Your body works hard to keep the sugar in your blood at a safe level. As soon as you eat that cookie or bowl of pasta, your pancreas starts putting out the hormone insulin to process the sugar you’ve taken in.
Too much sugar in your blood makes it thick and syrupy, which is not good. Imagine how much extra work that is for your heart as it tries to pump goopy blood around your body.
In the short term, a spike in your blood sugar will cause a sugar rush, followed by a sugar crash, with all the cravings and lethargy that go along with that.
In the long term, repeated spikes in your blood sugar can cause heart problems, kidney problems, problems with eyesight, and nerve issues like neuropathy, where you lose feeling in fingers and toes.
“When we work our pancreas too much by consuming simple sugars that cause sugar spikes, it’s going to tell us, ‘I'm tired, and I need a break,’” says dietitian Kendall Stelwagen. “It can’t keep up with the amount of insulin needed to deal with the sugar, and that's when we're going to see insulin resistance, prediabetes, Type 2 diabetes and related heart problems.”
Here are four things Stelwagen and dietitian Sheila Vo want you to know about keeping your blood sugar in check.
1. There are specific measures for fasting blood sugar. “Fasting blood sugar should be 99 mg/dL,” says Vo, citing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Another measure we use is called A1C, which measures average blood sugar over three months. Your A1C level should be no more than 5.7%.” Both of these measures are gathered by a blood test.
2. Complex carbohydrates help control blood sugar. Every food you eat is turned to sugar – it’s the main energy source for your body. But for some foods, this process takes longer, which gives your body more time to deal with the sugar. This is why brown rice, whole wheat pasta and whole wheat bread are healthier for you. The extra fiber slows down digestion, helps you avoid a sugar spike and makes you feel full for longer. The refined white versions will strain your pancreas and likely make you want to eat more.
“The insulin your body releases to control the sugar actually makes us hungry, so after your sugar spike, you're going to be reaching for more things to eat,” says Stelwagen.
Other simple swaps are switching from fruit juice to eating whole fruit or switching out sugary jelly for sugar-free peanut butter on your toast.
3. Exercise helps your body regulate blood sugar. Regular light to moderate exercise improves how your body uses insulin, so you don’t need as much to keep blood sugar at a healthy level.
“Even for people who are diabetic, exercise helps with insulin uptake so that you require less insulin,” Stelwagen says.
4. Managing stress can help avoid blood sugar spikes. It’s well known that stress negatively affects our bodies. One of the reasons is that it knocks our hormones out of balance. When we are in a moment of stress, the hormones adrenalin and cortisol are released, and our blood sugar rises to give us energy to deal with the immediate threat. This is helpful initially, but if you are under chronic stress, it’s a problem.
“It can be so hard balancing work and family, and the pandemic has increased stress for so many people,” says Vo. “When we struggle to balance our lives, our body struggles to balance our sugar levels, hormone levels and many other aspects of our system.”
Lack of sleep will also affect your body’s ability to use insulin to keep blood sugar down.
“This is why it’s important to focus on your lifestyle,” says Vo. “Try new healthy foods, exercise, prioritize sleep as much as you can, all this will help your body manage your sugar levels and keep you healthy overall.”