26 Life-Saving Facts About Glucose Even Non-Diabetics Should Know
Glucose, otherwise known as blood sugar, plays a huge role in your health—whether you have diabetes or not. Here’s how to control it.
Why blood sugar should be low and steady
High blood glucose can lead to prediabetes, so it’s crucial to keep it in check. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1 in 3 Americans has the condition, and many don’t know it because it causes few symptoms. That’s why everyone can benefit from learning about glucose and how to avoid raising it. Blood sugar spikes, which can occur after a big meal, can leave you feeling sluggish afterward, and in the long-term, frequent spikes will raise your average blood glucose level (known as the A1C). So what should your glucose level be? The American Diabetes Association says that a fasting glucose level of less than 100 mg/dl is normal, with 100 to 125 as prediabetes, and over 125 as diabetes. Your A1C level should be less than 5.7 percent.
Foods are turned into glucose
Before thinking about ways you can kick your sugar addiction, you should understand what exactly glucose is. “When you eat food, your body needs to convert it into the simplest form of energy, which is glucose, to utilize it,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE), and author of 2-Day Diabetes Diet. “Carbohydrates are the easiest food to convert into glucose, which is why they have the greatest impact on blood glucose levels.” When we eat carbs, they’re broken down into glucose as they’re digested. Then, “glucose is absorbed by the cells lining the small intestine, into the bloodstream and delivered throughout the body,” explains Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD, a New York City-based registered dietitian, bestselling author, and founder of The F-Factor Diet.
Simple carbs makes glucose spike
While not all carbs are bad, it’s best to go easy on the “simple” or refined carbs like white bread, pasta, cakes, and other sweets. “The amount of carbohydrate consumed at one time and the type of carbohydrate—complex or simple—will have a great impact on glucose levels,” Palinski-Wade says. Zuckerbrot says to remember portion sizes when eating carbs. “One-third cup of rice, half a cup of pasta, and half a cup of lentils all equal 15g of carbohydrates or one serving of carbohydrates,” she says. “Keep that in mind when portioning out your lunch or dinner. Most restaurants give you double or triple the amount you should be eating in one sitting.” These are the subtle signs you’re eating too many carbs.
Fiber helps keep blood sugar steady
Part of the eight-step guide for better blood sugar is figuring out the fiber content of what you eat. Fiber is what makes complex carbohydrates complex—it’s the zero-calorie, non-digestible part of a carbohydrate that adds bulk to food and swells in the stomach when eaten. Studies have shown eating a diet rich in fiber can help control blood sugar. “Choosing high fiber, complex carbohydrates will slow down how quickly food is converted into glucose, which will help to stabilize glucose levels,” Palinski-Wade says. Whole grains, fruits, nuts, legumes, and other vegetables are high in fiber. In addition, check where the foods you eat fall on the glycemic index and its glycemic load, which rate how quickly the food produces glucose as well as how many carbs it contains.
Where glucose goes
Do you have one of the silent signs of insulin resistance? You’ve probably heard the term before, but here’s what it actually means, and what it has to do with glucose: “Blood glucose levels are controlled by two pancreatic hormones: insulin and glucagon,” Zuckerbrot says. The pancreas makes insulin to help the body absorb glucose (we’ll get to glucagon later). “The pancreas secretes insulin at low levels in between meals and while we sleep,” says Idie Clement, RN, Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) of Piedmont Atlanta’s Diabetes Resource Center. “When we eat, insulin is secreted quickly and takes the sugar from the blood stream so it can create energy and keep the blood sugars in normal range.” Basically, insulin helps the body absorb glucose. But with type 2 diabetes, the body doesn’t respond to insulin, which leads to a buildup of glucose in the blood. This is why people with diabetes need to take insulin shots.
Glucose fuels the brain
Although glucose so far sounds like a bad thing, you wouldn’t be able to survive without it. In fact, among the amazing facts about your brain is that your noggin runs on glucose. According to Harvard University’s Neuroscience Institute, the brain uses the most energy out of all the body’s organs, and so requires half of the body’s sugar. In addition, “glucose is the primary source of energy used by our bodies,” Zuckerbrot says. Once your body has used the energy it needs, “glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles,” she says. If your body runs low on glucose, the pancreas will release its other hormone, glucagon. “Glucagon induces the liver to release stored glucose into the bloodstream,” Zuckerbrot says.
Not eating is not good for glucose
You might ask, will skipping breakfast will help lower blood sugar? It turns out that not eating is not an effective strategy for keeping glucose in check. “Spacing carbohydrate intake out throughout the day to prevent consuming excessive amounts at one time is the best way to ensure steady blood glucose levels,” Palinski-Wade says. A stable blood sugar level means not having spikes or huge drops—plus, low levels might make you overeat or eat unhealthily. “Low blood glucose levels can make it harder to concentrate, make you cranky, and lead to excess snacking or cravings,” Zuckerbrot says. “Keeping your blood sugar stable throughout the day can help you avoid side effects of low blood sugar. Avoid skipping meals, and eat every four to five hours.”
Know the signs of super-low blood sugar
Every diabetic should know these tricks to treat low blood sugar—but what about the rest of us? Turns out that although it’s more common in people with diabetes, anyone can become hypoglycemic, which means having dangerously low blood sugar levels. “Hypoglycemia also can occur in people who do not have diabetes,” says Clement. “Symptoms of hypoglycemia include feeling shaky, breaking out into a sweat, feeling your heart rate race or face flush, hunger, and sometimes, if low enough become unconscious.” The treatment is to get some sugar in you, fast—diabetics might carry glucose tablets, but if those aren’t available drink a cup of juice, Clement says.
Know the signs of super-high blood sugar
In diabetic emergencies, you should know the warning signs and steps to save someone’s life—maybe even your own. The other blood sugar extreme is high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia. “Hyperglycemia happens when excessive amounts of glucose are in the blood stream, typically as a result of consuming too many carbohydrates, which convert into glucose in the blood,” Palinski-Wade says. “This can lead to fatigue, excess thirst, and excessive urination. If blood glucose levels climb to extremely high levels, the risk of loss of consciousness, coma, and even death are possible.” This is another reason to consume the right portions of carbs throughout the entire day.
The difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes
Learning about the two different types of diabetes—or two ways of how glucose is mismanaged—can be an important preventative strategy. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, type 1 diabetes occurs when your pancreas can’t make insulin. It happens most often in children and young adults and is sometimes called “juvenile diabetes.” Type 2 diabetes, in which your body doesn’t use insulin well (otherwise known as “insulin resistance”), is the more common type that develops among adults. It’s also the kind we talk about preventing through lifestyle choices like diet to keep blood sugar regulated. These surprising habits can lead to diabetes.
Illness or stress can affect your glucose level
One way stress could be making you sick is by predisposing you to diabetes. “Stress and illness causes high blood glucose levels because during these times, your liver releases extra glucose to ensure enough energy is readily available,” Zuckerbrot says. “At the same time, cortisol and growth hormone are released which makes your body less sensitive to insulin. As a result, blood glucose levels are higher than usual.” But it’s not irreversible: A Duke University study found that participants with high blood sugar were able to reduce their glucose levels with stress management techniques like mental imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing.
Inactivity also negatively affects blood sugar
As if you needed more science-backed reasons to start working out, here’s another: You can help regulate your glucose levels and reduce your diabetes risk. Why is inactivity linked with higher blood sugar? “Inactivity leads to a decrease in your insulin sensitivity and increases your insulin requirements,” says Zuckerbrot. Exercise uses up your body’s glucose, making your more sensitive to insulin. According to the American Diabetes Association, physical activity can lower your blood glucose for up to 24 hours or more after you work out, and regular exercise can lower your overall blood glucose level (A1C). One study found 25.4 percent of people who exercised for less than 30 minutes per week had abnormal blood glucose levels, compared to only 13.4 percent of people who exercised for more than 30 minutes per week.
HIIT training specifically could help glucosePR Image Factory/Shutterstock
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is the best anti-aging workout, according to science, and one of the ways it may increase your longevity is by lowering glucose levels. “Researchers at the University of Turku, Finland, studied how high-intensity interval training alters the brain’s glucose metabolism in physically inactive insulin resistant people,” Zuckerbrot says. “Only two weeks of HIIT training reduced glucose metabolism in all areas of the brain.” An earlier study by the same researchers found that HIIT increased glucose metabolism in muscles as well. Because the brain runs on glucose, this workout could benefit your mind as well as your body!
Why belly fat is bad for blood sugar
Research has found that having an “apple-shaped” body, or a lot of weight around the middle, is associated with a higher risk of diabetes. The location of fat around the middle, near many organs, may do something to mess with our body’s hormones and cause insulin resistance. And a recent study from Massachusetts General Hospital found that it’s not just an association—there’s actually genetic variants for an apple shape that predisposes the carrier to diabetes. But the good news is, according to the American Diabetes Association, that even losing 10 to 15 pounds can make a big difference in your blood sugar. Try these ways to blast belly fat in a single day.
Who should have their blood sugar tested?
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So, should you get your blood sugar levels checked? It will likely depend on your age and risk factors. The American Diabetes Association suggests asymptomatic people get tested at a minimum every three years over age 45. But, because high blood sugar is “often asymptomatic and can cause complications if left untreated, people with risk factors such as being overweight, having a high-risk race or ethnicity [such as African-American], or lipid problems should be screened periodically with a blood test,” says endocrinologist Kathleen Dungan, MD, of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. In addition, “anyone with a family history of diabetes should get their glucose tested and inquire about having your A1C checked as part of their annual visit to their primary care physician,” Clement says. If you have risk factors, talk to you doctor about how often you should be screened and what age to start.
If you’re pregnant, a doctor will also have you take the glucose tolerance test, which involves drinking a sugary liquid to see how your body responds as a test of gestational diabetes. “During pregnancy, women’s bodies have to produce three times more insulin than normal,” Clement says. “Not everyone can handle this increased demand, and for those women, blood sugar starts going up around the 23rd or 24th week of pregnancy. These women likely will be placed on a special diet to control blood sugar.” Look for these silent signs of gestational diabetes to prevent serious complications.
Symptoms to tell your doc about
If you have any of the clear signs you have high blood sugar, you should definitely let your doctor know. If you’re constantly thirsty, have frequent urination, and are extremely tired, that could point to a blood sugar issue. You should bring your concerns to your doctor especially if you have additional risk factors like being overweight, not exercising, and having a family history of diabetes. But because 90 percent of people with prediabetes don’t know they have it according to the CDC, the best strategy is prevention.
Cinnamon may improve your glucose level
“Some research indicates cinnamon may improve insulin sensitivity,” Palinski-Wade says. “For those with insulin resistance, this may help the body to process glucose more easily, resulting in less of a rise in blood glucose levels.” In one study, those who consumed any level of cinnamon (one, three, or six grams) reduced their fasting glucose level.
Food order may impact glucose levels
Among the sneaky things that raise your blood sugar levels may be the order you eat foods in at any given meal. Research from Weill Cornell Medical College tested what happened when participants ate the same meal on different days. First they ate carbs, followed by protein, vegetables, and fat; another day they ate the protein, veggies, and fat first, followed by the carbs. Both glucose and insulin were lower when they ate the carbs last. “Based on this finding, instead of saying ‘don’t eat that’ to their patients, clinicians might instead say, ‘eat this before that,’” lead study author Dr. Louis Aronne said in a press release. Palinski-Wade says eating the carbs after the other foods may slightly reduce the time it takes to convert the carbs into glucose, preventing a spike after a meal.
Glucose levels may be linked to dementia and Alzheimer’sPhotographee.eu/Shutterstock
There may be more kinds of diabetes than we know, such as type 3c, which occurs after pancreatitis. But there’s yet another type that researchers have been exploring in recent years. “Researchers are looking at how sugar affects the brain—specifically, some are referring to Alzheimer’s disease as type 3 diabetes because of this research,” Clement says. This isn’t exactly surprising given the brain’s reliance on glucose for proper functioning. In addition, diabetes can damage blood vessels, which can prevent your brain from getting the blood flow it needs. But another study of over 2,000 participants found that glucose levels in those who went on to develop dementia were elevated—even among people without diabetes. This means high blood sugar is a risk factor for dementia.
Mindfulness may reduce glucose levels
Mindfulness may help your blood sugar level. In a study from Brown University, participants with high scores for mindfulness, which they defined as being aware of your present thoughts and feelings, were significantly more likely to have healthy glucose levels than people with low scores. The researchers surmised that although it’s only an association, not a cause and effect, mindful people were more likely to self-motivate themselves to exercise and eat right, and to resist cravings. According to study author Eric Loucks, this was the first study to look at the connection between diabetes and mindfulness, which may be a new way to reduce your risk. Try starting your morning with these mindfulness exercises.
Artificial sweeteners don’t benefit blood sugar—or do they?
Among the things that could happen if you stop eating artificial sweeteners may be a better blood sugar level. You might think that the fake stuff helps, but some research has suggested that simply the sweet taste is enough to trick your body’s response, as if it was actually receiving sugar. Another recent study (presented at a medical conference but yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal) suggested that artificial sweeteners may alter the body’s gut response. But, the sweetener stevia may hold some promise for actually reducing blood sugar, according to one study. “Some research suggests stevia may have a beneficial impact on blood glucose levels, however more research needs to be done in this area,” Palinski-Wade says.
The sleep connectionLia Koltyrina/Shutterstock
Fact: You eat more when you’re sleep deprived—385 calories more, according to a recent study. Plus, you’ll likely be craving junk food, which is not exactly great for your blood sugar level. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the connection may be because with lack of sleep, hormones get out of whack, and the stress hormone cortisol may prevent insulin from doing its job properly. With short-term sleep deprivation, levels can go back to normal with two nights of good sleep. But for long-term problems sleeping, including sleep apnea, see your doctor to reduce your diabetes risk.
This antioxidant may fight diabetes
One of the things experts won’t tell you about weight loss is that a compound in red wine might actually prevent insulin resistance. This antioxidant, resveratrol, comes from the skin of red grapes and other fruits. It’s a polyphenol, a plant-based micronutrient with tons of health benefits. “Resveratrol supplementation has beneficial effects on type 2 diabetics,” Zuckerbrot says. “According to a recent study, resveratrol supplementation for four to 12 weeks resulted in reduced fasting glucose and insulin resistance in type 2 diabetics.” Even if you’re not diabetic, it can’t hurt—but check with your doctor before starting the supplements, which are available over the counter.
New ways to self-test blood sugar
Of the most important tests diabetics need, the daily finger prick may be the most important. Diabetics need to self-test their blood sugar to make sure it’s steady, but who wants to deal with the blood and the pain? “A new diabetes blood glucose monitor measures without drawing blood,” Zuckerbrot says. “Recently approved by the FDA, the device uses a small sensor wire that is inserted below the skin’s surface to continuously monitors glucose levels. Wave a mobile reader above the sensor wire and it will display the results.” It can be worn up to 10 days.
The artificial pancreas is a scientific breakthrough
Researchers may have found a way to reverse type 1 diabetes—but in the meantime, diabetics can make due with their very own “artificial pancreas,” which will help them regulate their insulin without injections. It’s not actually a new organ, but a monitor outside the body which continually checks levels and delivers insulin as needed automatically. Last year, the FDA approved the first one of these systems, and it went on the market early 2017.
Know the risks and dangers of becoming diabetic
There are science-backed strategies to drop blood sugars back to a normal range, and Clement says she puts diabetes education at the forefront of what we should all know about glucose. “There is not enough emphasis on the consequences of uncontrolled diabetes and resulting complications such as neuropathy, heart disease, eye disease, and kidney disease,” she says. “In addition to good medical care, diabetes self-management education can help patients learn to take care of their disease.”