, "We won't understand immunology, neurology, developmental biology or disease until we get a handle on glycobiology"
Drs. Ajit Varki, Richard Cummings, Jeffrey Esko, Hudson Freeze, Gerald Hart and Jamey Marth co-edited the Essentials of Glycobiology, the first work of its kind, providing an ideal entry into the field.
It's a massive work with numerous contributors and a most comprehensive table of contents. You can order your very
own copy by clicking the link below but don't fall over from sticker shock, at least for a new book.
Since the sugars listed above have not been through the New Drug Application process and are not FDA approved drugs, it may be a thin-ice situation to talk about the health benefits of natural polysaccharides.
It is important to realize that a cure claim is not the same as a health claim. Broccoli, carrots, blueberries and apples aren't FDA approved drugs either yet they all have proven health benefits but they are not allowed to present themselves as cures for cancer, diabetes, HIV or any other disease.
So when we discuss the health benefits of essential sugars, we are not saying they heal, cure, treat or mitigate any disease. They work on the function and structure of body's systems and do not target a specific virus, bacteria, mutated cell or any disease causing pathogen.
The difference is crucial. Drugs are medicines, actually poisons that have healing benefits with proper dosage. The bioactive sugars are food and support life.
From the foregoing, it is pretty clear that we cannot get all the essential sugars from food. In order to ensure that we have all we need in our diet, supplementation is mandatory.
The quality among competing brands of products vary widely, mostly depending on the manufacturing processes of the manufacturer and source of the raw material.
At the risk of being redundant, once again be advised that essential sugars, as with all supplements, are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, prevent or mitigate any disease condition and none of the statements about these sugars have been approved by the FDA. This statement should appear on the label of any legitimate nutritional supplement.
Do not try to self-medicate with these essential sugars; always seek the advice of a qualified medical practitioner for any disease or health challenge.
The underlying belief about dietary supplements is that they are designed to replace certain nutrients that are missing in today's diet and thus give the body the tools that it needs to restore proper structure and function.
As a side note, nutritional supplements and herbs should not be lumped into the same box. In general people take nutritional supplements for support of various bodily functions and maintenance of health.
On the other hand, most people taking herbal remedies are looking for a natural cure which is why herbals are called "herbal remedies" and not dietary supplements.
We have not completely answered the question as to why there are deficiencies of the essential sugars. Which in turn result in there not being enough glycoconjugates to do the job or improper construction of some glycoforms.
Research has shown that every cell of the body needs these essential sugars in order to function properly but the problem stems from our food supply and modern diet that is extremely lacking in six of these particular bio-active sugars.
The deficiency of essential sugars in our commercially grown food stem primarily from depleted soil, early (green) harvesting, food processing and preservatives.
Earlier, we alluded to the fact that the body can produce the missing essential sugars from glucose using a backup system. The problem is that the process requires a very long chain of enzymatic reactions and needs a lot of energy to drive the process.
Mounting evidence suggests that breakdowns in the process are the cause of many disease conditions. If such a breakdown occurs, and dietary sources are not available, deficiencies will occur.
Vitamin deficiencies, stress, illness and aging are common causes of the breakdown in the enzymatic chain of events needed to produce the sugars needed to make the glycoforms.
The bottom line of all this is that we cannot get all the essential sugars we need from our food and we cannot rely on our body's backup system to make them for us.
The easiest and most logical solution is supplementation. If you agree, then do your homework, research, evaluate and decide which product is best for you. As the drug advertisements all say, "ask your doctor". Yes, you could do that but chances are you will get a blank stare since your doctor probably won't have a clue what you are asking about. In time, that will surely change.
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