Blood sugar is literally that: the sugar in your blood. Your blood contains all kinds of important nutrients and other substances that we need to be healthy. Including sugar. Blood is the liquid transporter that distributes these compounds to all parts of our bodies.
Sugar (a type of carbohydrate) is one of our body’s main fuels. The other two fuels are fat and protein. I call it “fuel” because our cells literally burn it to do work.
In this post, I’ll talk a bit about blood sugar balance, insulin resistance, and diabetes. Then I’ll give you 11 proven strategies that can help manage blood sugar level naturally. The good news is that blood sugar levels are responsive to diet and lifestyle upgrades.
Blood sugar balance
There is a normal and healthy range of sugar levels in our blood. The problem doesn’t start until these levels are out of range, i.e. too high for too long.
When we eat a food containing carbohydrates (i.e. sugar and/or starch) our digestive system breaks down the sugar and/or starch into smaller sugars like glucose. These smaller sugars are then absorbed into our bloodstream. This naturally raises our blood sugar level. When our blood sugar gets too high, the pancreas (a gland in our digestive system) sends out insulin. Insulin is a hormone that tells our muscles, liver and, ultimately, fat cells to grab that sugar from the blood. These cells use the sugar they need for energy now, and store the rest for later.
The amount of sugar in your blood is constantly flowing up and down. Up when we eat; and down as it’s used (burned) or stored. This is all good and healthy! This is what we aim for.
Blood sugar imbalance (insulin resistance & type-2 diabetes)
The problem is when the balance is thrown off. When the blood sugar ups and downs become unhealthy. When the “ups” get too high, and they stay there for too long.
Too much blood sugar can cause heart rate issues (arrhythmias), and in extreme cases, even seizures. Too high blood sugar for too long can eventually cause long-term damage to organs and limbs.
A common culprit of high blood sugar is processed sugar, like in sweetened beverages and desserts; or refined carbohydrates like white bread, rice, and pasta.
Over the years, if we frequently eat a lot of sugar and have increased body fat, our bodies can change. The muscle and liver cells start ignoring insulin’s call to absorb sugar from the blood. They become “insulin resistant.” When this happens, the sugar stays in the blood for a lot longer than normal. Blood sugar levels become too high for too long.
But this doesn’t stop the pancreas from releasing even more insulin. When this happens you have the paradox of high blood sugar and high insulin.
Some symptoms of insulin resistance are:
- Fatigue after meals
- Sugar cravings that don’t go away, even if sweets are eaten
- Increased thirst
- Weight gain around the abdomen
Too-high levels of both blood sugar and insulin is not a healthy place to be in. In fact, it can be dangerous and lead to pre-diabetes, and eventually type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is a long-term (a.k.a. “chronic”) condition of too high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and inflammation. It increases the risk of many serious conditions like heart disease, kidney disease, blindness, and amputation. Not to mention the number of medications often prescribed to try to keep blood sugar balanced.
DIABETES TYPE 1 vs. TYPE 2: Type 1 diabetes is when your immune system actually destroys the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas. It’s an “autoimmune” condition where your pancreas literally cannot make insulin. This is often diagnosed early in life (childhood/adolescence) and requires lifelong insulin injections. Less than 10% of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes; everyone else has type 2.
The good news about blood sugar imbalance
The good news is, blood sugar balance can be improved by making some simple changes to nutrition and lifestyle! What you eat, how much exercise and sleep you get, and how you handle stress are all factors that you can control and will have a positive effect on blood sugar levels.
11 tips for keeping blood sugar balanced
Here are 11 strategies to help you better balance your blood sugar with diet and lifestyle upgrades.
1 – Stop eating and drinking things that are mostly sugar
First things first. Reduce sugar. I’m talking sweetened beverages, many desserts, breakfast cereal, and even seemingly-healthy choices like some granola bars and flavoured yogurt. Significantly reducing these will give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to better blood sugar levels. That’s why it’s my number one recommendation.
2 – Don’t eat too many carbohydrates
Your body digests starches by breaking them down into sugar. By reducing the amount of sugars and starches (carbohydrates) you eat, you can reduce that blood sugar spike that happens right after you eat. Studies have shown that one of the strongest predictors of blood sugar response is the total amount of carbohydrates in a meal so reducing your overall carbohydrate intake is an important piece of the puzzle.
3 – Choose “low glycemic” starches
If you’ve already cut out a lot of sugary foods and want to reduce your starch intake, then start by ditching the “high glycemic” starches.
Researchers have measured how fast and how high blood sugar increases with different foods. Foods that are “high glycemic” quickly raise blood sugar to high levels. “Low glycemic” foods raise blood slower and to a smaller extent.
High glycemic foods include sugary foods, as well as starchy foods like white bread, many pastas, and rice. Low glycemic foods include ones that are higher in fibre, fat and protein. Examples are meat, seafood, eggs, legumes, sweet potatoes, avocado, nuts and most fruit and non-starchy vegetables.
NOTE: Eating a low glycemic food along with a high glycemic food will help to slow down the blood sugar rise from the higher glycemic food. It’s not just the single food that matters, but the rest of the meal also affects your blood sugar.
Which leads us to…
4 – Eat more fibre
You’ve heard that “fibre makes you regular,” right? It’s so healthy. Most people don’t eat nearly enough. The recommended daily intake of fibre for adults is 21 g – 38 g per day.
This nutrient is not just for “regularity” and gut health, but also for blood sugar balance too.
It works by mixing with the carbohydrates in your meal, and slowing down the absorption of the sugars from those carbohydrates.
Some of the highest fibre foods include beans, lentils, and whole grains.
5 – Eat your protein and fibrous vegetables first
Since blood sugar is affected by the amount of carbohydrates you eat, studies have also looked at the order in which you eat different foods.
A few small studies looked at adults with type 2 diabetes. They all had the same meal, but some were asked to eat their protein and fibrous (i.e. non-starchy) vegetables first; while others ate their carbohydrates first. They found that people who ate the protein and vegetables first had better blood sugar control. One of the studies also showed lower levels of post-meal insulin when the carbohydrates were eaten last.
Another study found these blood sugar benefits to be true even in people without type 2 diabetes.
It’s thought that when we eat carbohydrates first, we start digesting them right away. But, if we eat them after our protein and fibrous vegetables, they have a chance to mix in with the rest of the food in your stomach. This can slow down their absorption, which slows down how fast and high our blood sugar gets after we eat.
The effects of changing food order hasn’t been tested in many big studies, but it seems to be a simple and safe habit to get into to help our bodies better regulate blood sugar levels.
Try to eat your protein and fibrous vegetables first, and starches last.
6 – Fruit is ok, especially dark berries
Unless your doctor or health practitioner has said otherwise, or you have an intolerance to them, fruit and the fruit sugar “fructose” are generally ok. Fructose has a low glycemic index. Having fructose instead of glucose (regular sugar) can reduce a measure of the average levels of blood sugar over the past two to three months (e.g.HbA1c – a blood test for blood sugar control).
A diet high in fruits and vegetables is great for your health. They contain phytochemicals (phyto=plant), vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Eating whole (not processed or juiced) fruits can help with blood sugar balance. Berries are particularly good, as they contain a lot of fibre and not a lot of sugar. Not to mention that they’re delicious!
Berries, especially dark berries, contain pigments known as “anthocyanins.” These dark-coloured pigments have lots of health benefits including helping sugar metabolism in people withinsulin resistance. They can also improve ability to think, and their antioxidant effects are linked to reduced DNA damage.
You can get enough anthocyanins from a regular serving of dark berries, so give them a try.
7 – Try these blood-sugar balancing flavourings (vinegar & cinnamon)
Try having two tablespoons of vinegar shortly before or with a meal that contains sugars or starches.
Why? Because a recent analysis of several studies (a meta-analysis) showed that the vinegar can lower the blood sugar by up to 60% and the insulin by up to 130% compared to the same meal without vinegar.This worked for insulin-resistant people. Even healthy people had a significant benefit.
Cinnamon can help to lower blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity. This effect can happen with even less than one teaspoon per day.
It’s thought that cinnamon works by slowing the emptying of the stomach. Slower emptying means slower absorption and slower blood sugar rise after a meal. Cinnamon also contains antioxidant polyphenols (plant chemicals) that may improve insulin sensitivity.
8 – Get enough good quality sleep
Our bodies are wired to work along the sun’s schedule. The objective is to wake up when the sun comes up, and get tired when it goes down. Not enough sleep can affect many of our body’s systems, including negatively affecting our blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity. It can also increase appetite and promote weight gain.
Even one or two nights of poor sleep can affect our blood sugar levels.
9 – Exercise
Insulin signals your muscle cells to store fuel (glucose) for later use. Guess what it’s storing it for?
By exercising and burning that stored sugar, you not only improve your blood sugar levels, and your physical and mental health in many ways, but also can reduce insulin resistance. Win-win-win.
This means your muscle cells, absorb and burn more sugar from the blood. This goes for both medium- and high-intensity exercise. Remember, the sugar that doesn’t get burned as energy will be stored as fat!
10 – Reduce your stress
Stress hormones, like cortisol, cause stored sugar to be released into our bloodstream. The reason for this is to prepare for “fight or flight”. Your body becomes physically ready to fight or run. And to do this, you need fuel in your blood, i.e. sugar. The problem is chronic stress and chronically elevated blood sugar increases inflammation in our bodies and contributes to disease formation.
Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can help to reduce stress and lower blood sugar levels.
11 – Lose excess weight
This is kind of a big and super-complex one, so I left it until the end. Research shows that belly fat, overweight, and obesity are linked with blood sugar balance issues like insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Weight loss and reduced waist circumference can work as well as, if not better, than medications. Talk to a nutritionist about weight loss strategies that will work for you or read my framework for sustainable weight loss in this article A Weight Loss Strategy That Works.
If your blood sugar is creeping up, there are some nutrition and lifestyle upgrades you can make for better health. You have power to help manage your blood sugar with these key strategies:
- Stop eating and drinking things that are mostly sugar
- Don’t eat too many carbohydrates
- Choose “low glycemic” starches
- Eat more fibre
- Eat your protein and fibrous vegetables first
- Fruit is ok, especially dark berries
- Try these blood-sugar balancing flavourings (vinegar & cinnamon)
- Get enough good quality sleep
- Reduce your stress
- Lose excess weight
If you are unsure where to start or need a little help navigating these nutrition and lifestyle changes, consider working with a qualified Nutritionist. The right support will make healthy eating taste great, keep you motivated and will help you make sustainable changes your whole family will enjoy.
Amanda Janes, Natural Nutrition Clinical Practitioner is a Registered Holistic NutritionistTM practicing in Conception Bay South, NL. As a cancer survivor and busy Mom of 4 she knows how vital (and challenging!) good nutrition can be. Her passion is helping her clients overcome obstacles to healthy eating in ways that are practical and delicious. To work with her contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.