Originally posted in October 2015, updated with even more awesomeness in November 2019.
Do you know what one of the biggest culprit is behind weight gain, poor energy, frequent sick days, and low mood? It’s blood sugar instability. And just because you’re not diabetic doesn’t mean you’re in the clear from the effects of mild to moderate blood sugar imbalance.
B lood sugar instability is being recognized as one of the most profound and devastating influences on health and wellness today.
Depression, anxiety, low energy, food cravings, disrupted sleep, weight gain, and brain fog are among the many symptoms that may plague you if you are unknowingly struggling with daily blood sugar highs and lows.
Because multiple hormones function together to manage blood sugar, you can have readings well within the normal range, but still have symptoms of blood sugar imbalances. It’s believed that the smallest changes in levels are registered by the brain and manifest themselves as symptoms long before clinical pathology occurs or is diagnosed. This is becoming a major epidemic in developed countries because of our ever-increasing amount of refined, processed and sugar-laden foods consumed.
There’s no denying it, refined carbohydrates and sugar is the biggest culprit behind blood sugar instability.
Blood Sugar Demystified
Here’s how normal blood sugar balance occurs.
When we eat carbohydrates (sweets, fruits and vegetables, bread, pastas and other starches), they are converted into glucose in the bloodstream. The rise in blood sugar levels (synonymous with blood glucose levels) after eating carbohydrates depends on two things:
- the rate of absorption of those sugars into the bloodstream *
- the speed with which the sugar from these foods is removed from the blood and moved to the cells of the body
We starred number one above because how fast the sugars get absorbed into the blood is super important, but we’ll come back to that. First let’s talk about how fast they get be removed from the blood once they’re in there, and how that actually happens.
When the sugars get absorbed and our blood glucose levels go over the normal level, our brains declare an “emergency” (those brainiacs know high blood sugars are not good for us!) and this triggers the pancreas to release the hormone insulin that works to remove excess sugar from the blood. This is a normal process and happens in everyone.
Insulin is what takes care of how quickly the sugar gets removed from the blood, by transporting it to the cells of our bodies, for use as energy or to be stored as fat.
Think of insulin like a shuttle bus for sugar – transporting it out of our blood and into our liver and muscles.
Blood Sugar & Weight Gain
Most of us regularly consume much more sugar than our storage centres can accommodate.
Unfortunately, the storage capacity of our muscles and liver is limited – this is where the problem lies. As soon as the liver and muscles are full, insulin starts transporting the excess sugar into fat cells. This is like a huge party for the fat cells. They are happy to take all the excess sugar that is given to them; they expand and multiply!
Worse yet, the effects of that excess sugar continues to wreak havoc on our weight loss efforts.
In addition to feeding fat cells, high blood sugar also can result in a subsequently drop in blood sugars. This part seems contradicting, right? How can high blood sugar lead to low blood sugar? As mentioned above, the body produces insulin to clean up the excess blood sugar from the blood. When our blood sugar is quite high quite often, we end up with an out-of-control insulin shuttle bus that ends up taking away too much of the sugar. Now we have levels below normal and may be feeling fatigued, unfocused, depressed, irritable or a little dizzy.
Uh-oh, the brain declares another “emergency” because it needs glucose (sugar) to work optimally! So it tells the adrenal glands to release a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol tells you to go eat something to feed your brain. Unfortunately the message that’s sent is often one of an uncontrollable craving for refined carbohydrates/sugar.
Why cortisol? Because it helps make glucose and bring the blood sugar back up when it drops too low. Yes unfortunately, it’s a fat storing hormone, in addition to lots of other nasty things it does in the body (like increased inflammation, reduced digestive function, impaired sleep patterns – more on that in our Adrenals Are Us nutrition program).
Back to blood sugar instability. These daily ups and downs are known as the blood sugar roller coaster and lead to the condition called dysglycemia or hypoglycemia, which can then increase the risk of insulin insensitivity and diabetes. This uneven and irregular alteration of blood sugars can have disrupting psychological as well as physiological effects, and can be a precursor to diabetes and many other health conditions.
Many people struggle unknowingly with dysglycemia, having no idea that their poor sleep, inflammation, inability to lose weight, difficulties regulating body temperature, depression, fatigue, brain fog, or constant cravings could be symptoms of this instability.
Blood Sugar & Disease
It gets worse.
Just like any mechanism, our insulin shuttle bus can get overworked – and like your body in the gym, your insulin process needs rest periods too! When this happens, a couple not-so-good things can happen:
- The insulin bus can’t drive as quickly – which means high sugar stays in your blood for longer, damaging the vessels that supply blood to your vital organs, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, kidney disease, vision problems, and nerve problems.
- The insulin receptors in the storage cells of the body stop working as well, and begin turning away the insulin with the blood attached to it. Now you’ve not only got sugars hanging around in the blood doing damage, but also insulin. Too much insulin can also lead to serious health problems as well – obesity, heart disease and cancer.
But wait, there’s good news…
Full circle back to our number one above, we can control the rate of absorption of sugars into our bloodstream!
6 Ways to Keep Your Blood Sugars Balanced
- Avoid refined sugar. It goes without saying, sugar will surely cause a spike in your levels. Replace refined sugar with natural sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup and eat in combination with whole grains, healthy fats, and/or quality protein. Always have a snack or meal immediately after vigorous exercise. Taxing your body with athletic training will utilize your available glucose and lower your levels, so replace this soon after with a combination of quick release clean carbs (such as fruit) to top up the tank and avoid low blood sugars.
- Never go hungry. Eat a small meal or snack every 3-4 hours (more often if you’re a fast burner with a high metabolism). When you go longer periods without eating, your blood sugar levels will drop.
- Always eat breakfast. You’ve fasted through the entire night and your blood sugars are low. Bring them up to normal with a healthy balanced breakfast within 1 hour of being awake; especially if you are a coffee drinker (which is a stimulant that will raise cortisol levels as well, thereby contributing further to glucose imbalances). Likewise, unless your dinner is later in the evenings, have a small snack with a protein or healthy fat in the evenings before bed. This will ensure you’ve got a slow-release, steady source of fuel through the night as you sleep.
- Avoid eating carbs alone. Always combine with a lean protein and/or healthy fat with your carbohydrates (ie: apple with a small handful of almonds, rice with chicken stir-fry). This will slow the digestion of carbohydrates, thereby slowing the release of glucose into the bloodstream. This maintains blood sugar levels better, and also satisfies your hunger for longer.
- Exercise and meditate daily. Research shows that exercise helps to burn off excess sugar in the blood. Restorative exercise and meditation helps reduce cortisol levels and subsequent blood sugar fluctuations.
- Ensure good quality sleep and stress management. Both contribute to increased cortisol levels and can disrupt blood sugar balance. You might like our foundations program, called Last 10 lbs Food Camp, that talks about these tools and more.