We’ve all heard about conditions that involve blood sugar problems, such as Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, and hypoglycemia. But you don’t have to have a diagnosed medical condition for your blood sugar to impact your health. Blood sugar swings affect your energy, your mood, your stress levels and your sleep.
When your blood sugar becomes elevated, you may lose energy and become sleepy. You may notice this shortly after eating a high carbohydrate meal. Chronically elevated blood sugar and insulin leads to insulin resistance, prediabetes and early metabolic syndrome. Research is also starting to connect high blood sugar and insulin with dementia.
On the other hand, when your blood sugar dips or crashes, you may feel shaky, lose energy, become irritable (or “hangry”), have anxiety or get a headache. When your blood sugar dips too far, your body releases cortisol, your stress hormone. Cortisol raises your blood sugar.
Either situation puts stress on your body.
How can you stay off the blood sugar roller-coaster of spikes and crashes? What can you do to keep your blood sugar balanced?
Don’t skip or delay meals
When you skip or delay a meal, your blood sugar can dip into the range where you experience low blood sugar symptoms. With intermittent fasting being popular, some people shorten their eating window so they are fasting for 14-16 hours at a time. This certainly works for some people, but not for everyone. Your body must be metabolically flexible to switch from burning glucose to burning fat in order to fast without experiencing negative symptoms.
If you’re a person who experiences blood sugar swings, eat breakfast within an hour of waking. Then eat on a regular meal schedule every 3-4 hours, allowing for balanced snacks if needed. If you often wake up in the middle of the night, you may need a small snack with protein before bedtime too.
Eat balanced meals and snacks
The old adage “eat a balanced meal” carries much wisdom for balancing blood sugar and for getting all your nutrients. What exactly does a “balanced meal” mean?
There are three food groups called macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein, and fats. The body uses these for energy, repair, nervous system function, hormone production and all cell functions. Each macronutrient raises your blood sugar at a different rate and plays a role in balancing your blood sugar. Each food has its own glycemic index, meaning how much and how quickly it raises blood sugar.
Carbohydrates provide energy by breaking down into glucose. They raise blood sugar the fastest and provide energy for the shortest amount of time. Complex carbohydrates include vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. These cause less of a blood sugar spike and crash because their fiber content slows down glucose absorption. Simple carbohydrates include sugar, refined flour products, white rice and white potatoes. These spike blood sugar quickly and cause a crash quickly. Carbohydrates typically provide energy for 1-2 hours. They have the highest glycemic indexes.
Protein is broken down into amino acids, which are used for maintenance and repair of tissues. It raises blood sugar slightly and provides energy for 2-3 hours. It has a low glycemic index.
Fats break down into lipids. They make up 60% of our brains and our cell walls are composed primarily of lipids. Fats don’t raise our blood sugar at all and they provide energy for 3-4 hours. They have a low glycemic index.
To create a balanced meal or snack, combine carbohydrates with plenty of protein and fat. The low glycemic index of protein and fat offsets the higher glycemic index of the carbohydrates, which lowers the whole glycemic load of the meal. Your blood sugar has a moderate rise for 2 hours after your meal, then slowly lowers over another 1-2 hours. This avoids spikes and crashes in your blood sugar, along with their negative consequences. It also keeps you satiated so you’re not hungry after just an hour or two.
Manage your stress
When you experience stress in any form, you body produces the stress hormone cortisol. One of cortisol’s functions is to raise blood sugar. This is valuable when your blood sugar gets too low, but if your stress and cortisol are chronically elevated, blood sugar and insulin also become chronically elevated. As mentioned, this can lead to insulin resistance, prediabetes and metabolic syndrome.
There are many forms of stress, from emotional to mental to physical. Actively managing stress through mindfulness activities, getting out in nature, taking rest days, working on gut health, and seeking therapy helps to lower cortisol and balance blood sugar.
Following these guidelines for keeping your blood sugar balanced will also balance your mood, energy, sleep and stress levels.