There are five primary functions of carbohydrates in the human body. They are energy production, energy storage, building macromolecules, sparing protein, and assisting in lipid metabolism.
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The primary role of carbohydrates is to supply energy to all cells in the body. Many cells prefer glucose as a source of energy versus other compounds like fatty acids. Some cells, such as red blood cells, are only able to produce cellular energy from glucose. The brain is also highly sensitive to low blood-glucose levels because it uses only glucose to produce energy and function (unless under extreme starvation conditions). About 70 percent of the glucose entering the body from digestion is redistributed (by the liver) back into the blood for use by other tissues. Cells that require energy remove the glucose from the blood with a transport protein in their membranes. The energy from glucose comes from the chemical bonds between the carbon atoms. Sunlight energy was required to produce these high-energy bonds in the process of photosynthesis. Cells in our bodies break these bonds and capture the energy to perform cellular respiration. Cellular respiration is basically a controlled burning of glucose versus an uncontrolled burning. A cell uses many chemical reactions in multiple enzymatic steps to slow the release of energy (no explosion) and more efficiently capture the energy held within the chemical bonds in glucose.
The first stage in the breakdown of glucose is called glycolysis, which occurs in an intricate series of ten enzymatic-reaction steps. The second stage of glucose breakdown occurs in the energy factory organelles, called mitochondria. One carbon atom and two oxygen atoms are removed, yielding more energy. The energy from these carbon bonds is carried to another area of the mitochondria, making the cellular energy available in a form cells can use.
The liver, like muscle, can store glucose energy as a glycogen, but in contrast to muscle tissue it will sacrifice its stored glucose energy to other tissues in the body when blood glucose is low. Approximately one-quarter of total body glycogen content is in the liver (which is equivalent to about a four-hour supply of glucose) but this is highly dependent on activity level. The liver uses this glycogen reserve as a way to keep blood-glucose levels within a narrow range between meal times. When the liver’s glycogen supply is exhausted, glucose is made from amino acids obtained from the destruction of proteins in order to maintain metabolic homeostasis.