5 Easy Lifestyle Tips to Balance Blood Sugar

"I need to eat something NOW!", is a phrase I used to say a lot. When I said it, it was because I was shaky, dizzy, couldn't think straight and felt awful. I didn't know it at the time but the physical symptoms were signs of low blood sugar. My body was telling me it needed sugar for energy and it needed it NOW!

5 easy tips to balance blood sugar

I was experiencing low blood sugar and it didn't happen often, just occasionally. I never really thought about managing my blood sugar as part of being healthy. Then, peri-menopause started and I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. My blood sugar became something I needed to pay attention to given the low function of my thyroid and the hormonal fluctuations of peri-menopause. Turns out, blood sugar regulation is not just about prediabetes, diabetes and testing for normal A1C levels. There are so many other reasons why blood sugar management is important.


Before we go any further, some may be familiar with the term glucose. A quick definition of glucose, blood sugar and insulin:


Glucose is blood sugar. Glucose is the main sugar found in your blood. It comes from the food you eat, and is your body's main source of energy. Your blood carries glucose to all of your body's cells to use for energy. (Source: Medline Plus)


Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas. Insulin controls the amount of sugar in the blood by moving it into the cells, where it can be used by the body for energy. (Source: Cancer.gov)


A normal blood sugar level depends on the amount of insulin that can be used in the body. Insulin is an energy producer in the body. If the body is not using any energy, it does not need the sugar that is circulating in the blood. When the sugar can not be used, it rises in the blood and collects in the urine. This causes the kidneys to gather more water from the body. Signs of high blood sugar are frequent thirst and urination.


However, when the body requires energy, insulin gives the cells the glucose it needs resulting in normal blood sugar. An easy example to think of energy use is running a marathon.

men and women running a marathon

You may have heard that if you plan on running a marathon you should eat lots of pasta the night before (called carb loading) and be well hydrated. At the start of the marathon, the body will use energy that is stored in the muscle which includes fats, carbs and glycogen. Glycogen is the stored sugar that is available to the body.


As you are running, at mile 4 fatigue starts to set in. This is the time to find a sports drink, which is loaded with sugar. When the sports drink is consumed, it goes into stomach, travels to the small intestine and then into the blood vessels. Some of the sports drink goes to the pancreas. The pancreas creates insulin.


The insulin travels throughout the body to find the cells that are working the hardest because they want the most energy. The thighs are working really hard when running so insulin goes there and the cells in the thigh say "Yes - I want glucose!" Meanwhile, the eyes, which are not working so hard during a marathon, will tell insulin, "I'll just take a little bit."


This example shows why it is so important to manage blood sugar as part of our overall health. The body manages energy at a cellular level. Energy is not managed from major organs such as the brain or pancreas.


In the marathon example, insulin production and the distribution of glucose is the direct result of eating or drinking something. Drinking an energy drink triggered insulin production and insulin was able to carry the blood sugar to the cells in the body that needed the sugar the most for energy. But blood sugar management is more than what we eat or drink. Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels requires a lifestyle focus.


Here are 5 easy lifestyle tips to balance blood sugar.


#1 AVOID SUGAR


Sugar is not a food! However, there is a difference in the types of sugars. Sugar that is found naturally in fruit, dried fruit and even vegetables is not the sugar we should avoid. Natural sugar may be cause for concern depending on your blood sugar levels. But if you have a blood sugar in a healthy range, then the sweetness you get in your life should mainly come from natural sugars.


Added sugars are in products that come from frozen, bagged, canned, jarred, refrigerated and boxed food products. Also, excess sugar is in restaurant meals (regardless if it is a fast food meal or gourmet dining) and prepared drinks (including alcohol). This is the type of sugar that needs to be avoided. Eating excess sugar results in weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's, heart disease, acne, impaired gut function and suppressed immune function.


A study in 2011 showed that if you eat 75 grams, or 18 teaspoons, of sugar daily, your immune system is suppressed for 5 hours after eating. An example of eating 75 grams in a day (Source: CNET):

  • A low-fat, sweetened yogurt can have 47 grams of sugar

  • A cupcake has about 46 grams of sugar

It doesn't take much for sugar to add up! The recommendation for how much sugar to eat in a day is 25 grams or 6 teaspoons. That means that most yogurts should be avoided! You may be wondering, why is sugar found in fruits and vegetables better for you? Fruits and vegetables contain fiber along with sugar which slows down the absorption of sugar in the body. Also, fruits and vegetables contain many vitamins, minerals and nutrients that keep the body healthy. Pre-packaged foods with sugar typically have very few added nutrients.


#2 EAT HEALTHY CARBS


Even though eating a low carb diet is very popular, healthy carbs are not the enemy. There are two types of carbs:


Simple carbohydrates are present in healthy foods such as whole fruits, which contain a variety of vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients. There are also simple carbohydrates in foods that have low nutritional value, such as sugary drinks, candy, table sugar and packaged cookies.


Complex carbohydrates are available in processed foods without much nutrition, such as pasta and white bread. There are also complex carbohydrates in healthy foods, mainly the ones that contain fiber, such as vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains. Whole grains examples are oats, barley, brown rice and buckwheat. High fiber foods are necessary for a healthy digestive system, colon and stable blood sugar. (Source: Medical News Today)


To make this easy in our very busy world, think about it this way. The farther the food is from its natural state, the less nutritious it is for us. For example, an apple would be a good carb to eat. An apple pie from a supermarket or fast food restaurant is not a carb to eat.


Foods that lower blood sugar are great to eat to also maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Focus on leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, avocados, sweet potato, berries, wild salmon, berries, lentils, nuts, black beans and cauliflower. Transitioning to eating mostly whole foods will fill you up so you won't be hungry until the next meal. It will also start to change your taste buds.

bundle of spinach

Every 14 days, our taste buds change. When we start eating foods that are without added sugar, our taste buds stop wanting to taste them! It also means that foods with natural sweetness, such as a sweet potato, taste even better. A study showed of adults who stop eating added sugars and artificial sweeteners for 2 weeks, 86% did not want to eat sugar after 6 days. After the 2-week challenge, 95% found that sweet foods and drinks tasted sweeter or too sweet, 75% found that other foods tasted sweeter, and 95% said moving forward they would use less or even no sugar. (Source: NIH)


This study gives us a great indicator of how quickly our physiology can change. The larger issue becomes the emotions and habits we have and our relationship to food.

#3 EAT HEALTHY SNACKS


Now you may be thinking, the explanation of eating carbs is great but it doesn't work for my lifestyle! I commute to work, need to take the kids to their various activities, manage the house, feed everyone and try to have a little fun when I can. How can I possibly eat healthy all the time? This is where healthy snacks have a role in managing blood sugar.

woman eating a healthy snack

The worst thing you can do is rely on processed and packaged foods for all meals. Your blood sugar swings will be huge and your body unhealthy. Also, snack need to be used wisely. Try to have at least 4-6 hours in-between meals. This gives the digestive system time to process the food you ate and helps keep blood sugar stable. Snacks should be eaten at meal time. Snacks should not replace a meal but instead enhance a meal.


If you find you are hungry in-between meals, a couple of things have happened.

  • You did not eat enough at meal-time

  • The snack is a reaction to a situation such as anger, stress, sadness or boredom

  • You are thirsty. We are usually dehydrated and mistake thirst for hunger. Next time you reach for a snack in-between meals, have a drink of water and wait 15 minutes. If you are still hungry, then eat something.


Here are some snack ideas to eat with your next meal.


  • Roasted chickpea is a great combination to add to any meal. I like to eat them with lunch because the crunch makes me feel like I am eating a chip! You can make your own using canned beans with this recipe from TheKitchn.

  • Healthy popcorn is the popcorn you make not the kind that comes in a microwave bag. Hot air popped is easy to do and inexpensive. The best part is you can top it with whatever topping you want. Garlic, salt and pepper is my favorite!

  • Sometimes you just have to have something sweet after a meal. By not indulging in added sugar all the time, you can have a sweet treat. Healthy sweet snacks such as graham crackers nut butter or a square of dark chocolate or a chocolate chia seed pudding.


#4 MOVE YOUR BODY


Healthy blood sugar levels requires the body use energy regularly. This doesn't mean you have to spend an hour in the gym. If you can, great! But not a lot of people have the time. The best way to get movement into your day is to have regular breaks where you do something.

people outside walking on street

If you are working in an office, set a reminder on your calendar to take a 15 minute walk. If you are in an office building with stairs, simply walk up and down the stairs for 15 minutes. If you are in a small office without a place to walk, go outside for 15 minutes to walk. You may even be able to recruit fellow co-workers!


If you are too busy during the day, when you are at home, try to move for 15 - 30 minutes after dinner. This could mean cleaning up the kitchen or taking a 15 minute walk after dinner or walking in place while watching your favorite streaming show. Movement is a necessary part of life. The saying is true: "use it or lose it".


#5 REDUCE STRESS


Stress makes us sick in many ways. Stress affects our blood sugar by releasing stress hormones. When you’re experiencing physical or emotional stress, hormones are released that increase your blood sugar. Cortisol and adrenaline are other primary hormones involved. This is a perfectly natural response. But if you’re consistently under stress, your hormones and sugar will continue to surge.

square that has dear stress, let's break up written in it

Over time, this can put you at risk for:

  • Heart disease

  • High blood pressure

  • Headaches

  • Sleep problems

  • Chronic anxiety

  • Depression

  • (Source: Raleigh Medical Group)

There are a lot of methods that you can do, at home and for free, to relieve stress. I'll list some next. A question I often get asked is: what is the best method for stress management? The best method for stress management is the one you are going to do! Do not force yourself to do something that doesn't feel natural or doesn't connect with you just because others are doing it. This will generate more stress! Exactly the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.


Here are a few stress reliever practices to try:

  • Deep breathing. When you are in a stressful moment, take a deep breath through your nose, filling your belly like a balloon, hold it for a second and then slowly release the breath from your mouth. Do this 3 times in a row and I promise you will feel better. The worst part is trying to remember to do this!

  • Take a walk. If you can, separate yourself from the situation and go for a quick walk. If you are in an office building, walk a flight of stairs. If you are at home, go outside. It doesn't have to be for long, even 5 minutes away from the situation will help.

  • Color or doodle. Adult coloring books are really popular because of their ability to relieve stress. Giving yourself something to focus on takes your mind off the stressor. If you are at work, doodling can achieve the same thing. Take a 5 minute break from what you are doing and doodle to relax.

  • Reframe the stressor. This takes some practice but once you get used to doing it, it will come naturally. Next time you feel stressed about a situation, take the time to sit and reflect at what positives might actually come from it instead of the negatives. Write down the positives to reinforce the good.

  • Take a mental health day. Tell your family and friends that you need a day all to yourself. Ask them to help by taking care of the errands, to-do-lists, housekeeping, cooking or whatever you usually do and instead, do something just for you. Even if it is taking a bath, spending some quality time with yourself reduces stress. If a full day isn't possible, schedule at least 2 hours.

I could go on and on about activities to reduce stress. Like I said, the key is finding what works for you.


Those are the 5 tips to balance blood sugar. Symptoms, such as low blood sugar, are your body's way of telling you that something is not right. It may simply be your stressed and not eating foods to nourish your body or it could be something else. Paying attention to your body is the first step to figuring out what you need to do to fix it.


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