When you hear about monitoring blood sugar, you might think, ‘Doesn’t that only matter if I’m diabetic? I don’t need to pay attention to that now.’ The truth is it’s time to take notice.
We hate to strike a sour note, but an estimated 7 million people in the United States have undiagnosed diabetes, and of the approximately 35% of the population with pre-diabetes, 80% don’t know it. “You should probably assume you have diabetes or pre-diabetes until proven otherwise,” says Lifeforce Physician Renae Thomas, MD, MPH. (Working with a clinician through the Lifeforce Membership will help you get answers.) “However, independent of whether you have diabetes or not, maintaining healthy blood glucose levels is essential for good health.”
In addition to being a predictor of diabetes and crucial to its treatment, blood glucose levels impact your energy, weight, inflammation, cardiovascular health, cognition, sexual wellness, and even how your skin ages.
Because we’re sweet on holistic health, we’re here to break down everything you need to know about blood sugar — from what it is to how to hack it.
What Is Blood Sugar (aka Blood Glucose)?
First, let’s talk terminology. “While the terms blood sugar and blood glucose are often used interchangeably, the medical term is blood glucose,” explains Dr. Thomas. Glucose is a monosaccharide molecule — a subcategory of carbohydrates — that circulates in our blood.
Glucose has a very important job: “It’s the primary source of energy for the body,” adds Lifeforce Physician Dr. Susan Grabowski, DO.
The ‘Sweet Spot’ for Blood Glucose
According to Dr. Grabowski, a normal glucose range is 70-140 mg/dL. Less than 70 is considered hypoglycemia and above 140 is considered hyperglycemia. In the Lifeforce Diagnostic, we consider less than 85 mg/dL (fasted) to be optimal. (Normal ranges are typically focused on highlighting serious health conditions, while optimal levels indicate where you’ll perform best.)
“Your glucose level is controlled by the hormone insulin, which is secreted by the pancreas and released in response to glucose in the blood,” Dr. Grabowski says. “Insulin helps transport glucose into the cells to be utilized for energy. When this system is not working correctly or overwhelmed, glucose can spike and then subsequently crash, leading to hunger. This can set up a roller coaster of spikes and crashes.”
You know that feeling when you’re supercharged for a short burst, then exhausted, hangry, and craving a sugary snack by 4 pm? That is likely a glucose spike and crash. Over time, this pattern can lead to chronic health issues.
The Not-So-Sweet Side Effects of Spikes and Crashes
In the long term, excessive glucose spikes and prolonged elevations of blood glucose can contribute to serious complications such as atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease and heart attacks, stroke, visual deterioration and blindness, erectile dysfunction, nerve pain, peripheral artery disease, loss of sensation, muscle pain and weakness, impaired digestion, and kidney damage and failure, according to Dr. Thomas.
Dr. Grabowski adds that elevated glucose in cells can damage mitochondria from free radicals and oxidative stress. “That mitochondria damage will lead to decreased energy and chronic illness,” she warns. “Elevated blood glucose and insulin resistance has also been linked with skin conditions such as acne and wrinkles, hormone conditions such as PCOS and fertility issues, inflammation and arthritic conditions, dementia and Alzheimers, and even cancer.”
Another weighty matter: Blood glucose has a direct impact on weight management and body composition. “Insulin is a hormone signaling a ‘fed’ state and will shut down lipolysis (a process that breaks down fat) in adipocytes (fat cells). Therefore, elevated insulin from elevated blood glucose will directly cause weight gain, and particularly visceral or midsection weight gain,” explains Dr. Grabowski. “Decreasing insulin is a key component of weight loss.”
There is also a downside to low blood glucose. While it is less common, episodes of low glucose can cause headaches, fatigue, difficulty with coordination, difficulty speaking, confusion, fast heart rate, sweating, shaking, or loss of consciousness, warns Dr. Thomas. In very rare instances, it can lead to seizures or even death for patients on insulin.
The goal is to find that sweet spot and keep your blood glucose balanced.
What Exactly Does It Mean to Balance Your Blood Glucose?
“The term ‘balance your blood sugar’ typically refers to conscious lifestyle choices, such as nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management, which help support blood glucose to remain in optimal ranges, minimizing the risk for insulin resistance, elevated blood glucose levels, or symptomatic low blood glucose events,” explains Dr. Thomas.
To support you in these lifestyle shifts, here are seven easy tweaks you can make to balance your blood glucose starting today.
7 Tips to Balance Your Blood Glucose
1. Start Smart With Breakfast
Breakfast sets the stage for the rest of your day. Dr. Grabowski recommends swapping sweets like pastries and sugary yogurts for a savory meal. “A savory breakfast can be beneficial by starting the day with balanced glucose and avoiding the spiking and crashing roller coaster effect of simple carbohydrates,” she says.
Dr. Thomas seconds that suggestion. She says a breakfast of champions includes low-glycemic index, high-fiber carbohydrates such as bran cereals, oatmeal, and beans, instead of more processed carbs like bread and sugary cereals. Research shows that participants who ate high-fiber breakfasts had lower blood glucose and insulin levels. Additional studies found that giving oatmeal a go for breakfast decreased blood glucose levels and improved insulin resistance.
In her book The Glucose Goddess Method, French biochemist Jessie Inchauspé (aka the Glucose Goddess) provides a formula for the best glucose-balancing breakfasts:
Protein: Such as Greek yogurt, tofu, eggs, protein powder, nuts, or meats
Fat: Such as nut butters, flax seeds, chia seeds, avocado, almonds, or olive oil
Fiber: From vegetables such as spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, or zucchini
Optional starch: Such as oats or whole grain toast
Optional fruit: Any whole fruit, especially berries
2. Load Up on Legumes
“Including more beans/legumes and unprocessed whole grains in your meals will help lower blood glucose after eating them, as well at your next meal and even the next morning,” says Dr. Thomas. “This is known as the ‘second meal effect.’”
Give these legumes some love: chickpeas, green peas, split peas, lentils, soybeans, black beans, mung beans, pinto beans, navy beans, and kidney beans. Unprocessed whole grains include oats, barley, quinoa, farro, amaranth, and brown rice.
3. Sip Vinegar Before Meals
Another tip from the Glucose Goddess: sip a tablespoon of vinegar diluted in water before each meal, especially with starchy dishes. Dr. Grabowski explains that, “the acetic acid in vinegar causes a slower release of glucose in the blood, and also has a positive effect on muscle glycogen.” This all leads to fewer glucose spikes.
In a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, acetic acid was shown to decrease the amount of blood glucose and insulin released after a meal by up to 20%.
The Glucose Goddess Inchauspé recommends diluting one tablespoon of vinegar in a glass of water, and drinking it with a straw within 20 minutes of eating. You can also mix vinegar — including apple cider vinegar, wine vinegar, or rice vinegar — into salad dressings, tea, or sparkling water. (Learn more about this tip in our article: 10 Longevity Hacks to Live Longer and Stronger.)
4. Have a Veggie Appetizer
It’s not just what you eat that matters — it’s when you eat it. Dr. Thomas recommends a strategy called meal sequencing, where you eat foods of low-caloric density such as vegetables, soups, or salads first, followed by protein, then carbohydrates. “This can reduce glycemic and insulin responses post-meal,” she says.
Dr. Grabowski agrees that ordering your meals intentionally is just what the doctor ordered. She adds, “Starting your meal with a protein or fibrous vegetable slows the uptake of glucose in the bloodstream and will mitigate a spike.”
5. Dine and Dash
The dishes can wait — it’s more important to get moving after meals. “Going for a walk after a meal will mitigate a glucose spike because the glucose will be removed from the blood and utilized by the muscles,” Dr. Grabowski says.
Even a small amount of exercise can have big benefits. A study in the journal Diabetes Care found that when older adults at risk for type-2 diabetes walked on a treadmill for 15 minutes after dining, they had smaller blood sugar spikes in the hours afterwards. In fact, those quick post-dinner strolls were even more effective at lowering blood sugar than a single 45-minute walk taken mid-morning or late in the afternoon.
Any type of movement counts, so you can also do simple exercises like squats or calf raises, clean up around your house, or chase your kids around the yard.
6. Supplement With Psyllium Husk
Psyllium husk is a soluble fiber known to benefit heart health and digestion (it is most commonly found in gentle laxatives like Metamucil). A lesser-known perk: Supplementing with just 5 - 10 g of psyllium husk can reduce post-meal glucose and insulin spikes, according to Dr. Grabowski. A study also found that having this type of fiber with food resulted in less hunger and lower calorie intake at the next meal.
7. Track Your Glucose
These solutions aren’t one size fits all, but there’s a simple way to take the guesswork out of glucose. “I always recommend investing in a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) and testing out these different strategies,” Dr. Grabowski says. “Everyone responds differently, and an effective strategy for one person may not be as effective for someone else. A CGM is a powerful biofeedback tool that allows you to evaluate your lifestyle habits that are affecting your glucose — good or bad.”
Curious to learn more about your glucose levels so you can take charge of your health? Blood glucose is one of the 40+ biomarkers we test for in the Lifeforce Diagnostic at-home blood test. Learn more here.
This article was medically reviewed by:
Renae Thomas, MD, MPH; ABFM Board Certified in Family Medicine, ABPM Board Certified in Public Health, & General Preventive Medicine; ABLM Board Certified in Lifestyle Medicine
Susan Grabowski, DO, ABAARM Board Certified in Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine