For most of us when we hear blood sugar, we think diabetes. We might think of a family member or friend that was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, who regularly watches their carb intake and might even give themselves insulin shots. In fact, it would be surprising if any of us didn’t know someone with diabetes, given that in 2015 9% of Americans had diabetes, and that number is expected to grow so that 1 in 3 will have diabetes by 2050.
Diabetes has been personal to me since my grandpa was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. When I was a college senior I used this interest to put together a business plan for a diabetes-tracker app for an entrepreneurship class I was taking. The app would help diabetics to measure their carb intake throughout the day, find healthy foods and suitable options when eating out. My app was chosen to go to the next round in our class competition because diabetes was not only personal to me, but many others in the class.
7 years later, I’m looking at things from a slightly different angle. Instead of managing the aftermath of a diabetes diagnosis, in my training as an NTP I’m learning to recognize the signs and symptoms that put someone on the path to a diabetes diagnosis, and the tools available in our arsenal to prevent such a diagnosis from ever being made.
The Blood Sugar Rollercoaster
One thing that we have to address if we want to prevent diabetes is that this is largely a preventable disease, the summation of many years of riding the blood sugar rollercoaster. And this doesn’t just happen in certain people that have genetic tendencies or are wildly unhealthy with their eating choices. It’s happening with a lot of us, right now.
The blood sugar rollercoaster is very real, and something that most of us have probably accepted as normal by this point. We load up on coffee and carby breakfasts (cereal, bagels, toast, juice etc) in the morning, crash before 10:30, refuel with carby and/or sugary granola bars to get us to lunch, and so on and so forth throughout the day, only to start again the next day. Some of you are thinking, cereal and granola bars are healthy in normal amounts – what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that every time that we ingest carbohydrates, it becomes glucose in the body, and triggers an insulin response. Some carbohydrates are absorbed more quickly than others, creating insulin spikes of higher or lower severity, but nonetheless we are asking the body to create insulin with every carb-heavy meal we eat. That being said, you might be thinking that producing insulin is a normal function of the body, and eating carbs is something our bodies are well equipped to handle. You might be surprised to learn that in fact, this isn’t how we’re supposed to be using insulin at all.
The Historical Purpose of Insulin
One line that really stuck out to me in my lectures was that never before in human history has the body used insulin because of too much glucose in the blood. This is a modern interpretation of the hormone. If we look back at caveman days, insulin served an evolutionary purpose. Back then humans relied mostly on animal fat for energy and did not come across carbohydrate meals as often. When carbohydrates were available, the body signaled for insulin to take the glucose derived from the food and store it in the cells for a later date. This glucose was then released in times of stress or intense exercise when the body needed quick bursts of energy to survive. So in essence, insulin was ensuring that glucose would be saved for future energy needs, so that blood glucose would remain high enough to survive long-term.
Fast forward to today, and we eat carbs with every.single.meal. And sometimes even between meals. And sometimes in our coffee, energy drinks, 5pm happy hour…you get the point. We have a lot of carbs, and therefore a lot of glucose in our blood. Not only are we triggering insulin every time this happens, but going back to the evolutionary purpose of insulin, our body is storing what’s left over for a future emergency. So your beer belly, love handles, muffin top… that’s your body looking out for you.
After this happens enough times, day after day, year after year, the processes that were designed to store the occasional glucose meal for future energy are starting to get really taxed. The pancreas is tired of producing insulin all the time, and the cells are tired of receiving it. After filling up the stores in the liver and muscle cells, any additional glucose becomes stored in fat cells, and generates the abdominal weight gain that so many of us have become familiar with. After a while this leads to insulin resistance.
So even though some of us may be saying we don’t eat thaaaaaat many carbs, compared to the occasional glucose meal that we are biologically equipped to handle… it is a lot. Once in a while, this is okay, but over a lifetime it leads to problems.
Variations of the Blood Sugar Rollercoaster
On the less serious but still concerning side, conditions like hypoglycemia arise when the blood sugar rollercoaster affects our mental and physical function, energy and mood throughout the day. Hypoglycemics are familiar with the pattern of having to eat every couple hours to keep energy levels up, and being irritated or “hangry” if meals are delayed. Yes, that’s right, hangry is not just a normal human emotion. It’s a symptom of an underlying biological stress.
Moving along in severity is insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is basically the process of diabetes but not yet at a level that qualifies as disease. IR develops when the insulin response is triggered enough times that the cells stop accepting glucose into the cells. People with insulin resistance are always tired because the mechanism for storing and creating energy from glucose is no longer functioning. They also tend to find that weight is easy to put on, but impossible to take off. This is because the body has time and time again been storing all the extra glucose from high carbohydrate meals in the one place that will take them – the fat cells. Until the body is separated from its constant supply of glucose, and forced to start burning fat for fuel, it will not part with its weight-causing glucose stores. People with insulin resistance also tend to eat sweets at the end of every meal, just as a temporary way of getting more energy. This, of course, compounds the problem over time.
Blood Sugar Solutions
The good news is, with the right diet, and sometimes supplementation, many of these processes can be reversed before they turn into diabetes or any other disease. In addition, making these changes can help with all of the end results of the blood sugar rollercoaster, such as excess weight, low energy, insomnia, and hormonal imbalances.
Here are five simple tips to keep blood sugar in balance. Keep in mind that as NTPs we do not diagnose or treat disease. So if you already have a diagnosed blood sugar problem, and definitely if you have diabetes, you will need to do more than this to help your condition, and should always check with your doctor before making changes. But for the average person, this is a good place to start.
- Always combine carbohydrates with fats. Fats are slower to digest, and if you consume carbs and fats at the same time, the carbohydrates will digest slower as well. This allows for fewer and less intense insulin spikes, making things easier on the pancreas long term. Some examples of this would be combining a piece of fruit with some nut butter or cheese, eating your toast with an egg on top or a healthy dose of avocado, or making sure that your granola bar has lots of nuts in it as well.
- Keep to a 40% carbs, 30% fats and 30% protein ratio. The exact ratio will vary per person, but we really don’t want to be taking in more than 40% of our calories as carbs. Remember from earlier that humans used to rely more on fat as an energy source? This is a great tool to decrease carbohydrate intake but still feel full. Instead of filling out a steak dinner with potatoes, pick a fattier cut of meat and add lots of butter to your veggies. You’ll find that after a few days or weeks or doing this, your body stops craving the carbs so much because it doesn’t need them – it’s using the fat for energy. And rest assured, eating more fat will not make you fat. In many cases when glucose is restricted and fat is increased, people lose weight. As long as it’s from appropriate sources, our bodies are used to running on fat, and rest assured that fat will be turned into energy as opposed to being deposited on your hips.
- When enjoying the occasional carbohydrate, pick complex carbs that take longer to be digested. Think whole bread instead of white bread, honey instead of sugar, brown rice instead of pasta, etc. The longer the food takes to digest, the less severe the insulin spike will be. And overall, these foods are a lot more nutritious, giving your body the energy it needs to stay healthy and achieve optimal functioning.
- Reduce stress! This was a surprise to me, that being stressed in many cases has the same effect on the body as eating a carb-heavy meal. This is because when we are stressed, the body releases glucose into the bloodstream to give us energy, in order to fight off the stressor. As much as you can, reduce stress so that you are not overusing the insulin response in this scenario.
- Exercise often. Studies show that exercise that has a positive effect on insulin receptors, and makes them less likely to become resistant to insulin. The exercise does not have to be strenuous – just get out and move! Something as simple as a 30 minute walk at a higher tempo once a day is a great start.
If you’re able to do just these five things, you’re helping yourself to avoid a future of blood sugar problems. Not to mention, you’re avoiding being hangry, tired, irritable, craving sweets all the time, and even being overweight! Having healthy blood sugar is not just about avoiding diabetes, it’s about lessening the blow on the body systems that allow you to have energy – which is basically the foundation for having a productive and happy life.
I hope that you learned something about blood sugar by reading this post, and are feeling inspired to make some changes! Feel free to leave comments or questions below. Thanks for reading!
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