In the mainstream medical community, blood sugar management is primarily discussed with diabetic patients. But did you know that balancing our blood sugars is an essential step to optimizing our overall health?
The term “blood sugar” is referring to the concentration of glucose present in our blood. Our blood sugar levels change very rapidly, and are a direct result of what we eat. Every time we consume a food with any amount of carbohydrate in them (think: fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, etc.), our digestive system breaks them down and converts them into glucose. This glucose enters the blood stream, and the pancreas is signaled to produce a hormone called insulin. Insulin then transports glucose into our cells for storage, to be used later as fuel. As the cells absorb glucose, blood sugar levels drop. When we have a surplus of energy and no longer have room to store glucose, insulin signals the glucose to be stored as body fat. For this reason, insulin is sometimes referred to as the fat-storage hormone.
Although this process is relatively simple, there are a few things that can go wrong. Eating too many carbohydrate-rich foods – particularly high glycemic foods – spike blood sugar dramatically. Just a few hours later, the glucose has either been transported into cells, or stored as body fat. This results in a rapid decline of blood sugars, which signals the pancreas to release glucagon, the hormone that promotes burning stored energy as fuel. First, our bodies tap into the stored glucose in our liver and tissue cells; once these stores are depleted, our bodies will start to burn body fat. The problem is, low levels of blood glucose leaves us with fatigue, headaches, weakness, irritability, brain fog, and the dreaded “hanger.” This is when we tend to reach for the mid-morning snack, or the 3pm sugary drink or coffee to boost our energy – about 2 hours after our last meal.
Over time, eating a diet high in carbohydrates can lead to a condition called insulin resistance. This is when an excess of insulin is released consistently over time – the cells become desensitized and stop responding to insulin. In turn, this promotes the production of even more insulin. Insulin resistance and having an excess of insulin in the blood stream contribute to weight gain, fatigue, sleep disturbances, difficulty focusing, and inflammation. Weight gain and inflammation are particularly challenging side effects, because they can promote disease development and progression of existing conditions. Inflammation in particular is considered a precursor to disease, and is the root cause of many conditions, such as arthritis and joint pain, autoimmune diseases, ailments of the cardiovascular system, various types of cancer, and digestive disorders including IBS, Crohn’s, and colitis.
The best way to stabilize blood sugar is to eat a properly balanced low-glycemic diet. Low-glycemic simply means it has a minimal impact on blood glucose levels, which will help reduce inflammation, regulate appetite, balance digestive hormones such as insulin and glucagon, improve brain function and energy, help reduce body fat, and increase insulin sensitivity. Low-glycemic foods tend to be high in fiber, protein, and fat, all of which slow the absorption of carbohydrates, reducing their impact on our blood sugar levels. Low-glycemic foods include healthy fats such as avocados, coconut, olives, and full fat dairy; high quality protein sources such as eggs, wild seafood, and local meat; and plant-based foods that are high in fiber, such as nuts and seeds, beans, greens, root vegetables, tubers, non-starchy vegetables, berries, and smaller amounts of seasonal fruit such as apples and stone fruits. Incorporating cinnamon into your daily diet can help improve insulin sensitivity, increase glucose transport into cells, and help manage blood sugar levels. Additionally, chromium has been shown clinically to balance blood sugar levels, improve the utilization of glucose, and decrease the body’s need for insulin. Avoid grains, low-fat dairy, high glycemic fruit such as tropical fruits and bananas, and added sweeteners such as sugar, coconut nectar, honey, maple syrup, agave, and dates, all of which spike blood sugars, promote inflammation, and contribute to insulin resistance.
Stabilizing your blood sugar is an effective way to help manage your weight, improve cognitive function, increase energy, prevent disease, and reduce inflammation. By adopting a low-glycemic diet and incorporating dietary supplements such as cinnamon and chromium, you can improve insulin sensitivity, regulate your blood sugar levels, heal your metabolism, and balance your digestive hormones.
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.
Originally published: April 2018 in “50+ Living” in the Comox Valley Record for Edible Island Whole Foods Market