We hear a lot about blood sugar.
Television, films, a friend with diabetes, maybe even your family physician. We see characters who have to frequently monitor it, and others placed in life or death situations when their levels drop dangerously low. A cookie! A cookie! My kingdom for a cookie!
But what exactly is going on?
The short answer? Sugar in the form of glucose is vitally important to the health and function of every cell in your body.
That said, glucose performs best within a particular range; too little or too much can cause an avalanche of inflammation or other reactive and often destructive problems. It’s the Goldilocks of compounds: everything has to be just right.
When it’s not, it can have serious negative effects on both your physical and emotional wellbeing.
As the pandemic enters its second year, it’s more important now than ever before to look at nutrition as a contributing factor in health and disease. It’s something we can all control at a time when we feel like we have none.
And balancing your blood sugar is a great place to start.
An Unfair Playing Field
This is going to be much easier for people in middle and upper income brackets. That’s the harsh reality.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture,
“39.4 million Americans live in communities where it is far easier to buy grape soda than it is a handful of grapes.”
A large portion of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths can be linked back to communities forced to rely on nutrient-deficient, insulin-incapacitating foods and beverages.
This is a tragedy of epic proportions that will be covered in detail in a subsequent article.
Today, I want to explore the real-world consequences of our wildly fluctuating blood sugar levels. The modern North American diet is doing us no favors.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had highly evolved visual systems to monitor and navigate their environment. They could generate their own heat which allowed them to hunt during chilly nights. Their pancreas could mobilize insulin, grabbing sugars from the food being consumed, using some as an immediate source of energy while storing the rest away for another time.
These evolutionary processes are still with us today.
And that’s a big part of the problem.
In the modern world, we can quickly consume 2000 calories while expending only 2 to get them: microwavable meals, food delivery apps, drive-throughs, and more.
This horribly unbalanced equation has put many of us on the fast track for disease and dysfunction.
We just aren’t designed for it.
World-renowned diabetes expert Dr. Sheri Colberg uses a practical lock and key analogy:
"In your body, glucose in the blood is trying to get through the door to your muscle and fat cells. To get inside the cells, the glucose must have a key to open the door. Insulin is the key that goes into the lock (insulin receptors) to make it open. If you have the key (insulin), but the keyhole on the lock is blocked or the key won’t turn when it goes in, then glucose can’t enter, and you have insulin resistance — lots of insulin available but not working well. When the keys and the keyholes are functioning well together, the doors open, and glucose enters the cells and lowers the levels in the blood."
And this is where the modern western diet is letting us down in a big way. We’re consuming way too many calories way too often.
The Industrial Revolution started in the late 19th century has boosted crop yields and food security — for most but not all of us — but both food quality and nutritional value has suffered.
The result? Rollercoaster-like fluctuations in insulin levels. Dizzying highs and plummeting lows. The “insulin sensitive” transport and storage mechanisms that served our ancestors so well are being exhausted.
The nutrient-deficient, heavily processed, and carbohydrate-heavy diet that too many of us live on is putting a lot of stress on our pancreas and its production of insulin.
Insulin is no longer the master key that allows sugar to get through locked doors and into its desired location. So the insulin levels in our blood steadily rise and — left unchecked — can lead to “insulin resistance”, type 2 diabetes, and various other physical and behavioral issues.
We’re letting down a system that evolved over eons.
Our modern habits have left the system confused and broken.
Balancing our blood sugar is a crucial step when it comes to improving our insulin sensitivity. A balanced supply positively impacts our brain health, body health, and mood. It keeps every cell happy.
It’s that important.
6 Ways to Balance Blood Sugar and Improve Insulin Sensitivity
But how exactly do we do that? How do we balance out our blood sugar levels?
With time, effort, and these six key strategies:
1. Exercise: If it feels like exercise is the solution to almost everything, you’re right. We could all benefit from a more active lifestyle. In this case, steady-state continuous exercise is a great way to balance blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity and signalling. Keep it at a pace where you can comfortably carry on a conversation. A 60-minute bike ride can immediately improve insulin sensitivity for up to 48 hours.
2. Eat Less: Most of us — myself included — eat too much food. Instead of eating when we’re hungry, we eat when we’re bored, sad, happy, socializing, depressed, celebrating, and so forth. We need to be more mindful about our eating habits. Make the food you do eat more nutrient dense. Add both soluble and insoluble fibre to the mix. In clinic, I implemented an additional two hours of fasting every morning for people with blood sugar issues. Train yourself to eat less without sacrificing good nutrition.
3. No Carbs Alone: We tend to eat a lot of carb-heavy snacks and meals. When you do eat carbohydrates — which are necessary for a balanced diet, of course — try to consume them with a source of protein or good fats such as extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, or fish. This will slow insulin down as it races out of your pancreas and tries to balance your blood sugar. This becomes an even bigger issue in areas of food insecurity where meals often consist of highly refined starches and little else.
4. Move Again: Yes, exercise is so pivotal to good health that I’m telling you to do it again. It’s important to clarify here that “exercise” doesn’t mean you have to commit to 5am sessions at the gym. A simple walk after meals goes a long way in helping regulate blood sugar levels and keeping your insulin in check. It’s also a great habit to start with kids and/or neighbors if you’ve got them. A walking buddy keeps everyone motivated.
5. Sleep: Studies in animals and humans have linked poor sleep to insulin resistance and a host of other health conditions. Unsteady blood sugar levels can often cause you to wake up at night as you battle a release of adrenal steroid hormones (glucocorticoids) ready to rock ‘n roll at 2am. Get. Better. Sleep. Aim for 7–8 hours of uninterrupted, quality sleep each night.
6.Stress Management: The silent killer. A vicious cycle. Stress can result in poor sleep and poor sleep results in increased stress. You can do all the exercise and make all the dietary changes, but if you’re overly stressed and not sleeping well you will have trouble balancing out your blood sugar. Stress even has the ability to remove sugar from storage and put it back into your blood to be used as energy. Your poor brain thinks you’re being chased by a hungry predator when it’s simply a constant barrage of psychological angst. Whatever you can do to reduce or eliminate stress, do it.
I could go on, but these are enough to dip your toe. Start with stress and work backwards from there.
As is frequently the case in life, this is a marathon and not a sprint. It’s a long game. You don’t need to do everything immediately. Start slow. Practice the skills you want to accumulate and you will develop a kind of self-wisdom and expertise that will guide you in your own unique direction.
After nearly two decades in clinic, I can tell you with absolute certainty that no two folks are the same. We can collectively build a solid foundation, but we all respond differently to various incentives, motives, and tactics.
“We become builders by building.” - Aristotle
The goal is to empower you to develop this type of wisdom for yourself. To recognize your own practical, real-world strategies and the ability to build upon them for a healthier future.
I may point you in the right direction, but you ultimately go your own way.