Blood Sugar Imbalance -Not Just What You Eat
Balancing our blood sugar is a very important part of our health. It is in fact, what we call in functional medicine, one of the non-negotiables. There are three pillars of our non-negotiable trifecta and those are sleep, poop, and blood sugar balance. Our bodies support our blood sugar balance in many ways and in turn blood sugar affects the ways our bodies react. My clients come to me who experience symptoms of resistant weight loss, decreased energy, insomnia, hypoglycemia, mood swings, chronic fatigue, skin breakouts, hot flashes, nighttime wakeups, and the first thing I do is a targeted blood sugar deep dive.
Diet is obviously a very important part of blood sugar balance, but it may be necessary to look at other aspects of one’s life before adjusting the diet. If we go in and make dietary changes without these other considerations, we may not see the benefits, and this can be very frustrating. Other things that can affect our blood sugar are sleep, stress, exercise, what was eaten and the conditions under which that food was consumed, medications, hormonal changes, hydration, and certain health conditions such as diabetes and thyroid disorders.
First, I want to give you a basic understanding of how our bodies balance blood sugar. When we consume carbohydrates, our body converts them into glucose. Some glucose is needed for immediate use for energy. Extra glucose that isn’t used immediately for energy is converted in the body into glycogen. Glycogen is stored in the liver and muscles to be used at another time. If we consume more glucose than we utilize or that we can store as glycogen, we then convert it into fat. Once our blood sugar rises the pancreas secretes the hormone insulin. It is insulin that facilitates the movement of glucose into the cells for use. When the insulin levels in the body are high the body is in fat accumulation mode. When insulin levels are chronically high, we develop insulin resistance, and our bodies need to secrete more of it for the same effect. When our glucose levels are low, in order to maintain that balance, the pancreas releases glucagon. Glucagon converts the glycogen that we have stored back into glucose. There are many places along this path that can be disrupted and upset the balance.
Sleep, which is a non-negotiable all on its own, also has a direct effect on our blood glucose levels. During sleep, our body repairs and restores itself and this includes regulating glucose metabolism. When sleeping, the body undergoes several metabolic changes that help regulate blood sugar levels. The liver releases less glucose into the bloodstream during sleep which helps prevent high blood sugar levels and lack of sleep can disrupt this process. While sleeping the body produces more of the hormone leptin which promotes the uptake of glucose into cells for energy and reduces glucose production in the liver. Sleep deprivation can disrupt the normal circadian rhythm of hormones that regulate glucose metabolism. For example, lack of sleep can lead to increased production of cortisol and decreased production of leptin which can contribute to insulin resistance and higher blood sugar levels. Sleep deprivation can also reduce growth hormone levels which plays a role in glucose metabolism and can improve insulin sensitivity. And I don’t know about you, but I have experienced that after not getting enough sleep, I crave more sugar the next day as a source of energy.
Relaxation plays an important role in blood sugar management by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for the rest and digest response in the body. When the body is in a relaxed state, PNS releases the hormone acetylcholine which stimulates the production and release of insulin from the pancreas. Insulin then helps to transport glucose into cells for energy or storage, reducing the amount of glucose in the bloodstream and regulating blood sugar levels. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. These relaxation techniques can also help to reduce behaviors associated with what might be considered emotional or triggered eating behaviors and promote more blood sugar supportive food choices. Stress reduction and relaxation have a significant impact on cortisol regulation, inflammation reduction, autonomic nervous system balance, and the gut brain access. Each of these things influence insulin sensitivity, blood sugar control, and metabolism.
Regular exercise and movement improve insulin sensitivity, and helps glucose uptake, supports glycogen storage, aids in weight management, and promotes better blood sugar control. The way this works is that during exercise muscles rely on glycogen as a fuel source. As exercise intensity increases, muscles more readily utilize glycogen. This process helps to deplete glycogen stores within the muscles which triggers a response to replenish those stores. Over time, this adaptive response leads to an increasing glycogen storage capacity in the muscles. This increase in storage capacity allows the muscles to store more glucose for future energy needs enabling better endurance during subsequent exercise sessions. When glycogen stores are depleted, the body becomes more reliant on glucose that is already in the bloodstream for an immediate energy source which promotes better glucose uptake. Depleted glycogen stores can also lead to an increase in the utilization of fat for fuel. When glycogen levels are low the body shifts to using stored body fat as an energy source which can potentially help us lose fat and improve body composition. Depleting glycogen stores through exercise enhances insulin sensitivity making the cells more responsive to insulin, which is a really good thing. One interesting thing regarding exercise and blood sugar balance is that it stimulates glucose uptake in muscle cells independent of insulin, this is why exercise can be so helpful to those people who have insulin resistance.
And when it comes to diet quality quantity, diversity, and timing matter. Eating highly processed foods containing added sugars, refined grains, inflammatory fats, and various chemical additives contribute to blood sugar imbalances in a myriad of ways. Eating minimally processed Whole Foods and preparing meals from scratch using fresh ingredients allows for better control over the quality of nutrients consumed and supports our health. Eating a combination of fiber, fat, and protein in every meal helps with blood sugar balance. All of these ingredients slow down the breakdown of sugars and uptake of glucose into our bloodstream. Always consider the quantity of carbohydrates in each meal as well. It makes sense that eating a larger amount of carbohydrates at one sitting will cause a spike in our blood sugar levels. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables provides us with antioxidants and fiber which can help modulate blood sugar levels. Fiber found in whole foods is beneficial for blood sugar management because it slows down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, leading to a more gradual release of glucose into the bloodstream. This helps prevent rapid blood sugar spikes and supports better glycemic control. When it comes to timing, consuming carbohydrates earlier in the day particularly in combination with physical activity may result in better blood sugar management compared to consuming a high carbohydrate meal later in the day. Having regular mealtimes and spacing meals evenly throughout the day can also help maintain more stable blood sugar levels. Also, when talking about timing, I should bring up intermittent fasting, as it is a popular topic these days. Although this may not be for everyone, overnight fasting allows the body to utilize stored glucose or glycogen and use fat for energy leading to a gradual decline in blood sugar levels. This can help maintain a steady blood sugar profile and enhance insulin sensitivity. By extending the fasting period, intermittent fasting can enhance the body’s response to insulin and help regulate blood sugar levels. This can help the body’s ability to switch between using glucose and fats for energy and this flexibility can enhance overall metabolic health and support blood sugar balance.
Proper hydration is important for so many health reasons but when talking about blood sugar it supports insulin secretion from the pancreas, it helps maintain proper blood volume and circulation which helps transport glucose throughout the body. Hydration is vital for kidney function and when blood sugar levels rise the kidneys help excrete excess glucose through urine. Also staying hydrated can help support appetite and thirst cues since often thirst can be mistaken for hunger.
So, as you can see, it is not just about eating that candy bar that results in a spike in blood sugar. Our body relies on a delicate balance of hormones which work together like a symphony. If one instrument in the orchestra is playing the wrong notes, it affects the resulting music. It is in this same way that our hormones work together to keep us balanced. As I always say- Everything is connected!
Robin Davies, DMD, CHC