Blood sugar is the concentration of glucose circulating in the body at a given time, or put simply, the amount of digested carbohydrate we have in our blood. The body tries to keep it within a healthy range (typically 5 – 5.5 mmol/L or 90mg/dl, depending on which unit of measure your medical professional uses) in a normal state. Eating food causes blood sugar to rise or fall, and carbohydrates in particular can have a significant impact depending on how much of them we consume.
Carbohydrates are the main fuel that gets converted into glucose, which in turn is used as currency for all the energy processed in the body. The actual amount of blood sugar in the body at any given moment is surprisingly low: 5.5 mmol/L in an average-sized person, or roughly 5 grams. The reason we want to keep blood sugar within a tightly regulated window of control is because, in high concentrations, it can be extremely harmful to our health.
Excessively high blood glucose levels can lead to a whole host of associated side effects, none of which helps one live longer or healthier. The main reason the body wants to keep blood sugar levels on the lower side is because, in high concentrations, it’s actually toxic to the body. Luckily, there is a built-in mechanism to deal with elevated levels, but that too comes with consequences. Humans have the ability to store glucose in the body in the form of glycogen, which is just a series of linked glucose molecules. The muscular system stores the most glycogen—up to 500 grams—followed by the liver, which has the potential to store up to 100 grams. These variables are dependent on a multitude of factors including age, sex, physical size, endocrine sensitivity and activity level. Muscle glycogen stores are especially useful for intense bursts of activity, which is why specific types of exercise can be so beneficial for blood sugar management. Muscle glycogen does not affect the regulation of blood sugar levels.
How the body handles excess sugar Liver glycogen is our tool for regulating blood sugar, as this organ either stores glucose in the form of glycogen, or breaks down glycogen to release glucose into the blood stream if needed. So the question is, when can this system become problematic? Well, when we examine our storage potential, we see that we can store 600 grams of glycogen at most, so what happens if we continue to eat high amounts of carbs after our storage capacity is essentially full? In this situation, the body’s fail-safe mechanism is a process of conversion where glucose is stored in adipose tissue, more commonly known as body fat. Because we have a finite amount of glycogen storage capacity, and since high levels of blood sugar are both toxic and dangerous, the body in its wisdom will convert excess glucose to fatty acids in the liver and send them out in the bloodstream to be delivered to fat cells for storage.
The resulting weight gain is not the only issue we run into when it comes to the body’s effort to control excess blood sugar levels. In an attempt to get rid of excess blood sugar, the body will “stick” sugars to proteins in a process called glycation. This process renders these essential proteins useless because the body no longer recognizes them as proteins. This can contribute to metabolic disruption as well as accelerated aging in the form of oxidative free radical damage.
Other conditions that can arise from chronic excess intake of sugar and carbohydrates include:
– insulin resistance, which results from excessive secretion and requirements of insulin to help control blood sugar elevation – increased levels of inflammation in the body – hypoglycemia which is caused by excessive blood sugar spikes and dips – elevated blood cholesterol and triglycerides – increased risk of type 2 diabetes
Newer research is showing that continuous challenges to glucose metabolism are also associated with neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline. In medical circles, Alzheimer’s is now being referred to as “type 3 diabetes.” Fundamentally, the human body was meant to have a very specific relationship with glucose, and we as a society have unfortunately blurred the lines between necessary and excess. The leading causes of death in North America—heart disease and cancer—are both strongly linked to metabolic malfunction. To make an even stronger case, the rise in neurodegenerative disease development is connected to the shift in consumer shopping habits. So now we ask: What we can do to manage our blood sugar?
Natural solutions The solution to this problem, I believe, lies in the core decisions that will make the most impact, and then specific add-ons that help in acute situations.
1. Reduce carbohydrate consumption: The biggest fundamental change that everyone who struggles with blood sugar management (especially in the case of obesity) can do is to reduce carbohydrates in the diet. There are numerous health professionals who support the new wave of lower-carb dieting, which I personally suggest to my clients. Knowing that we can only store a finite amount of glycogen is only one side of the story. The other half is that our bodies are designed to burn fat for energy during periods of low to moderate activity (that means everything from sitting at a desk to walking around). We still need to sustain blood sugar, but that can easily be done with the right kinds of foods. Root vegetables, select gluten-free grains, low-fructose fruits and non-starchy vegetables are my favourite options.
So focusing on eating healthy fats as a basis of the diet, removing sugars and high-starch foods, and reducing the total amount of carbohydrates are the cornerstones. Foods like avocadoes, nuts and seeds, cold pressed oils, coconut and even butter are rich in healthy fats and other nutrients, and are much more satisfying to help curb food cravings. Most importantly, they have a minimal effect on blood sugar elevation! To this foundation, we can include some “added value” habits to help keep blood sugar in check.
2. Choose low-glycemic carbs: The first habit is to only consume carbohydrates with a low-glycemic load. Glycemic load is a measurement of how fast a specific carbohydrate will raise blood sugar in relation to serving size, which has far more impact than just how fast it raises blood sugar. This is the reason why eating a bowl of watermelon with a high glycemic rating will have much less impact on blood sugar than a big serving of quinoa or sweet potato with a lower glycemic rating but a much higher glycemic load. The watermelon might convert into glucose very quickly, but since a bowl of watermelon might have 10 to 12 grams of carbohydrates, whereas a large serving of quinoa might have 50 to 60 grams of carbs, the body will experience much different effects in terms of blood sugar regulation.
Foods with a low-glycemic rating typically have a higher fibre-to-carbohydrate ratio, as fibre cannot be digested for energy. The benefit of fibre is that it slows the speed at which we digest glucose and absorb it into our system, helping control blood sugar spikes. This habit also encompasses the idea of not eating carbohydrates by themselves. Using the same example of quinoa or root vegetables, combining them with protein and fat will slow down their conversion to blood sugar, and reduce the risk of blood sugar spikes. This will also go a long way to improving satiety and will keep you from getting hungry sooner, which I use as a subjective clinical symptom of blood sugar tolerance.
Beyond diet management, there are a couple of lifestyle “hacks” we can do to have a synergistic effect.
3. Do high intensity exercise: When we exercise intensely, the body burns glucose for energy, which helps us empty glycogen stores. High intensity exercise also improves cells’ sensitivity to insulin, meaning that less glucose is converted to adipose tissue. Lifting weights, sprinting, hill running and basically anything that can only be done with sustained intensity between 60 to 120 seconds are very beneficial for glucose disposal.
4.Take supplements to help balance blood sugar: We can use specific supplements in the form of food and nutrients. Spices like cinnamon help lower the glycemic index of a meal, and as an added benefit, they taste wonderful on roasted root vegetables. Different kinds of fibre can also help manage how fast carbohydrates enter the blood stream, and they make you feel full sooner by increasing the volume in your stomach, making it harder to overeat. Lastly, my three favourite supplements for improving metabolism are B vitamins, chromium and l-carnitine. These nutrients all help improve energy metabolism and aid in insulin sensitivity. In the case of l-carnitine, it improves fat metabolism. Here are some more details:
– Chromium is a trace mineral that improves the working mechanisms of blood sugar control. It helps facilitate the uptake of glucose into cells and is the key element in the glucose tolerance factor. Without proper levels of chromium in the diet, insulin’s action is blocked at the cellular level and blood sugar levels can remain elevated. The recommended dosage for weight loss is 400 mcg per day, taken with food, preferably carbohydrates and protein. – Cinnamon is getting popular due to its insulin-sensitizing effect, as it has a moderately high chromium content along with specific polyphenols that improve insulin signaling and glucose control. What this means is that simply adding cinnamon to carbohydrate-based foods can help with blood sugar response. Research showed that cinnamon reduces mean fasting serum glucose (18-29%), TAG (23-30%), total cholesterol (12-26%) and LDL cholesterol (7-27%) in subjects with type 2 diabetes after 40 days of daily consumption of one to six grams of cinnamon. – L-carnitine is an amino acid that helps transport fat into our mitochondria for energy utilization. Fatty acids cannot directly enter the mitochondria and, without l-carnitine as an essential carrier, it would be impossible to burn fat for energy. L-carnitine is most beneficial in a lower carb state when the body would turn to fatty acid metabolism as a primary fuel source. Optimal dosages range from 1,500 to 4,000 mg, on an empty stomach, to ensure optimal absorption. – B vitamins are essential for energy metabolism and can be used as an insurance policy to maximize the efficiency of converting calories to ATP (the energy currency of our body). B-vitamin deficiencies can result in poor energy metabolism, which, in and of itself, can sabotage exercise capabilities and reduce physical performance. Taking a good B-complex supplement is the best idea, as the ratios of the different vitamins are in balance.
5. Reduce the stressors in your life: Stress pushes us out of balance and promotes weight gain and blood sugar dysregulation. Finding ways to calm the nervous and endocrine systems is enormously helpful, because they are both intimately connected to metabolism and help sustain the vicious cycle if not managed. High stress equals high blood sugar, which promotes hypoglycemia and then cravings for sugary foods. This then causes weight gain, insulin resistance… and the cycle continues. Finding what works for you to manage stress is vital, as not everyone can meditate or do tai-chi or yoga. Within the spectrum of options, there’s something for everyone, and committing to that will be crucial to long-term success.
As you can see, when we understand what contributes to blood sugar imbalance, the decisions we make to help restore balance become much easier. The right kinds of carbs, plenty of healthy fats, vigorous exercise and keeping a balanced mental perspective are all great first steps on your path back to metabolic health.
- The Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements: Dr. Michael Murray