Blood sugar was never something I really thought about until I had to, which is the case for most people. We assume our bodies are humming along fine, doing what it needs to process the food we eat, and that our other ailments are unrelated. It wasn’t until I learned how many ways imbalanced blood sugar can affect other areas of our health that I put two and two together and decided I needed to make big changes.
Why It’s Important to Stabilize Blood Sugar
The main reason to make sure blood sugar is stable is to avoid insulin resistance. When we eat, our blood sugar (glucose) naturally rises; the amount it rises depends on the macronutrient composition of the food. The pancreas then secretes insulin accordingly, whose job it is to get glucose out of the blood and into the cells.
If we are chronically elevating our blood sugar and essentially abusing our insulin privileges, insulin resistance can occur. This means your body isn’t able to use that insulin properly anymore and blood sugar can stay elevated—a big step towards diabetes, pre-diabetes, and other health issues.
As I learned more about why it’s important to stabilize blood sugar, my main question was how I could tell it was out of balance in the first place.
When blood sugar is stable, you’ll know it by how great you feel. Your energy is high, you sleep like a baby, your stress and anxiety are low, and you’re the last one who’s likely to take a sick day.
Unfortunately, this is not the reality for many people.
You don’t always realize that certain aches, pains, and emotional issues are coming from another place entirely.
So to answer my first question, which is likely yours, too…
How Do I Know If My Blood Sugar Is Imbalanced?
Signs your blood sugar is imbalanced include:
- You have excess belly fat (and trouble losing it): Insulin resistance means that instead of being shuttled into your cells, glucose is stored as fat. This often shows up around the waist and can be difficult to lose.
- You constantly crave sugar and carbs: Your body wants energy and it wants it NOW, and sugar and carbs are the fastest way to get it because they are the quickest to digest. An inadequate diet means you’re less satisfied between meals, which is why you always want to run to the vending machine at 3pm. Those cravings are never satisfied, and you always seem to want more.
- It’s bad news when you miss a meal: Your coworkers avoid you, your family hides, all because of your hangry wrath if you’ve gone without a meal. Mood swings and irritability can be caused by low blood sugar, and you may also feel jittery or lightheaded if you haven’t eaten as well. This also leads to overeating, binge eating, and major carb cravings, and the cycle continues.
- You’re always tired and have low energy: If your meals don’t make you feel energized, or you’re still peeling yourself out of bed after a full-night’s sleep, it’s time to take a look at what you’re eating and how well it’s balanced. A good meal should make you feel great.
- You have hypothyroidism, adrenal fatigue, or another hormone imbalance: Chronically imbalanced blood sugar affects our stress hormones, too. Cortisol increases to help your body deal with the stress of high blood sugar, and chronically elevated cortisol comes with its own cascade of health problems.
- You get colds easily: Poor diet and stress are often the underlying reasons why you’re the one stuck catching a cold every season. Our Vitamin C stores deplete under stress (whether it’s emotional, or physical with elevated blood sugar and cortisol), and if we’re not getting enough through our diet, we’re more susceptible to getting sick.
- You have trouble concentrating: This is a sign of low blood sugar. The brain fog rolls in and you have a hard time focusing on work, that’s when you know it’s been too long between meals or the meal you did eat wasn’t well balanced with protein, fat, and fiber (this takes some time to figure out, a good balance that keeps you feeling full and satisfied, everyone is different).
- You have trouble falling or staying asleep: Eating too close to bed can affect your sleep quality. If blood sugar is high around bedtime, you’ll find it hard to fall asleep. If you’ve eaten too close to bedtime, once you finally digest your meal and insulin has done its job, blood sugar drops back down, and you’ll likely wake up as cortisol works to bring it back to a stable level.
- You suffer from depression and/or anxiety: Blood sugar imbalances may not be the only contributor towards mental health issues, but they can exacerbate symptoms by affecting gut health and hormonal health. Your gut is where serotonin is produced, so if sugar is affecting the healthy bacteria in your gut, symptoms of depression and anxiety can be exacerbated.
- You still deal with acne as an adult: Just as your microbiome is largely responsible for your mental health, it is also related to skin health, as you may have noticed when you eat certain foods and they show up in some way on your face later on. Acne is a condition of inflammation, which occurs when sugar in your diet fuels the growth of yeast and bacteria in the gut.
- Your blood tests show nutrient deficiencies: Your body uses up important nutrients to digest the food you eat. If the food you eat is devoid of nutrients (like many processed foods that are high in sugar and carbs), the ones you’re using to fuel the digestion process aren’t being replenished. There are too many ways nutrient deficiencies can manifest for me to list them here, but several are related to blood sugar regulation. More on that below.
- You deal with embarrassing gas, uncomfortable bloating, and other digestive issues: A diet high in sugar affects your microbiome, meaning the healthy balance of bacteria in your gut. This can result in conditions like leaky gut, dysbiosis, and candida overgrowth. Additionally, if your gut isn’t functioning properly, food can take much longer to digest, causing odious gas and bloating as it sits in the stomach waiting to be processed.
- You have high cholesterol: Cholesterol is a good thing, but in the right amount. It protects our cells and acts as a gatekeeper, letting the good stuff in and keeping the bad stuff out. If we continuously feed ourselves food our cells don’t recognize (highly processed food, etc.), more cholesterol is needed to protect the cell from it all, so it rises.
How to Stabilize Your Blood Sugar
Now that you know how your diet can affect your health, here are some ways you can get back in the driver’s seat:
- Cut out or cut down processed foods: This is the first thing to tackle. Many processed foods are devoid of nutrients, stripped of beneficial fiber, and filled with inflammatory ingredients like sugar and vegetable oils. Sugar also appears in numerous forms under many different names so we don’t notice how much is really in there. The best way to avoid this is simply to buy foods without packages as practical as possible. Doing this will automatically have you eating foods that are less likely to spike blood sugar.
- Eat nutrient-dense, balanced meals: Crowd out the urge to have processed foods by filling your meals with whole foods that have all their nutrients and fiber in tact. Make sure the plate is balanced as well. You want to have your carbs mostly in the form of vegetables (whole grains are great, too), and focus on protein and fat to help slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream.
- Reduce sugar and alcohol: Obviously you’ll want to reduce sugar as much as possible, sticking to natural sources like fresh fruit that has fiber intact. Alcohol can contain lots of sugar as well, especially if you’re a fan of cocktails that can have sugar, syrup, and fruit juices stirred right into them, so it’s better to table those when you’re trying to even out your blood sugar levels.
- Eat more fiber: Just as protein and fat slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream, so does fiber. In fact, insoluble fiber helps lower blood sugar levels. It also helps us keep the digestive system working properly, contributing to better gut health.
- Don’t skip meals: Skipping meals will cause your blood sugar to become too low, which makes you hangry, irritable, and lightheaded. This also makes you want to reach for the nearest food, whatever it is, and it’s usually something convenient like chips or candy from the vending machine. Eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and if you need a snack in between, go for something higher in protein and fat like healthy trail mix or veggies and hummus.
- Keep a food and mood diary: You’ll never really know how your food is affecting you unless you start paying attention. Keeping a food and mood diary allows you to see patterns that you may have never noticed before. For instance, if a bagel at breakfast makes you have a low mood for the rest of the day, or a pizza for dinner makes it hard to get out of bed the next morning. It’s important to treat this diary as data only, rather than a place to feel guilt about food choices. The purpose is to help you make more informed decisions, knowing how certain foods feel in your body.
- Eat low-glycemic foods: The Glycemic Index (GI) is a measure of how certain foods will affect your blood sugar. A score of 60 and above is high, meaning it will spike your blood sugar more than foods with a GI under 60. Some low-GI foods include apples, apricots, cherries, grapefruit, asparagus, broccoli, celery, lentils, nuts, and seeds. You may also want to take glycemic load (GL) into account, which considers realistic servings of foods. For instance, watermelon has a high GI, but realistically you’re not going to eat a whole melon, so it actually has a low GL score. For more on this, click here.
- Prioritize foods that help regulate blood sugar: As I mentioned above, there are certain nutrients that are important for helping regulate blood sugar. These include Vitamins B3 (niacin) and B5 (pantothenic acid), as well as manganese, chromium, boron, and vanadium. For a list of foods that are high in these vitamins, click each one.
- Drink green tea: Green tea leaves, or matcha (ground green tea), contain a compound known as EGCG, which has been found to help stabilize blood sugar. Yes, you have free rein to enjoy matcha lattes… as long as you don’t load them up with sugar and flavor syrups. You don’t want to offset the benefits!
- Exercise: Moving your body helps use up glucose for energy, taking it out of your bloodstream to go towards powering your exercise. This is especially helpful after a large meal—take a walk around the neighborhood after eating to help immediately use that fuel for movement. Exercising regularly (at least three times a week) also increases insulin sensitivity—the opposite of insulin resistance—meaning your body is better able to use insulin to regulate blood sugar.
- Prioritize sleep: Poor sleep can interfere with your hunger and satiety hormones, which, as it sounds, tell you when you’re hungry and full. This makes it more difficult to figure out both when you need to eat, and when you need to stop eating. Make sure you go to sleep and wake up around the same time each day, and get at least seven hours of shut-eye.
- Get into meal planning: A failure to plan is a plan to fail! Cliche, but it’s true. If you’re trying to stick to a healthier eating style, especially to reduce symptoms, having a plan makes it infinitely easier. A couple hours of prep once a week will absolutely SAVE you when you’re home late from work with zero urge to make a meal for yourself. Planning ahead allows you to avoid the boxed mac and cheese in your cabinet and have a balanced, delicious meal that you lovingly prepared for yourself instead.
- Take my course on emotional eating (new version coming 2020)! Making lifestyle changes can be difficult to do on your own (though not impossible if you have the discipline!). That’s why I created my online group program, to give you guidance through overcoming cravings, improving your relationship with food, and creating sustainable habits for your overall health. I’m also able to personalize the program to your specific needs with the Premium Support option. Learn more about the course here (link removed, updated version of the course will be available in 2020).