We’ve all heard about ‘blood sugar’, but what does it mean? Before becoming a health coach, I thought it was a term which was only important for people with diabetes, but in fact, it’s important for all of us to understand and manage it daily. This is because blood sugar levels play a role in energy levels, mood, weight management and various symptoms.
The glucose or sugar level in our blood is the main source of energy for the body and blood sugar defines the amount of sugar in the blood at any one time.
When we consume carbohydrates (e.g., bread, potato, sugary foods etc) sugar is produced when the carbohydrates are broken down and then absorbed by our digestive tract into the bloodstream.
Blood sugar levels are important because they control our hunger, cravings and energy levels and we feel best when they are balanced.
With balanced blood sugar, we have balanced energy levels and a balanced mood. When they are imbalanced, we can feel irritable and anxious, have low energy, low mood, possible weight gain, experience sugar cravings, and the potential to develop type 2 diabetes.
According to Diabetes UK, 1 in 10 people over the age of 40 are living with a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, and there are a further 1 million people living with type 2 diabetes but not diagnosed, which in total equates to 4.7 million people. It is estimated that there will be 5.5 million people with type 2 diabetes by 2030.
How does blood sugar work in the body?
Every time we eat something, our pancreas produces insulin (hormone) which is released into the bloodstream to regulate/balance the level of sugar in the body. Insulin is responsible for 2 things: determining how much sugar stays in the bloodstream, and how much sugar is stored in body cells.
In more detail, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose (sugar), which enters the bloodstream and at the same time, the pancreas produces insulin to regulate how much sugar enters the bloodstream and how much is transferred to body cells for energy or storage (i.e., muscle cells, liver cells, fat cells). Insulin is a bit like a lock-key, where it unlocks the body cells so that excess glucose goes out of the bloodstream and into the cells. In this role, it re-balances the blood sugar levels to where they should be and provides the right energy where it is needed in the cells so they can function optimally, and we, therefore, feel good.
What happens with excess sugary foods?
Let’s say we eat a meal which contains a lot of sugar or carbohydrates, our body receives more glucose than it really needs in one go. Our body can cope with this when it is an exception and bring the body back to balance within a few hours, however, if we consume excess sugar or carbohydrates consistently over time, our body system becomes stressed.
It needs more and more insulin from the pancreas to cope with the excess sugar, and eventually, the body becomes resistant to the job of insulin, and this is called insulin resistance. At this point two things happen – the bloodstream contains high blood sugar levels, and the body cells become starved of energy to function because the body isn’t responding to the job of insulin.
The effect is low energy levels, mood swings and a craving for more sugary foods because the body wants to get back in balance. This is a vicious cycle. This process also leads to weight gain because excess fat (because the body is not burning it) is then stored around the middle/waist.
The reason this is important to recognize and act on is that weight gain and insulin resistance are potential pre-cursors for Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Is there a simple solution?
Recent research shows that each of us has a different response to sugar/glucose in the body and what works for one, may not work for another. Our body’s responses however are consistent, so we can look at patterns of behaviour to identify how we are feeling after we eat, and then work to address it.
Here are some ways you can actively address balancing blood sugar levels and reverse insulin resistance.
Six ways to balance blood sugar
1. Cut out processed refined carbohydrates (white bread, white pasta, white rice, cakes, biscuits, sweets, and sugary drinks).
2. Switch white foods for wholegrain alternatives, and increase your intake of fruit and vegetables, which are nutrient-dense and high in fibre, keeping you fuller for longer.
3. Keep a food tracker and monitor dietary intake and write down how you feel after meals, i.e., what makes you feel sluggish and low-energy, and what makes you feel balanced and optimal energy. Then replicate what meals work and make you feel the best.
4. Balance meals using the 'PFF' formula, which means ensuring you always have Protein + Fats + Fibre in every sitting. This ‘palm’ diagram will help to make this work for you because it will also help address portion control. Carbohydrate quality and quantity are important!
5. Take daily exercise, preferably first thing in the morning. Even just for 30 minutes, such as a brisk walk or gentle jog because this will help you to sleep. Getting adequate sleep (7-9 hours per night) is one of the ways to manage insulin sensitivity.
6. Managing stress levels is also important because when under stress our body produces cortisol and glucagon (hormones) to respond, which also raises blood sugar levels. We can also make poor food choices when we are feeling stressed out, reaching for sugary foods to compensate for low mood and anxiety.
It’s important for all of us to understand and manage it daily because blood sugar levels play a role in energy levels, mood, and weight management. With balanced blood sugar, we have balanced energy levels and a balanced mood. When they are imbalanced, we can feel irritable and anxious, have low energy, low mood, possible weight gain, experience sugar cravings, and the potential for type 2 diabetes. Currently, 1 in 10 people in the UK have type 2 diabetes, and the number is increasing.
When we eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose, and the pancreas produces insulin to control the level of sugar in the bloodstream and utilize it for body cells. Excess sugar consumption over time can lead to weight gain and insulin resistance, as well as type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Actively balancing blood sugar levels means we have balanced energy levels, weight management, a balanced mood, and no sugar cravings.
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