When your lying awake in the early hours of the morning or dealing with hormonal issues like PCOS it’s unlikely that you’re linking these concerns to blood sugar imbalances. And yet that’s exactly what could be driving these issues. Often blood sugar problems don’t come into sharp focus until we’re facing conditions like diabetes or prediabetes.
But issues with blood sugar levels don’t happen overnight. As with most health concerns they take time to develop over months, years and even decades. But the slow progression of these conditions provide a critical window of opportunity to address blood sugar issues before they escalate into more severe health concerns. So, let’s have a look at why healthy blood sugar levels matter, even if you’re not diabetic or prediabetic.
What happens when blood sugar is out of control?
When we talk about blood sugar we’re referring to blood glucose. Glucose is a simple carbohydrate that humans can most readily convert to energy. We measure glucose in the blood in mmol/l in the United Kingdom and in mg/dl in the United States and some other countries. When we eat carbohydrates, these are boken down to form glucose. The glucose then enters the bloodstream and is regulated by the pancreatic hormones insulin and glucagon. Insulin will help shunt glucose into the cells to produce energy or to be stored for use later, while glucagon releases the stored glucose (known as glycogen) to increase glucose levels when blood glucose levels drop too low. After a meal we’d expect your blood glucose to rise a little (but not too much) before returning to normal levels. What we wouldn’t expect to see are wild swings as the blood glucose levels increase rapidly (or stay high) or drops to low before stabalising.
These sharp increases and decreases are hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar) and hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), respectively. Let’s take a closer at these blood glucose problems.
Hyperglycaemia, or high blood sugar, happens when there’s too much glucose in the bloodstream. This is a blood glucose level of around 10.0 mmol/l (180 mg/dL) a couple of hours after eating. The symptoms of high blood sugar include:
- blurred vision
- increased thirst
- frequent urination
Hypoglycaemia, or low blood sugar, on the other hand is when there’s too little glucose in the blood. Around 3.9 mmol/l (70 mg/dL) or lower. The symptoms of low blood glucose include:
- excessive appetite
As mentioned insulin is a key hormone in the use of glucose in the body. But what happens when insulin become ineffective?
Insulin resistance is a specific condition that develops in response to too much glucose in the blood. The body’s cells stop responding to insulin and blood glucose levels continue to rise over time. The condition increases your risk of diabetes and metabolic syndrome – a cluster of cardiovasular and metabolic conditions. Insulin resistance is a common feature of prediabetes and diabetes and over time people with this condition will experience symptoms of low or high blood glucose.
The symptoms of high and low blood sugar overlap and can exist at different times points in the same individual. This is an issue as you shouldn’t be experiencing these symptoms.
Unusual, lesser known signs and symptoms of blood sugar problems
This article opened with talk of lying awake in the early hours and mentrual issues being a more unusual signs and symptoms of poor blood sugar control, but there are other symptoms we look out for at The Thrive Practice that might suggest that blood sugar imbalance might be an issue such as:
- disrupted sleep cycles
- irregular menstrual periods
- hormonal imbalance (in both women and men)
- unintended weight gain or loss
- digestive issues
- non-alcholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
- general fatigue
- sudden energy crashes (especially in the afternoon)
- feeling extremely hungry in between meals
- food cravings (especially for sweets, carbohydrates or stimulants)
- out of range waist-to-hip ratio (excess fat around your middle)
- low immune function
- mood problems
- high blood pressure
- elevated triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and/or low levels of HDL cholesterol
As you can see these signs and symptoms of blood sugar issues are quite non-specific. This is largely becuase sugar affects all functional body systems. So, often the best way to truly understand if you have a blood sugar issue is to monitor and test blood sugar levels.
Testing and monitoring blood sugar
The first port of call should be a comprehensive food diary. This give us an idea of what is being eaten, how much and when. In addition it’s also useful to get a picture of the impact of the food eaten, how it made you feel after you ate it, how did you feel between meals? Are you able go four to five hours between meals or do you need a snack ? Are you ever anxious, irritalble or unable to concentrate between meals?.
Often we really don’t know the impact of the food we eat until we get very conscious about it. And food diary is a great way to do this.
It’s also worth considering a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) a wearable device that measure your glucose levels every 5 minutes. This is an excellent way of getting real-time data on your blood glucose fluctations. Our 5-week online blood sugar balancing programme, MetaMorphosis, uses a CGM to help you discover what food and lifestyle habits help you maintain stable blood sugar levels.
Finally, we offer comprehensive testing to assess fasting blood glucose, HbA1c and insulin resistance as well as other health markers.
5 Tips for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels
If you discover that blood sugar instabitlity is a problem for you, you’ll need a multi-pronged nutrition and lifestyle approach to address it. This is because blood sugar levels are also affected by chronic stress, sleep and exercise as well as diet and nutrition. Here are a few foundational pieces to get started.
Take a Balanced Plate Approach
Of all the macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats), carbohydrates have the biggest impact on blood sugar. Their digestion of begins in the mouth with enzymes in saliva. To help slow the rate of digestion down pair your carobhydrate foods with protein and fat. This way you can still continue to eat carbs but you’ll reduce the spikes in blood sugar. In general, this is something everyone should do even if they don’t have any obvious blood sugar concerns.
Carbohydrate Quantity and Quality is Important
If you’re already experiencing blood sugar problems, we’d recommend that you consider the quality and quantity of carbohydrates. Foods that use whole intact grains are preferable since they contain more fibre than refined grain produts. Like with the fat and protein, this will help slow the transit of the food through the digestive system and keep you feeling fuller for longer.
It can also be helpful to choose carbohydrates that have a low glycaemic load. The glycaemic load is a measure of how much impact a particular food will have on blood sugar.
Finallly, when it comes to portion sizes these should be individualised. Changing portion size regardless of the quality of the carbohydrate and monitioring blood glucose fluctuations is a great way to determine what quality and quantity of carbohydrates your body responds best to.
Exercise can help improve insulin sensitivity, so that your cells can more readily take glucose out of the blood stream to produce energy in cells or to be stored in muscle or the liver. Exercise is an effective way to use glucose in the blood stream. High-intensity and moderate aerobic exercise are helpful in supporting better blood sugar response.
Poor blood sugar control can result from disrupted sleep and disrupted sleep can also cause blood sugar problems and insulin resistance. So, it’s important to prioritse sleep. Poor sleep will also affect your decision making and concentration which will negatively impact on the good foundational habits you’re trying to embed through this list.
Stress is a often overlooked saboteur of good blood sugar control. The stress hormone adrenaline will liberate stored glucose so our bodies are ready to fight or flee. One of the best ways to see what stress does to your blood sugar through wearing a CGM. Long-term stress or a highly stressful situation will raise blood glucose levels and releases glucose into the bloodstream.
Stress can also wreak havoc with your habits compelling behaviours that give that quick release of energy such as craving and eating sugar, starches and stimulants all of which will futher impact blood sugar regulation.
As you can see your blood sugar levels can have a huge impact on how you feel on a day-to-day basis, so using your own data to balance your diet and lifestyle habits will help you feel your best and most importantly keep you out of the doctor’s office. We’re all unique and we all react differently to different foods. The key is to know what works for you and the best way to do that is through MetaMorphosis. This 5-week online group programme is running live in Januray 2024, click here to learn more and sign up.