I know, I know, this has been a hot topic for some time now.
But have you not paid much attention yet?
Do you think your blood sugar levels are as flat as a pancake on Shrove Tuesday because you don’t ‘feel’ like your blood sugar has had a day out at Alton Towers?
You aren’t diabetic or have a sweet tooth so surely this can’t apply to you?
I urge you to read on and, potentially, think again.
Back to Basics for a moment: What is blood sugar?
Glucose is the type of sugar our body uses for fuel. Our bodies break down sugar and carbohydrates we eat into glucose. The terms ‘blood sugar’ and ‘blood glucose’ mean the same thing in this context and are used interchangeably.
Our bodies are very clever and try to keep everything in balance and working at just the right level to stay healthy. On average, a typically healthy person will have the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar circulating in our blood at any one time.
Our blood sugar doesn’t just give us the energy to get up, walk the dog or run for a bus, this glucose is fuelling almost every important reaction in our bodies.
Blood sugar hates fairground rides (even more than I do)
Our blood sugar HATES high peaks and subsequent troughs. We are programmed to keep it at a steady level.
So, if we eat lots of sugar or starchy carbohydrates, particularly on an empty stomach, our bodies MUST work really hard to get off the rollercoaster and get back down to flat and stable land.
If our blood sugar is persistently subjected to high peaks and troughs, we’ve essentially superglued the seatbelt shut on the rollercoaster carriage.
Would you feel great stuck on a rollercoaster 24 hours a day? I can’t even manage one ride!
How do I know if I’m on this rollercoaster?
Unbalanced blood sugar is one of the most frequent and wide-reaching health challenges I see in clinic. It can explain so many different symptoms and is often one of the root causes to many of my client’s concerns, even if they came to me with very different conditions in the first place.
If you answer YES to any one of these questions, it is possible that you could benefit from working on balancing your blood sugar:
- Do you feel fatigued even though you think you sleep enough?
- Do you feel famished at 11am even though you had breakfast?
- Does the 3pm slump send you reaching for sugar or caffeine to keep you going?
- Do you crave sweet or starchy food?
- Do you get ‘hangry’ if you haven’t eaten for a few hours?
- Do you get shaky, lightheaded or dizzy if meals are delayed?
- Do you struggle to lose weight?
- Do you experience anxiety or low mood?
- Do you experience brain fog?
- Are hormonal challenges proving tricky?
- Do you have acne or other skin conditions?
- Do you have trouble sleeping or wake up with heart palpitations?
- Do you frequently get colds?
- Are you thirstier than you were before?
- Have you noticed an increase in the number of times you need to wee?
I could go on…but you get the idea.
What happens in my body when my blood sugar peaks?
Our pancreas release a hormone called insulin to help get the energy into our cells. Insulin is like a friendly door-knocker to your cell doors.
It calls out ‘Hi, I’ve got some energy for you, open up’ and usually your cells listen and come to the door.
In this way, insulin helps get the glucose into your cells and out of your bloodstream, giving you energy and also bringing your blood sugar levels back into balance.
I like the sound of this insulin chap, he seems friendly?
Well yes, overall, he is. However, like most things in life you can have too much of a good thing.
If our diet and lifestyle leads us to experience blood sugar peaks and troughs regularly, or particularly severely, our pancreas release more and more insulin to keep our blood sugar at a constant level.
Spending too much time with high levels of insulin has some very negative side effects:
- Your cells get bored of hearing insulin knock on their door so they stop listening and keep the door firmly shut
- Your blood sugar HAS to come down, so insulin has to put it somewhere else
- This means it gets stored in your liver and your fat cells
- We need some in storage, but it doesn’t take much for the ideal level to be exceeded and for negative impacts to begin such as impaired liver function and weight gain
- Insulin has an intricate relationship with other hormones such as oestrogen and consistently high levels can play havoc with hormonal balance
Feel better NOW and protect yourself for the future
There aren’t many changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle that have such an immediate impact AND such huge long-term benefits. If you are stuck on the rollercoaster, getting off it can have almost immediate positive impacts to how you feel.
WITHIN DAYS: stop feeling so tired, stop craving sweet things, stop feeling anxious, get rid of the brain fog, improve your memory, sleep better, have more energy, lose weight, feel happier!
LONG-TERM: reduce your risk of developing diabetes, heart conditions, atherosclerosis, dementia and strokes just to mention a few.
I’m in. How do I get off the rollercoaster?
Blood sugar balance is a very individual thing – different foods and lifestyle choices impact people differently. For women in particular, hormonal changes can influence how we respond to different foods. One day we may not experience such a spike from a scoop or two of Ben & Jerry’s but the following week (usually when oestrogen is lower) the same ice cream can cause a peak.
However, there are some golden rules which apply to everyone and will help you get off that rollercoaster:
(1) Choose foods wisely
Ensuring every meal or snack you eat includes a good portion of protein, good fats and ideally vegetables is the quickest way to prevent big peaks and troughs. Protein and fat slows down the absorption of glucose from the carbohydrate-rich elements of the meal you are eating.
Choosing foods which are lower on the glycaemic index is also useful. This is a measure of how quickly glucose is released into the bloodstream. For instance, fruits such as strawberries, blueberries and blackberries have a much lower glycaemic index than a banana. Starchy carbohydrates such as bagels, white bread, white pasta and rice all have a higher glycaemic index than lentils, chickpeas, beans or vegetables.
It might sound boring but the easiest way to avoid high glycaemic foods is to steer clear of highly processed foods and sugary snacks.
(2) Eat less often
Every time you eat any carbohydrate your blood sugar will rise. This even includes milk in your tea or coffee! Constant snacking or grazing keeps your blood sugar at a consistently higher level than it should be.
Ideally, eat three meals a day, at around the same time of day, with no snacking in between. If you do find you need to snack make sure you have something with protein or fat included such as a plain yoghurt, houmous or some nuts.
(3) Manage your stress levels
When we experience a stressful situation, we release a number of hormones to help us cope/escape/run away, including cortisol. Cortisol raises our blood sugar in order to give us the energy to escape the scary lion that is chasing us (or the sea of faces staring up at us expecting an interesting presentation).
Persistent stress does the same thing and while the peaks may not be as pronounced, your overall level of blood sugar will be higher than it should be, making it easier for any food you eat to push you up into really high peaks.
Exercise wakes up our cells and helps open the door that insulin has knocked on so they can receive the glucose that wants to come in.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that moving our bodies after a meal helps lessen the blood sugar spike by anywhere between 30%-50%. This doesn’t have to be strenuous, just a ten-minute walk around the block can help.
Strength training is also really important for remaining sensitive to the signal insulin is giving, particularly during times of stress or hormonal changes.
Insufficient sleep impacts on how sensitive our cells are to the message insulin brings. In addition, a horrible vicious circle begins when we are tired we want to reach for easy and sweet or starchy foods to try to provide us with an immediate energy boost.
In addition, blood sugar troughs are more frequent when you are asleep if your levels have been imbalanced in the day – again, waking you up and disrupting your sleep.
You might think you are waking up because you need a wee?
The likelihood is it’s because your blood sugar dropped too low, your body released cortisol to get your insulin working and get some sugar out of storage, the cortisol woke you up and then you realise you need a wee….
Prioritising sleep and removing any barriers preventing you from getting quality sleep is therefore crucial when balancing blood sugar levels and will, in turn, improve your sleep no end.
Can I measure my blood sugar levels?
Some of you may have seen that I recently carried out a little experiment on myself and wore a Continuous Glucose Monitor for two weeks.
Different devices work in slightly different ways, but the one I chose, the Freestyle Libre 2, inserts a small filament into your arm which sits just under your skin. This filament releases a compound which interacts with the glucose in your interstitial fluid (the fluid in-between blood vessels and cells) and sends information back to the sensor stuck to your arm. This sensor then talks to your smart phone using Bluetooth and transmits a reading every minute or so. You can turn the Bluetooth off and periodically download the information if you wish as the sensor stores up to 8 hours of data at a time.
Until recently these devices have been used exclusively by people with diabetes to alert them to dangerous low or high blood sugar episodes. However, with the interest in personalised nutrition increasing by the week non-diabetic people like me are able to access these devices and see for ourselves what our blood sugar response looks like across a 24-hour period.
So, what did I learn?
- Starchy carbohydrates and stress raise my blood sugar MORE than ice cream, chocolate or alcohol
- My two highest peaks (on different days) were from a buckwheat savoury pancake in a restaurant and a mini-feast on plain tortilla chips as I cooked a mexican-inspired dinner
- Peaks in stressful ‘moments’ gave me bigger spikes than I expected (such as the day I gave a presentation to a room full of people I’d just met)
- Protein-rich meals do indeed only have small spikes
- I’m more insulin sensitive in the mornings and as the day goes on I’m more likely to get higher spikes
- Intermittent fasting may not work well for perimenopausal me (more testing needed here)
- Thankfully I’m pretty good at keeping my blood sugar balanced (you’d hope so wouldn’t you…) although on the days where my ‘experiments’ gave me some sharp peaks and troughs I had less energy, felt more anxious and didn’t sleep so well
- You can get obsessed with checking what your blood sugar is doing
So – it was very interesting. I may even try it again soon as I didn’t carry out all of the ‘experiments’ I had planned.
But will I be recommending it for all of my clients? Not necessarily.
It is accepted that measuring the sugar levels of your interstitial fluid rather than blood directly is not 100% accurate so it is more important to look at the patterns rather than the actual numbers. You can get hung up on whether or not your blood sugar levels are in ‘normal’ range when actually a finger prick blood test is likely more accurate.
I would certainly not recommend it for anyone with disordered eating.
However, for some clients it might be a useful and relatively cheap exercise, particularly if you want to understand if blood sugar dysregulation could be contributing to your symptoms. But I would recommend this is done with the supervision of a qualified nutrition practitioner and as part of a wider and more well-rounded approach to improving your well-being.
If you’d like to know more about balancing your blood sugar, please get in touch and I’d be delighted to help.