Is Your Blood Sugar Creeping Up & Increasing Your Pain?
by Buffy Owens
Blood sugar is literally that: the sugar in your blood. Your blood contains all kinds of important nutrients and other substances that you need to be healthy. Including glucose (i.e. sugar), which is a crucial energy source for your brain and your red blood cells. Blood is the liquid transporter that distributes these compounds to all parts of our bodies.
Sugar (a type of carbohydrate) is one of our body’s main fuels. The other two fuels are fat and protein. I call it “fuel” because our cells literally burn it to do work. It’s this “biochemical” burning of fuel in all of our cells that is our metabolism.
So, how does blood sugar get too high?
In this post, I’ll talk a bit about blood sugar balance, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and pain. Then I’ll give you 10 proven strategies that can help manage blood sugar level naturally. The good news is that blood sugar levels are responsive to diet and lifestyle upgrades.
You have the power to help manage your blood sugar with these key strategies!
A Bit About Blood Sugar Balance
Our body strives to be in balance. It exerts a lot of energy to make sure that our systems are all running smoothly. Our digestive system, nervous system, cardiovascular (heart & blood vessels) system, etc. And this includes our blood too. Our bodies try to balance our blood pressure, blood volume, blood sugar, etc.
There is a normal and healthy range of sugar levels in our blood. The problem doesn’t start until these levels are out of range, i.e. too high for too long.
Here’s how our bodies strive to maintain optimal levels of blood sugar:
We eat a food containing carbohydrates (i.e. sugar and/or starch). This includes whole foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. But it also include processed and refined foods as well.
Our digestive system breaks down the sugar and/or starch into smaller sugars like glucose. These smaller sugars are then absorbed into our bloodstream. This naturally raises our blood sugar level.
When our blood sugar gets too high, the pancreas (a gland in our digestive system) sends out insulin. Insulin is a hormone that tells our muscles, liver and, ultimately, fat cells to grab that sugar from the blood. These cells use the sugar they need for energy now, and store the rest for later.
The muscles and liver store sugar (e.g. glucose) temporarily. When we need it, our muscles and liver give up their sugar into the blood. This happens, for example, when we haven’t eaten for a few hours, we’re exercising, or we’re under stress.
As you can see, the amount of sugar in your blood is constantly flowing up and down. Up when we eat; down when the insulin tells the cells to pull it out of the blood. Then up again when we eat again and/or start using some of the stored glucose. And down again as it’s used (burned) or stored.
This is all good and healthy! This is what we aim for.
Blood sugar imbalance
(insulin resistance & type-2 diabetes)
The problem is when the balance is thrown off. When the blood sugar ups and downs become unhealthy. When the “ups” get too high, and they stay there for too long.
Too much blood sugar can cause heart rate issues (arrhythmias), and in extreme cases, even seizures. Too high blood sugar for too long can eventually cause long-term damage to organs and limbs.
A healthy blood sugar balance is key.
A common way our blood sugar gets too high is when we eat a lot of sugar or highly processed carbohydrates (breads, pastries, pasta, etc.) in a short time. Our digestive system absorbs as much sugar from our food as possible. This is an evolutionary thing. We inherited this from thousands of years ago when food was scarce and the next meal was unknown. Our bodies adapted to crave, absorb, and store as much sugar as possible in one sitting, because it didn’t know how long it would be until the next meal. It’s a survival mechanism.
Over the years, if we frequently eat a lot of sugar and have increased body fat, our bodies can change. The muscle and liver cells start ignoring insulin’s call to absorb sugar from the blood. They become “insulin resistant.” When this happens, the sugar stays in the blood for a lot longer than normal. Blood sugar levels become too high for too long.
But this doesn’t stop the pancreas from releasing even more insulin. When this happens you have the paradox of high blood sugar and high insulin.
Some symptoms of insulin resistance are:
Fatigue & drowsiness after meals
Intense cravings for sweets after meals
Sugar cravings that don’t go away, even if sweets are eaten
Constant hunger and thirst
Difficulty losing weight
Waist girth equal to or larger than hip girth
Wandering aches & pains
Trouble falling asleep
Too-high levels of both blood sugar and insulin is not a healthy place to be in. In fact, it can be dangerous and lead to pre-diabetes, and eventually type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is a long-term (a.k.a. “chronic”) condition of too high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and inflammation. It increases the risk of many serious conditions like heart disease, kidney disease, blindness, and amputation. Not to mention the number of medications often prescribed to try to keep blood sugar balanced.
Does high blood sugar impact your pain?
Another problem with high blood sugar is that it promotes the production of advanced glycation end-products, or AGEs. AGE compounds are sometimes called Glycotoxins because they can easily bind with many different cell types and cause damage, oxidative stress, and inflammation. These compounds prematurely age our bodies and have been linked to several serious health concerns and degenerative diseases such as arthritis. In fact, people with diagnosed diabetes are nearly twice as likely to have arthritis. OUCH!
But that's not all.
Those with diabetes can also experience diabetic neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that can occur if you have diabetes. The nerve damage is caused by high blood sugar and the damage can occur anywhere throughout your body. However, for most, diabetic neuropathy damages nerves in their legs and feet. For some people, these symptoms are mild; for others, diabetic neuropathy can be incredibly painful and even disabling.
The good news about blood sugar imbalance
The good news is that improved blood sugar balance can be achieved with clean eating and lifestyle improvements! What you eat, how you eat it, how much exercise and sleep you get, and how you handle stress are all factors that you can improve.
CAUTION: If you’re already diagnosed, and/or taking medications or insulin injections, make sure you speak with your doctor and/or pharmacist before making any changes. They may also want to monitor your blood sugar levels a bit closer when you start making diet and lifestyle upgrades.
10 tips for keeping blood sugar balanced
Here are my 10 best tips to help you better balance your blood sugar with diet and lifestyle upgrades.
Stop eating and drinking things that are mostly sugar
First things first. If a food or drink is mostly sugar, please try to reduce, or even cut it out of your diet. I’m talking sweetened beverages (e.g. soda pop, juice, energy drinks, candy, etc.). Many desserts, breakfasts, and even seemingly-healthy choices like some granola bars often have a lot of sugar.
Significantly reducing these will give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to better blood sugar levels. That’s why it’s my number one recommendation.
Don’t eat too many carbohydrates
Your body digests starches by breaking them down into sugar. By reducing the amount of sugars and starches (carbohydrates) you eat, you can reduce that blood sugar spike that happens right after you eat. This has been shown in many studies.
It’s been said that one of the strongest predictors of blood sugar response is the total amount of carbohydrates in a meal. Reducing your overall carbohydrate intake can help to reduce your blood sugar levels.
Choose “low glycemic” starches
If you’ve already cut out a lot of sugary foods and want to reduce your starch intake, then start by ditching the “high glycemic starches” (i.e. ones that raise your blood sugar too high).
As you can imagine, researchers have measured how fast and how high blood sugar increases with different foods. Foods that are “high glycemic” quickly raise blood sugar quite high. “Low glycemic” foods raise blood slower and to a smaller extent.
This “glycemic effect” is the result of the components in the food itself. Things like the amount of carbohydrate, the type of carbohydrate (i.e. sugar vs starch), and what other nutrients are in the food (i.e. protein, fibre, etc.) as well. The fibre, fat and protein in a food slows down the digestion and absorption of the carbohydrates, so the blood sugar rise slows down too. This results in a lower “glycemic effect.”
High glycemic foods (i.e. ones to avoid) include sugary foods, as well as starchy foods like white bread, many pastas, and rice. Low glycemic foods include ones that are higher in fibre, fat and protein. Examples are meat, seafood, eggs, legumes, sweet potatoes, and non-starchy vegetables.
NOTE: Eating a low glycemic food along with a high glycemic food will help to slow down the blood sugar rise from the higher glycemic food. It’s not just the single food that matters, but the rest of the meal also affects your blood sugar.
Which leads us to…
Eat more fiber
You’ve heard that “fiber makes you regular,” right? It’s so healthy. Most people don’t eat nearly enough. The recommended daily intake of fiber for adults is 21 g – 38 g per day.
This nutrient is not just for “regularity” and gut health, but also for blood sugar balance too. It works by mixing with the carbohydrates in your meal, and slowing down the absorption of the sugars from those carbohydrates.
Some of the highest fiber foods include cocoa powder, flaxseeds, & legumes. So, feel free to add a delicious spoon of cocoa powder to your smoothie, sprinkle flaxseeds on your cereal, and/or add some legumes to your soup or salad.
Eat your protein and fibrous vegetables first
Since blood sugar is affected by the amount of carbohydrates you eat, studies have also looked at the order in which you eat different foods.
A few small studies looked at adults with type 2 diabetes. They all had the same meal, but some were asked to eat their protein and fibrous (i.e. non-starchy) vegetables first; while others ate their carbohydrates first. They found that people who ate the protein and vegetables first had better blood sugar control. One of the studies also showed lower levels of post-meal insulin when the carbohydrates were eaten last.
Another study found these blood sugar benefits to be true even in people without type 2 diabetes.
It’s thought that when we eat carbohydrates first, we start digesting them right away. But, if we eat them after our protein and fibrous vegetables, they have a chance to mix in with the rest of the food in your stomach. This can slow down their absorption, which slows down how fast and high our blood sugar gets after we eat.
The effects of changing food order hasn’t been tested in many big studies, but it seems to be a simple and safe habit to get into to help our bodies better regulate blood sugar levels.
Try to eat your protein and fibrous vegetables first, and starches last.
Fruit is OK ...especially dark berries
Unless your doctor or health practitioner has said otherwise, or you have an intolerance to them, fruit and the fruit sugar “fructose” are generally ok. Fructose has a lower glycemic index than glucose (regular sugar). By replacing your glucose intake with whole-food fructose sources, you can reduce the average levels of blood sugar over two to three months period.
A diet high in fruits and vegetables is great for your health. They contain phytochemicals (phyto=plant), vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Eating whole (not processed or juiced) fruits can help with blood sugar balance. Berries are particularly good, as they contain a lot of fiber and not a lot of sugar. Not to mention that they’re delicious!
Berries, especially dark berries, contain pigments known as “anthocyanins.” These dark-colored pigments have lots of health benefits including helping sugar metabolism in people with insulin resistance. They can also improve your ability to think, and their antioxidant effects are linked to reduced DNA damage.
You can get enough anthocyanins from a regular serving of dark berries, so give them a try.
Seasonings that support healthy blood sugar
Vinegar: Try having 1/2-1 tablespoons of vinegar shortly before or with a meal that contains sugars or starches.
Because a recent analysis of several studies (a meta-analysis) showed that the vinegar can lower the blood sugar by up to 60% and the insulin by up to 130% compared to the same meal without vinegar. This worked for insulin-resistant people. Even healthy people had a significant benefit.
Cinnamon can help to lower blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity. This effect can happen with even less than one teaspoon per day.
It’s thought that cinnamon works by slowing the emptying of the stomach. Slower emptying means slower absorption and slower blood sugar rise after a meal. Cinnamon also contains antioxidant polyphenols (plant chemicals) that may improve insulin sensitivity.
Get enough good quality sleep
Our bodies are wired to work along the sun’s schedule. The objective is to wake up when the sun comes up, and get tired when it goes down. Not enough sleep can affect many of our body’s systems, including negatively affecting our blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity. It can also increase appetite and promote weight gain.
Even one or two nights of poor sleep can affect our blood sugar levels.
Regularly getting enough good quality sleep is a great step toward helping our bodies manage blood sugar.
Get your move on
Remember how insulin tells your muscle cells to pull some sugar out of your blood to store for later? Guess what it’s storing it for?
By moving with vigor (i.e. exercising) and burning that stored sugar, you not only improve your blood sugar levels, but you can also reduce insulin resistance. Win-win-win.
This means your muscle cells, especially when they’re moving, absorb and burn more sugar from the blood. This goes for both medium- and high-intensity exercise.
Manage your stress
Remember we talked about a couple of those things that release sugar stored in the liver and muscles, and delivers them back to the blood? Things like not eating for a few hours, and when we’re under stress. Let’s talk about the blood sugar effect of stress hormones like cortisol.
The reason stress hormones release stored sugar is to prepare for the “fight or flight” reaction. Your body becomes physically ready to fight or run. And to do this, you need fuel in your blood, i.e. sugar.
How can you reduce stress? Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can help to reduce stress and lower blood sugar levels.
If your blood sugar is creeping up, there are some food and lifestyle upgrades you can make for better health. But you don't have to do them all at once. Pick just one thing from this list that you feel comfortable with changing and start there. When you've got that one integrated into your life, add another.
Which of these will help you to better control your blood sugar levels?
Quick Note: There are several medical, diet, and lifestyle approaches to managing medical conditions. None of the strategies that are offered on this blog are intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have any of these conditions or are taking medications for it, please make sure you’re being monitored regularly.