Carbohydrates have six major functions within the body:
- Providing energy and regulation of blood glucose
- Sparing the use of proteins for energy
- Breakdown of fatty acids and preventing ketosis
- Biological recognition processes
- Flavor and Sweeteners
- Dietary fiber
Providing energy and regulating blood glucose
Glucose is the only sugar used by the body to provide energy for its tissues. Therefore, all digestible polysaccharides, disaccharides, and monosaccharides must eventually be converted into glucose or a metabolite of glucose by various liver enzymes. Because of its significant importance to proper cellular function, blood glucose levels must be kept relatively constant.
Among the enormous metabolic activities the liver performs, it also includes regulating the level of blood glucose. During periods of food consumption, pancreatic beta cells sense the rise in blood glucose and begin to secrete the hormone insulin. Insulin binds to many cells in the body having appropriate receptors for the peptide hormone and causes a general uptake in cellular glucose. In the liver, insulin causes the uptake of glucose as well as the synthesis of glycogen, a glucose storage polymer. In this way, the liver is able to remove excessive levels of blood glucose through the action of insulin.
In contrast, the hormone glucagons is secreted into the bloodstream by pancreatic alpha cells upon sensing falling levels of blood glucose. Upon binding to targeted cells such as skeletal muscle and brain cells, glucagon acts to decrease the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. This hormone inhibits the uptake of glucose by muscle and other cells and promotes the breakdown of glycogen in the liver in order to release glucose into the blood. Glucagon also promotes gluconeogenesis, a process involving the synthesis of glucose from amino acid precursors. Through the effects of both glucagon and insulin, blood glucose can usually be regulated in concentrations between 70 and 115mg/100 ml of blood.
Other hormones of importance in glucose regulation are epinephrine and cortisol. Both hormones are secreted from the adrenal glands, however, epinephrine mimics the effects of glucagon while cortisol mobilizes glucose during periods of emotional stress or exercise.
Despite the liver's unique ability to maintain homeostatic levels of blood glucose, it only stores enough for a twenty-four hour period of fasting. After twenty four hours, the tissues in the body that preferentially rely on glucose, particularly the brain and skeletal muscle, must seek an alternative energy source. During fasting periods, when the insulin to glucagons ratio is low, adipose tissue begins to release fatty acids into the bloodstream. Fatty acids are long hydrocarbon chains consisting of single carboxylic acid group and are not very soluble in water. Skeletal muscle begins to use fatty acids for energy during resting conditions; however, the brain cannot afford the same luxury. Fatty acids are too long and bulky to cross the blood-brain barrier. Therefore, proteins from various body tissues are broken down into amino acids and used by the liver to produce glucose for the brain and muscle. This process is known as gluconeogenesis or "the production of new glucose." If fasting is prolonged for more than a day, the body enters a state called ketosis. Ketosis comes from the root word ketones and indicates a carbon atom with two side groups bonded to an oxygen atom. Ketones are produced when there is no longer enough oxaloacetate in the mitochondria of cells to condense with acetyl CoA formed from fatty acids. Oxaloacetate is a four-carbon compound that begins the first reaction of the Krebs Cycle, a cycle containing a series of reactions that produces high-energy species to eventually be used to produce energy for the cell. Since oxaloacetate is formed from pyruvate (a metabolite of glucose), a certain level of carbohydrate is required in order to burn fats. Otherwise, fatty acids cannot be completely broken down and ketones will be produced.
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