Blood Sugar Levels: What You Need to Know

Tiffany Lester, MD
November 12, 2018

Should you be concerned about your blood sugar? Find out what blood sugar is and why blood sugar balance matters for your health.

Tall, short, thin, overweight—no matter your body type, everyone is at risk for diabetes and blood sugar dysregulation. Often presented as a condition that only affects obese individuals, that narrow view leaves out a large part of the population still at risk. Type 2 diabetes is almost completely preventable if you catch it early and make the necessary diet and lifestyle changes. Keep reading to find out how intake of excess sugar and carbs affects metabolism, energy levels, and overall health, and how you can decrease your risk of blood sugar problems.

What is blood sugar?

Blood sugar is the amount of glucose in your blood. Glucose comes from foods like starchy vegetables, fruit, and other carbohydrates. While these foods can be part of a healthy diet, everything should be consumed in moderation. Glucose is regulated in the endocrine system by two pancreatic hormones, insulin and glucagon. Insulin permits cells to use glucose for energy while glucagon promotes the breakdown of glycogen to glucose in the liver.

The rise in glucose in your bloodstream signals the pancreas to produce insulin. Glucose then moves into your cells to be utilized for energy. Any excess glucose is converted into glycogen and stored in the liver and muscles to access as energy later.

Glucagon balances insulin. Your glucose levels decrease about 4-5 hours after eating stimulating the release of glucagon. This cycle tells your cells to then release stored glycogen for energy until your next meal. This cycle repeats itself throughout the day.

How is blood sugar measured?

Your doctor can measure your blood sugar and risk for diabetes by testing biomarkers such as fasting insulin and glucose as well as hemoglobin A1c. Fasting insulin is an early marker for insulin resistance that is often overlooked. HbA1c measures the average of your blood sugars over the past three months. Fasting glucose measures how your body responds in a fasting state to your current diet.

Continuous glucose monitoring is also an option to see how your food intake is actually affecting your pancreas and insulin secretion over a 2 week period. Post meal blood sugars are one of the best ways to indicate your risk of diabetes and heart disease. One single marker is not enough to tell if someone has a blood sugar problem. At Parsley Health, we also use other comprehensive testing like inflammatory markers (homocysteine, hsCRP) and an expanded cholesterol profile.

Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)

What is dangerously low blood sugar?

Levels less than 60 are considered dangerous and are usually symptomatic for most people.

What are symptoms of low blood sugar in people without diabetes?

The inability to concentrate, dizziness, sweating, headache, and blurred vision are all common symptoms. It can also be completely asymptomatic.

Is low blood sugar a sign of diabetes?

Possibly. It is a sign that your body has a problem balancing your blood sugar in connection to alcohol or medications, or your body produces too much insulin after meals (reactive).

High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)

What is considered high blood sugar?

Levels between 100-125 are considered pre-diabetic. Levels 126 or higher is diagnosed as diabetes.

What are the symptoms of high blood sugar?

Frequent urination, increased thirst, fatigue , nausea/vomiting, fruity breath odor, dry mouth, dizziness/lightheadedness.

Why normal blood sugar levels matter

Over time high blood sugar can damage the body even if you don’t develop diabetes. Glucose molecules can attach to red blood cells through a process called glycation. This is why we often test a biomarker called hemoglobin A1c to determine how well your body has regulated blood sugar on average over the last 90 days. Levels above 5.7% indicate a high level of glycation and poor insulin control.

While diabetes is often thought as an obesity problem, even if you are thin and healthy, you can have issues with regulation insulin spikes. Drastic blood sugar swings release inflammatory cytokines which can turn on other autoimmune conditions in the body. Blood sugar dysregulation can also affect brain health and possibly lead to increased risk of dementia, otherwise known as type 3 diabetes.

You can also feel the negative effects of eating excess sugar or carbs immediately. Hyperglycemia may make you feel fatigued, aches in joints, bloated, and experience excess gas .

How to balance your blood sugar naturally

Eat protein with each meal.

This will help blunt the insulin release from the carbs on your plate. Insulin is required to convert the amino acids found in protein to energy your body can use. Protein also signals to your brain that you are full so you don’t overeat.

Avoid artificial sweeteners.

Fake sugars may seem like a healthier option because they are marketed as no or low calorie. But claims for these food additives can be misleading and often shift your taste buds to crave more and lead to overeating. They still have the same effect on your glucose levels as actual sugar! This includes the compound stevia, which is found in many health food products. These sugar substitutes increase the release of hormones like leptin and insulin, which can lead to unwanted weight gain, especially around our abdomens. (Need better for you snack ideas? Try these five healthy snacks that won’t mess with your blood sugar .)

Add cinnamon to your diet.

1-2 tsp a day has been shown to regulate blood sugar especially if you’re eating carbs at the same time. It also reduces LDL and total cholesterol which lowers risk of overall cardiovascular disease. The cinnamon extract increases the rate of glucose uptake into cells which lowers peripheral effects of excess insulin. Sprinkle on your oatmeal, add to a smoothie, or even stir into a morning coffee.

Eat more bitter foods.

Bitter foods help to offset sugar cravings and balance your blood sugar. These include foods like celery, broccoli, dandelion greens, dark chocolate, and pomegranate seeds. If none of those foods sound desirable, you can try adding digestive bitters and take before each meal.

Exercise every single day.

This improves glucose metabolism by pushing glucose out of the bloodstream and into the muscles and other tissues to use as fuel. Even just one 30 minute cardio session can improve insulin sensitivity by decreasing glycogen synthesis .

Check out more of our favorite ways to manage blood sugar in this video from Parsley Health CEO and founder, Robin Berzin.

Tiffany Lester, MD

Dr. Tiffany Lester is a board-certified Integrative Medicine Physician who has practiced a holistic approach to health for over a decade. She is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where she completed her training in internal medicine. She also graduated from the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona with Dr. Andrew Weil, and has extensive training in functional medicine through the Institute of Functional Medicine. Dr. Lester is also featured as a teacher for the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and regularly contributes to national wellness publications.

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