by Barbara Sobel, Certified Nutritionist and Licensed Dietician
Blood Sugar Balance
You don’t have to be diagnosed with diabetes or pre-diabetes to be interested in managing your sugar balance. Blood sugar affects mood, weight gain, energy, cognition, sleep, hormones, and appetite, and it can be very, very difficult to fully recover from a chronic disease without balancing blood sugar.
Signs of Blood Sugar Imbalances
If you are experiencing low blood sugar symptoms you might feel tired before you eat, spacey, hangry (angry and hungry), shaky, or a sense of increased anxiety or moodiness between meals. You might notice brain fog, or have problems staying asleep all night. You may have trouble keeping weight on or gaining weight. You may eat healthy foods, but rely on small meals with a lot of snacks throughout the day or larger meals and go too long without eating. You will likely feel better after you eat.
Contrastingly, symptoms of high blood sugar include feeling tired or experiencing difficulty concentrating after eating (you know that feeling like you want to take a nap after lunch). You may have symptoms of chronic inflammation, depression, joint pain, hormone imbalances, or thinning hair. You may have trouble getting motivated to exercise, but feel better after doing so. You may also have trouble losing weight.
Normal Blood Sugar Curve
What does it look like when our blood sugar levels are normal? When we eat something, our blood sugar increases, and over a period of time (about two hours) it comes back down forming rolling hills up and down throughout the day.
If we eat something that spikes our blood sugar, maybe we stop by the coffee shop in the morning and start the day with a coffee and a muffin, we will see our blood sugar spike to a peak and then oftentimes decrease very quickly, leaving us feeling like we need to eat again about two hours later.
You may have heard the term low glycemic foods. Low glycemic foods are foods that do not spike your blood sugar. There are different ways to measure the glycemic reaction in foods.
While these tools are very helpful, they can become cumbersome to remember. By adding something with protein, fat, and/or fiber to a meal or snack, we can decrease the effect of a higher glycemic food (foods that turn to sugar in our bodies more quickly) on our blood sugar.
For example, for most of us eating a handful or two of raisins as a snack on their own will spike our blood sugar, but put a few raisins in a chicken salad or on celery sticks with peanut butter and our blood sugar would stay much more stable with those rolling blood sugar hills instead of spiking up and down.
In general, whole foods help keep our blood sugar more stable than processed foods. If we are sensitive to food, it can cause our blood sugar to increase. And sometimes too big of a serving of even healthy foods can increase our blood sugar.
It is Not Just What We Eat
A lot of different factors can affect our blood sugar balance. What we eat, when we eat, how much we eat, our sleep, how we manage stress, and if and how we are exercising.
Eating a banana on its own first thing in the morning is probably going to spike blood sugar and then send it crashing down. Add some almond butter to the banana and both the spike and the crash will soften. Make some chia pudding with chia seeds and coconut milk, top with sliced almonds and a little bit of banana, and the change in your blood sugar will likely be minimal. This is because, with the chia pudding, we have added fat, fiber, and protein. Fat, fiber, and protein help slow down how fast we absorb the sugar in foods, and that will in turn will help lower our blood sugar response to food.
Measuring Blood Sugar
I have been tracking my blood sugar for several years with a continuous glucose monitor (more below). If I have a few nights of not enough sleep, no matter what I eat, my fasting blood sugar and my blood sugar response to the food I eat during the day are higher than normal. If I am not managing stress well, the same increase in blood sugar occurs.
When I go on a hilly hike, ride my Peloton, or go for a strenuous bike ride, my blood sugar response increases as a result of the stress of exercise. The increase in my blood sugar caused by exercise is short-lived and returns to normal fairly soon after I stop exercising.
It is an adaptive function, but it took a little getting used to when I first noticed it. When I go for a regular walk or practice yoga, I usually see my blood sugar go down. Going for a walk after dinner can be a great way to help lower your blood sugar if you have overindulged.
Blood Sugar, Insulin, and Glycogen
Our blood sugar levels can change very quickly. Insulin is a hormone that is secreted by the pancreas. Its job is to move glucose from our bloodstream into our cells so that our body can make the energy it needs. Any extra energy from glucose gets stored in the liver, muscles, and fat cells. The more glucose we have in our bodies, the more insulin we create.
If our insulin levels stay too high for too long, we can develop pre-diabetes or insulin resistance, which can progress to Type 2 Diabetes. Fortunately, making some changes to diet and lifestyle can reverse this process.
Glucagon is a hormone that is also produced by the pancreas and gets released when our blood sugar is too low. It helps our bodies break down stored sugars (glycogen) that are then released into the bloodstream to increase our blood sugar and give our cells the energy they need. Severe hypoglycemia, very low blood sugar, can be life-threatening, but for those who experience more chronic low-grade low blood sugar, making changes to your diet and lifestyle can be very helpful.
How to Measure Blood Sugar
If you have had routine blood work done lately, they probably checked your blood sugar by measuring your fasting glucose. This is a one-time, in-the-moment measurement. You can ask your doctor to measure your Hemoglobin A1c to get a sense of how your blood sugar is doing over the last three months. You can also ask for a fasting insulin blood test that will show how your insulin is responding to the glucose in your body. This is a really helpful marker, but not always included in routine blood work.
You can test your own glucose at home by wearing a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), a small button that you insert onto your arm, and measuring your glucose with an app on your phone. You can ask your doctor to prescribe a CGM if you think you are experiencing issues regulating your blood sugar or buy one through several online companies (Levels, Nutrisense …). You can also go to the drugstore and buy an inexpensive finger prick test kit and test your own blood sugar at home.
The nice thing about measuring your blood sugar at home is that you can measure your blood sugar right when you get up in the morning before you eat, right after you eat, and again 1 and 2 hours after you eat so you can see your fasting glucose level and your individual response to specific foods. Track this data for a few weeks and you will have some incredible information to help you make better decisions about what to eat and when.
My Experience with My Blood Sugar
A couple of years ago, I had some routine blood work done and my fasting glucose was a little bit higher than I wanted it to be. Diabetes runs in my family, and I didn’t want to be on the path to being diagnosed with it at some point in the future. My doctor prescribed a CGM and I started monitoring my fasting blood sugar, and my response throughout the day to see what foods were triggering my blood sugar elevation.
Tracking my blood sugar has really helped me dial down on my daily meditation practice and get enough sleep. If I practice those well, I have more flexibility in what I can eat while keeping my blood sugar regulated. I have learned that some restaurant meals that seem to be low in sugar or simple carbohydrates contain hidden sugar so I order differently now. My husband makes a delicious gluten-free buckwheat bread, but it spikes my blood sugar, so if I want to enjoy a piece, I have a small piece and I eat it with protein, fat, and fiber. For me, measuring my blood sugar is empowering and it helps me feel better.
Bossa Bars are one of my favorite go-to foods in my pantry. I really try to eat whole, fresh foods as much as possible, but sometimes I get in a time crunch or I just don’t feel like cooking something. I like to keep a well-stocked pantry so I have good choices during those times.
What I really like about Bossa Bars (a bar specially created to support women along their menopausal journey and beyond) is that they are gluten, dairy, corn, soy, and egg free. They are a good source of protein, healthy fat, and fiber with no added sugar. They are sweetened with dates but do not affect my blood sugar when I eat them, even on an empty stomach. And I think they taste great. The chocolate is my favorite for a grab-and-go snack and I like the almond for breakfast.
I recently did my own little test to see how Bossa Bars affected my blood sugar. I fasted from dinner to breakfast, made myself a cup of black coffee and a glass of water, and sat down to eat an almond Bossa Bar for breakfast.
I checked my blood sugar before I ate with my CGM it was 92 mg/dL. I ate the bar and 1 hour later my blood sugar had increased to 97 mg/dL, a very small increase. We want to pay special attention to foods that spike our blood sugar after we eat them. Two hours later, my blood sugar was down to 94 mg/dL. Almost the same as my fasting level, which is a win in my book! Ready to try them for yourself?
For more information about Barbara Sobel Nutrition visit https://barbsobel.com/