The saying “You are what you eat” can be mirrored by “You are what you drink”. In this case, I’m talking energy drinks, not booze. Earlier this year I spoke at a series of forestry breakfasts around the country. For the next five weeks we are travelling around NZ in our retro Chevy ambulance testing forestry crews using high-tech machines for blood tests and blood pressure. We are testing what is called HBA1C or glycosylated Haemoglobin.
This complicated name basically measures how sticky the red blood cells are and how your sugar intake and control has been over the last three months, as that’s how long a red blood cell lives. That is also the time elapsed since I did the forestry breakfasts. One crew decided after seeing photos of damaged retinas because of uncontrolled diabetes to ban fizzy drinks at work. The retina is at the back of the eye and has many small blood vessels. High blood sugar levels damage the small vessels in the eye, the kidney and the feet, they leak and you can go blind.
As many of these crew’s relatives have died from type 2 diabetes they have a strong family history of the disease so they have a special cause for concern. While some admitted going sugar-free was hard, others found it easier. In a forestry crew of 10 we would normally expect to find three or four people with type 2 diabetes or what is called pre-type 2 diabetes. If your HBA1C is less than 40mmol/l you get a green light, between 40 and 50 mmol/l in our KYND wellness app gives you an orange light while more than 50mmol/l earns a red light.
Like watching the Lotto numbers roll out, the first five people we tested had green lights, and all had banned fizzy drinks from work and home. We did get an orange light; the warning light was on for pre-type 2 diabetes. When questioned, the individual admitted to having a few sneaky energy drinks at home.
The word energy drink is a misnomer as the energy aka sugar is short lived. As the sugar pulses into your blood stream the cells in the pancreas squeeze out insulin, driving sugar into the body’s cells and storing energy as fat. Blood sugar levels then drop markedly, making you fatigued and hungry. Not a good combination when logging, driving or operating heavy machinery. More and more insulin is required to fight the energy drinks and eventually your pancreas burns out and you have type 2 diabetes and the complications that go with it.
So, the self-imposed work ban on energy drinks can only be a good thing. The crew’s boss has taken it on himself to check the rubbish to see how the compliance is going and that a few fines aren’t being missed, which they aren’t. The blood tests, while confidential, light up in relation to sugar intake and control. There is no hiding from yourself when the warning lights come on reflecting non-work sugar intake.
Next time you visit your doctor see if you are at risk of type 2 diabetes and possibly get your HBA1C checked. We have tested thousands of people around NZ over the past few years and have detected dozens of undiagnosed type 2 diabetics in the workplace and hundreds with pre-type 2 diabetes. What’s your risk?
Dr Tom Mulholland is an Emergency Department doctor and GP with more than 25 years’ experience in New Zealand. He’s currently on a mission, tackling health missions around the world.