Oh, the words "blood sugar."
Do they conjure up visions of restrictive eating, diabetes medications, or insulin injections?
Or perhaps you’re a parent who has witnessed first hand what a sugar rush can do to your child – the hyperactivity and the painful crash that leaves your child (literally) on the floor.
Or maybe you have an autoimmune disease and want to learn more about what you can do to manage your inflammation?
Blood sugar is the measure of the amount of sugar in your blood. You need the right balance of sugar in your blood to fuel your brain and muscles.
The thing is, blood sugar can fluctuate. A lot.
This fluctuation is the natural balance between food that increase blood sugar and the hormone (insulin) that decreases it.
When you eat food with refined sugars or starches ("carbs"), your digestive system absorbs sugar into your blood. When carbs are ingested and broken down into simple sugars, your body keeps blood sugar levels stable by secreting insulin. People run into problems when their blood sugar is too low or too high on a continual basis. This can lead to insulin resistance or amplify inflammation of another disease.
Why keep my blood sugar stable?
Your body wants to keep your blood sugar at an optimal level – a nice smooth steady stream of energy and balance. Your body wants a gentle “kiddy rollercoaster” ride of hormone regulation versus the “black diamond, triple threat” rollercoaster that leaves your body in a tailspin.
When your blood sugar is too low, this is referred to as "hypoglycemia." Common symptoms include a racing heart, paleness, nausea or hunger, shakiness, feeling sleepy, feeling nervous or anxious, irritability, feeling weak (or no energy).
When blood sugar is too high, it is referred to as hyperglycemia. Common symptoms of hyperglycemia include high blood sugar, high levels of sugar in urine, frequent urination and increased thirst.
Prolonged periods of elevated blood sugar levels (chronic hyperglycemia) can lead to "insulin resistance." Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas – it’s similar to an uber driver. Its job is to shuttle blood sugar into cells for energy, and each cell has a receptor (or parking spot) that accepts insulin and its passenger.
Insulin resistance is when your cells are just so bored, overwhelmed and tired by the constant honking, beeping and parking of insulin, that your cells start ignoring (resisting) insulin. This is similar to “tuning out” a friend who constantly complains or a child that cries for no reason. You turn off your mind and hope that they go away.
When your cells resist insulin, your blood sugar levels stay too high as there is nowhere for it to go. This is when you run into problems.
Insulin resistance and chronic hyperglycemia can eventually lead to diabetes. Sadly, this is becoming more and more common (even kids) as the western diet is extremely high in sugar – and not just the white kind. Refined flours (breads, pastas, crackers, cereals) can have a similar impact.
So let’s look at how you can optimize your food and lifestyle to keep your blood sugar stable.
Food for stable blood sugar
The easiest thing you can do to balance your blood sugar is to reduce the number of refined sugars and starches you eat. To do this, you can start by dumping sweet drinks, and make dessert a “treat” instead of a daily occasion.
Including fibre, healthy fat or quality protein at each meal will also help. Fibre, fat and protein will help slow the rate of sugar absorption from your meal. If you have a meal that is high in starch and sugar, that food is going to be ingested very quickly, flood your blood stream and cause insulin levels to spike. And just as quickly as insulin rises, it will crash far below optimal levels, causing a stress response on the body. Your body calls on stress (inflammatory) hormones to regulate your blood sugar. Overtime, this flooding and crashing of insulin contributes not only to insulin resistance, but to chronic inflammation which can aggravate another set of problems.
Fibre is found in plant-based foods, as long as they are eaten in their natural state. Eating whole fruit and veggies (not juiced) is a great way to increase your fibre intake. You can find healthy fats in nuts, seeds, coconut, avocado, meat and fish. And protein is easy ... quality cuts of beef, chicken, fish, eggs, legumes.
Next, I recommend that you reduce the amount of refined flours you eat – bread, pasta, crackers, cereals, desserts. Refined flour is shown to spike your blood sugar very quickly. And when you think about how much flour foods society eats on a daily basis (breakfast, lunch and dinner), it’s no wonder that so many people have blood sugar issues.
Finally, for those who want to REALLY make a dent in their blood sugar levels, I strongly recommend you look at the Paleo diet, or a modified version of. Pitted against the American Diabetes Diet and even the Mediterranean, Paleo is shown to better decrease blood sugar, with no counting or measuring of food. I much prefer Paleo over Keto as it includes lots of healthy vegetables and fruits, which contain important micronutrients you need for the immune system and repair.
FUN FACT: Cinnamon has been shown to help cells increase insulin sensitivity. Not to mention it’s a delicious spice that can be used in place of sugar. (HINT: It’s in this week’s recipe).
Lifestyle for stable blood sugar
Exercise also helps to improve your insulin sensitivity. This means that your cells don't ignore insulin's call to get excess sugar out of the blood. And when you exercise, your muscles use the sugar they absorbed from your blood.
Would you believe that stress also affects your blood sugar levels? Yup!
Stress hormones increase your blood sugar levels. We talked about the stress response earlier on, but emotional stress or a physical trauma (surgery or chronic disease) can also elicit the same reaction.
Think about the "fight or flight" stress response. What fuel does your brain and muscles need to "fight" or "flee"? Sugar! When you are stressed, your body sends signals to release stored forms of sugar back into the bloodstream, increasing blood sugar levels. So, if you are a stressed individual or recuperating from an injury, you are at higher risk for blood sugar imbalances, which you now know creates an additional stress response. SO, please try to reduce the stress you're under and manage it more effectively. Simple tips are meditation, deep breathing, or gentle movement.
Sleep goes hand-in-hand with stress. When you don't get enough quality sleep, your body doesn’t release the hormones it needs to repair and grow. Your body tends to release stress hormones, which can cause increased appetite and even sugar cravings. Sleep is a crucial and often overlooked factor when it comes to keeping your blood sugar stable. Make sleep more of a priority - it will do your blood sugar (and the rest of your physical and mental health) good.
Your body is on a constant 24-hour quest to keep your blood sugar stable. The body has mechanisms in place to do this, but those mechanisms can get tired (resistant). Long-term blood sugar issues can spell trouble for an adult or child.
There are many nutrition and lifestyle approaches you can take to help keep your blood sugar stable. Minimizing excessive carbs, and eating more fiber, exercising, reducing stress, and improving sleep are all key to having stable blood sugar (and overall good health).