So many things can affect our blood sugar levels... from stress to our chosen foods, lack of sleep to insufficient nutrient intake. Our body requires glucose as fuel. Without it, we just can`t make enough energy to function. Our brains require a large amount of glucose. When we eat, our food eventually will become one of three things. An amino acid (protein), A lipid (fat) or Glucose. Our body needs all three macro nutrients to serve us throughout our lives.
The problem with glucose is... If we eat too many foods that convert to glucose, we often end up with far too much in our system. Too much glucose doesn`t just cause diabetes. It can wreak havoc throughout our organs and endocrine system (our hormones).
Being diabetic is the final straw in having a blood glucose imbalance. Before it reaches that stage we can get uncomfortable symptoms and really send our hormones crazy because of higher than desired blood sugar. We can really struggle with fatigue, brain fog, cravings, inflammation, low mood and menstrual problems way before our levels reach a high enough level to be diabetic, or even pre-diabetic.
What causes high blood sugar?
Sugary sweets and treats are not the only cause of a blood sugar imbalance. High glycemic index foods like breads, pastas, rice, potatoes - (you know, all those starchy comfort foods) convert very quickly to glucose after digestion. These type of white starches are called "simple carbohydrates". It is a really good idea to familiarise yourself with the glycemic index.
It`s not just the simple carbs that can cause a problem. Sugary fruit and milk based treats like yoghurt also convert really quickly, raising your blood sugar. When our pancreas senses a rise in glucose in the blood, it sends out insulin, a very clever hormone that carries excess levels of glucose to the liver to be stored away, like a larder. Some glucose will be stored in our muscles, to be used during exercise.
This larder serves a purpose... if our blood sugar runs low for whatever reason, our pancreas sends another hormone (glucagon) to knock on the larder door and ask for some stored glucose (glycogen) to be released, so that the body can use it. All day long, this little dance between glucose being stored and released happens quietly and effectively, keeping us from getting too tired and mopping up any extra blood sugar.
The problem comes when the larder (the liver) and the muscle stores are full. The insulin has nowhere to put the glucose. It has a plan "B" though and very cleverly turns the extra glucose into triglycerides (fat) and stores it around your middle and in cavities between organs. This is why, even if you eat a low fat diet, or, really count your calories but only tend to eat carbohydrates, you will put on weight. Once your larder is full, your body will convert the glucose to fat.
Blood sugar crashes and fatigue
You are late to work... You only have time for a strong coffee and a breakfast bar or a banana. By 11am, you have had a few more cups of coffee and a couple of biscuits to keep you going. At lunch, you try to eat well so you eat a sandwich and a piece of fruit. By three o`clock, you can barely keep your eyes open and have a serious bout of brain fog. Your concentration is poor and you are getting irritable. You crave a stimulant to keep you going until the end of the day, so you have more coffee and a cupcake. When you get home, you make an evening meal and head off to bed around 10 - 11pm. At 3 or 4 am, you wake up, needing the loo and sometimes can`t fall back to sleep again. By the next morning, you wake up craving biscuits and the cycle continues.
What`s happening? Why do you feel so tired all the time?
Our body needs glucose like a drip... it needs it steadily and slowly throughout the day. When we eat a balanced meal that includes a healthy fat and a protein (both take much longer to digest than a carbohydrate on its own) the conversion of the carbohydrate to glucose is much slower. Our muscles and brain can use the glucose as it arrives steadily. There is only a small amount of work for our insulin to have to do, so not very much is produced by the pancreas. When we just eat a sugary snack - (yes - bananas are very high in fructose! ) or a food like white bread - which converts very quickly to glucose, we get a quick burst of energy from the glucose but then shortly after, a big crash.
The reason for this is that when the glucose arrives quickly and floods our system, rather than drip feeding us, our pancreas sends out a large amount of insulin to get to work. Insulin is very effective and very often will clear all the glucose away - leaving us with too little and not enough to sustain our energy (just being alive takes a LOT of energy). We are left feeling sleepy, groggy, forgetful and irritable. The problem is... what is our instinct when we feel like this? We reach for another high G.I (glycemic index) snack and the cycle repeats. We rely on stimulants, which cause a stress effect on our adrenal organs, releasing adrenaline - which makes us want more sugar! Before you know it... you are stuck in a viscous circle and can`t escape the sugar craving/ sugar crash scenario.
And what`s with those night wakings? Well, because we had those evening/ late night munchies that lead us to having some chocolate biscuits before bed... while we were sleeping, our insulin was being extremely efficient again, clearing out all the sugar. The problem is, our bodies work hard while we are sleeping... our liver is busily detoxifying and our organs and cells are all regenerating. Our blood sugar ran too low and so your body wakes you up with what ever means it can! Often, needing the loo or feeling thirsty.
How our blood sugar affects our hormones Having swings in our blood sugar is a physical stressor to our body. It doesn`t like it at all. Our bodies are incredible and have sensors for pretty much everything - heat sensors, sugar sensors, light sensors, hormone sensors - the list goes on...
When our stress sensors feel that the body is under attack from a physical or emotional stress, it releases adrenaline to cope with the situation. Adrenaline is the hormone that helps you get out of a situation very quickly eg - it would make you run like crazy if an angry dog was chasing you. You remember what this response is called from school - the fight or flight response. It saves your life, one way or another.
The problem is, it is sensitive and activated in many ways... that cup of coffee, that alcoholic drink, the cigarette at lunch, the argument with your boss, the late night last night or the sugary snack all stimulate it.
When your body goes into fight or flight mode, the last thing it wants to do is eat, or make a baby. Mother nature knows that it is not wise to sit down and eat a four- course meal when a dog is chasing you, or, make a baby!
Your body needs energy to run away from that dog. Your body senses the adrenaline and shuts down everything that is not necessary when running away from the angry dog. Your digestion and reproductive system will be the first things to be affected. If you are often eating simple carbohydrate meals, sugary snacks, or sugary drinks then your body is constantly producing more adrenaline than it should be doing. Because of this, you will feel more vulnerable to stress, become overwhelmed more easily, be jittery or anxious and more sensitive and emotional. Your digestion may become sluggish and uncomfortable and you may struggle to balance your hormones. You will experience worse menstrual symptoms than normal too. How to break the cycle and keep blood sugar balanced The trick to keeping our blood sugar balanced is by always eating balanced meals. That means that every single meal and every single snack should have enough glucose to keep the energy of the body going (in the form of complex carbohydrates where ever possible) but, must also contain a good source of protein (think eggs, cheese, quality meats. nuts, seeds, fish, nut butters, hummus, chickpeas) and a healthy fat ( think avocados, nuts, coconut oil, olive oil, fish, seeds). Carbohydrate + Protein + Good Fat For example as a meal - New potatoes (carbohydrate - energy) Salmon (protein and healthy fat combined) with broccoli and green beans sauted in olive oil. For example as a snack - Apple ( Converts to glucose) with a handful of almonds (protein and fat) By ensuring that the meal has protein and fat along with the carbohydrate, the digestion process is slowed right down. This will not only satiate you for longer ( make you less hungry) , but the blood stream will be drip fed glucose rather than flooded with it. The glucose can be used by the muscles and cells as it is released and there is not as great a need for massive amounts of insulin. How to start the day, the right blood sugar way... Never skip breakfast. Never! Your parents were right when they said it is the most important meal of the day. Your body has worked hard all night and hasn`t received any nutrients. It`s sensors are starting to blink as soon as you start moving around and working your muscles - requiring more energy.
If you don`t give your body some quality nutrients within an hour of waking, it will begin to suspect starvation mode and you`ve guessed it, your adrenaline will start flowing. What do you need to run away from an angry dog? You need energy. What can give you a quick burst of energy? A sugary treat! Do you see how just skipping breakfast causes a problem right from the start? By eating a good breakfast containing carbohydrates, protein and fat, you are setting the tone for the day. You have a stable supply of glucose and your body is happy. How you eat in the morning, will affect your blood sugar later that afternoon and night... How you eat today, will determine tomorrow. Remember that. If you want a better night sleep - eat a good breakfast. Healthy breakfasts If you eat eggs, eggs are a great source of protein for the morning. Poached/ scrambled/ dippy or hard boiled eggs with some wholemeal bread and a few nuts after, will set you up really well. Other great breakfasts are: Left over meats with a carbohydrate, mackerel or sardines on toast, avocados mashed up and spread on toast with a hard boiled egg on the side, and porridge - but go easy on the toppings. You are better with berries and nuts and seeds rather than bananas or sugary fruits. Remember that although oats are a complex carbohydrate and convert to glucose slower than let`s say - bread, they are still higher on the glycemic index. Blood sugar friendly fruits are blackberries, blueberries, cherries, kiwi, raspberries, strawberries and non - sweet versions of apples. If you are trying to stabalise your blood sugar in general, avoid all sweet fruits like grapes and bananas until things settle down. Cutting out the treats
When you are in the middle of a blood sugar crash and cravings cycle, giving up the treats can seem incredibly hard. I`m not going to pretend it`s easy, because it isn`t, but it is doable. I know because I have been there! There`s only one way to get to grips with this situation and that is the cold turkey method. If you have anything sweet at all, even in miniature doses, you will crave more. The dopamine receptors in our brains are stimulated by sugar, much like the way illicit drugs act on the brain. If you have a little bit, you will need another fix, and in a larger quantity. The only way to stop this cycle is to cut it out in totality. When you have a blood sugar imbalance, your neurotransmitters are affected by the addictive nature of sugar. Sugar is more addictive than some class A drugs. Not only this, but sugar is the main source of food for bad gut bacteria... the type like candida.
Ever found you suffer from athletes foot or you are prone to yeast infections down below? (thrush) Maybe you get a white coating on your tongue that you aren`t quite sure about. These are all signs that your gut bacteria is imbalanced and most likely because of a blood sugar imbalance. Our gut is host to millions of bacteria. In a healthy individual, most of these bacteria are good guys. They are knows as beneficial bacteria / your microbiome / microflora ... many different names all meaning the same thing.
They are responsible for your immune system being tip-top along with helping you digest your food properly and keeping things moving down below so that you empty your bowels at least once a day. They even make certain vitamins for you by digesting food and creating certain byproducts. They communicate with your brain though a complex gut/ brain connection and will help you keep your mood stable. They do so much more than this... this is just an overview.
When the bad bacteria take over (dysbiosis) then they outnumber the good guys and everything goes a bit haywire. Digestive bloating, trapped wind, excessive gas, hard to pass stools, slow digestion, abdominal cramping, yeast infections, cystitis, immune problem, mood imbalances... the list goes on. Do you remember how I said that the bacteria communicate with your brain through an intricate gut /brain nerve system? well this is where it gets a bit crazy...
When the bad guys are ruling the roost they can literally control your mind. Yes...that`s right! That sneaky little craving at 9pm that makes you get up off of the sofa and get a packet of M&Ms... that wasn`t you... it was the bad guys! They are so desperate to get their sugar fix (because that is what keeps them alive) that they will influence your neurotransmitters in the most intense way to give them what they need. Be warned! When you give up the sugary treats, at first those cravings are going to get pretty intense. The bad bacteria will literally be screaming at you to feed them. They will be stamping their feet and behaving rather unruly. They will begin to subside however, as they begin to die off and be eliminated in your waste. Gradually, things will calm down, but only if you persevere. There`s some tricks that you can try when a craving happens. Try drinking water... this often helps. Some swear by brushing their teeth! Cinnamon xylitol chewing gum can be helpful or have a healthy snack to hand - pecan nuts, lumps of cheese, shredded chicken... anything protein based tends to work. After two weeks you will feel like a new person. SO many people that I have guided through this process will all say the same thing to me after 4 - 6 weeks - "I don`t even crave sugar anymore" and it`s true. Once you get past the change of habit, the bacteria die-off and the cold turkey from the addictive nature of sugar, your system will re-set and you just won`t feel the need to eat or drink sugary foods. If you slip up and eat a little sugar, don`t berate yourself. Tell yourself that it is the bad bacteria that made you do it and just do what you can to balance the snack by eating some protein and fat after. Here`s a little bit of general knowledge for you, to help spur you on in changing your blood sugar balance... Just one teaspoon of sugar can affect your immune system for 2 hours. And just so you know how much sugar is in the food that you are eating, 4g of sugar is the same as a teaspoon full. A can of coke has 39g of sugar. That`s nearly 10 tea spoons of sugar. Try to remember that 4g of sugar is a teaspoon and take a look at what you are eating as often sugar can be hidden away in foods.
How can you keep your blood sugar balanced?
Simple carbohydrates. These are what we call sweet, fluffy and white foods such as white rice, white bread and pasta. These foods are simple in structure, almost devoid of fibre, low in nutrients, and quickly broken down, providing a fast release of glucose into the blood. This is responsible for the ‘high’ that can sometime be experienced from eating sugary, sweet foods or refined carbohydrates but this energy is always short lived. These foods have a high glycaemic load (see glycaemic load handout for details).
Sugars (also labelled as dextrose, fructose, glucose and sucrose), honey, cakes, biscuits, and products with added sugar such as ketchup, baked beans, fruit juice drinks, fruit yoghurt and some cereals. Get into the habit of reading food labels.
Alcohol – keep to a minimum - it can cause wild swings in blood sugar levels.
Stimulants i.e. coffee, tea, cola, cigarettes, drugs. Caffeine stimulates adrenaline which encourages the release of stored glucose, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar. This can be experienced as a ‘hit’, followed by a crash as insulin kicks in to lower the levels.
Eat something within an hour of waking - Your body has been working hard all night long and has used up glucose throughout the night. As soon as you get up, your adrenals will start producing stress hormones until you replace the glucose used.
Always eat breakfast as blood sugar levels fall during the night. Even a small snack is helpful. Always have some protein with your breakfast.
Eat complex carbohydrates. These are what we call thick and fibrous foods such as brown rice, oats, rye bread, beans and lentils. These foods have complex structures, are full of fibre, are high in nutrients, and take longer for the body to break down, providing a slow sustained release of energy (glucose). This avoids the sudden rise in blood sugar that simple carbohydrates can produce. These foods have a low glycaemic load (see glycaemic load handout for details).
Eat little and often, as this helps to keep blood sugar levels stable
Combine complex carbohydrates with some protein, as this helps to provide a sustained energy release. E.g. fruit with nuts, seeds or yoghurt; oatcakes with hummus, avocado, cottage cheese, nut butters, egg, some chicken, turkey or fish.
Dilute fruit juices with water – juicing removes the fibre of the fruit, therefore the body treats these as simple carbohydrates.
Eat naturally fibre-rich foods. These are more satisfying and slow the absorption of sugar from food. Avocados contain a seven-carbon sugar that depresses the production of insulin, which makes them an excellent choice for those with blood sugar problems.
Take regular exercise - this is helpful in balancing blood sugar levels, managing weight and promoting cardiovascular health.
Have a healthy snack before bed to keep blood sugar levels stable through the night – a reason for waking in the night can be due to low blood sugar, when adrenaline is triggered to produce emergency stored sugar. Adrenaline can also increase urination.
Thrive Clinical Nutrition and Naturopathic Health Eve Morley N.T AMNNA FNTP NFPTA