Fluctuations in the levels of sugar in our blood can be detrimental to our health, contributing to symptoms such as fatigue, sugar cravings, weight gain, brain fog, hormone balance, immunity, high blood pressure, candida overgrowth and mood swings. When continued long term it can lead to chronic health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, candida, adrenal fatigue, diabetes and autoimmune issues such as psoriasis and Hashimotos.
Each time we eat a carbohydrate, it is broken down to glucose to enter our blood to feed our cells. Each cell in our body requires glucose for energy to perform its vital functions. Glucose is the most basic form of sugar and is the only form of sugar that can enter the blood directly.
Simple carbohydrates (sugars) like glucose have fewer sugar molecules bound together therefore are digested quickly and enter the blood fast. These are commonly found in table sugar (as sucrose), dairy (as lactose) and fruit (as fructose). Most refined foods, white flours and some more natural foods such as raisins and potatoes and some juices also contain simple carbs.
Complex carbohydrates have many sugars bound together and require digestion to be reduced to glucose before entering the blood. Therefore these raise blood glucose levels gradually and over a longer timeframe. Often the foods are packed with fibre, vitamins and minerals. These are commonly found in green vegetables, brown rice, quinoa and legumes.
When our body detects a rise in blood glucose, it stimulates the production of insulin from the pancreas. Insulin unlocks the cell surface to allow glucose to enter into the cell to produce energy, therefore clearing it from the bloodstream and reducing blood sugar levels. The more complex the carbohydrate, the slower the glucose enters the bloodstream, allowing time for the body to clear it effectively. When we eat a high sugar meal, blood sugar levels spike quickly and this correction mechanism can, when chronically stressed, overshoot. Here, there is so much insulin in the blood that it clears too much glucose and we then get a drop in blood glucose lower than ideal – resulting in tiredness, reduced mental clarity, the 3pm slump, mood swings etc – reactive hypoglycemia. As the body attempts to restore correct blood glucose levels, it demands more glucose therefore we crave carbohydrates, especially simple forms that will increase the blood sugar levels fast, restoring our levels to a safe range. In this state, we often blindly fill up on sugar again, up goes the blood glucose and then insulin, plummeting the blood glucose down again – and the cycle of mood, energy fluctuations and inflammation continues.
Insulin is a fat storage hormone and also promotes inflammation, therefore each time it rises, our body can go into fat storage mode. The glucose that doesn’t enter the working cells of the body (including the muscles) gets stored in the liver. When the liver becomes full, ie. a condition called fatty liver, then excess glucose is stored as fat.
When the cells are swimming in insulin (as a result of long term fluctuations in blood glucose), the cell becomes resistant and no longer responds to the insulin – insulin resistance – a precursor for Type 2 diabetes. This is a state where glucose remains outside the cell and the cells become starved of their energy source. The blood glucose level remains elevated and the glucose in the blood enters other reactions (such as glycolysis) that can create significant damage to body tissues, especially the nerves, eyes, arteries and kidneys.
With the body still detecting high blood glucose levels it still signals the pancreas to continue to produce insulin. The pancreas becomes burned out and eventually damaged, unable to produce enough insulin to restore blood glucose levels, resulting in high blood glucose levels that we see in Type 2 diabetes. Many diabetes experts no longer consider this a disease, but an adaptation to a sedentary lifestyle and poor food choices…an auto-immune condition that can be reversed with appropriate diet and lifestyle changed. To avoid the progression from unstable blood sugar levels – to insulin resistance (pre-diabetes) – to Type 2 diabetes, it is crucial to reduce these spikes and troughs in blood glucose.
What about the GI?
Most of us have heard of the GI (glycemic index), which we now know, in isolation, is majorly flawed. An improved system, called the Glycemic Load (GL) is considered a more accurate measure of glucose effect. GL takes into consideration the total amount of rapidly absorbable carbohydrate (starch or sugar) as well as the GI. For example, a carrot may have a relatively lower GL because the amount of starch or sugar in that food is mitigated internally by the fiber and nutrients that will slow its absorption into the bloodstream for more sustained energy, weight management and overall health.
Low GL 1-10,
Medium GL 11-19,
High GL 20+
For example here are some common foods GL…
Coconut sugar 1
Brown rice 16
Dates (dried) 18
Bagel (white) 23
White rice 26
Here are some tips to maintain more stable blood sugar levels:
- Just eat real food. Avoid processed foods, refined flours, processed sugars, artificial and natural sweeteners. Most of us can get enough carbohydrates from vegetables and fruit without the need for refined and processed foods such as breads, rice, cakes, crackers.
- Avoid foods containing different forms of processed sugar including glucose, dextrose, malto-dextrin, xylitol, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, brown rice syrup, barley malt, corn sweetener, corn syrup, invert sugar, malt syrup, maltose, oat syrup, rice bran syrup and sorghum syrup – read all labels.
- Balance your meal between good quality fats, clean protein and complex carbohydrates. This will provide greater satiety, a slower release of glucose into the blood and you will feel fuller for longer.
- Eat good quality fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) with every meal – salmon, avocado, eggs, nuts, coconut oil, hemp, chia, flax – this will reduce the spike in blood glucose and therefore insulin, help us feel fuller for longer and can be used as the primary source of energy. Avoid foods that contain trans fats, which are commonly found in baked goods, fried food, margarine and most other processed foods and can have a detrimental effect on your cholesterol.
- Eat the fat source of your meal first, especially if the meal contains high carbohydrates.
- Vegetables and fruits are carbohydrates and most of us can get all the carbohydrates we need from non-starchy vegetables and fruits. Take care to limit weekly intake of starchy (raise blood glucose faster) carbohydrates like potato, sweet potato, pumpkin and yam to 2-3 servings per week. Some people, especially athletes have an increased need for carbohydrates and can take this from the starchy vegetables above or more complex carbohydrates which contain more fiber and usually have more nutritional content (brown rice, quinoa and legumes, especially black beans).
- Sometimes rather than avoiding foods just make some substitutions. For example, swap out your white rice for brown rice, or even better, wild rice. Swap out your white potatoes for sweet potato or even better, pumpkin.
- If eating rice, soak in water with 1-2tbsp coconut oil overnight before cooking to reduce the release of glucose into the blood.
- Limit fruit intake to maximum 1 cup per day (preferably berries), and when eating fruit, add some good quality fat like nuts.
- Protein sustains energy levels between meals and doesn’t spike blood sugar levels like carbohydrates. Wild salmon, grass-fed meats, eggs, nuts and seeds.
- Eat a high protein breakfast, low carbohydrate and especially low simple sugars to start your day well and reduce cravings. Eat breakfast within an hour of waking.
- Add cinnamon to your higher sugar/starchy meals and desserts. Add cinnamon to your foods, especially where natural or processed sugars are present, as this will help to regulate insulin and therefore blood sugar levels. Make sure you use cinnamon verum, also known as Ceylon cinnamon or ‘true cinnamon’ rather than cassia cinnamon. True cinnamon is more effective at supporting blood sugar levels and is naturally low in coumarin. Coumarin, a toxic compound that could post health risks given its hepatotoxic and carcinogenic and anticoagulant effects is found in higher levels in cassia cinnamon.
- If you consume a high sugar meal or snack, eat a meal or snack balanced in fat, protein and carbohydrates as soon as practical after that – to level out the reactive drop in blood glucose.
- Maintain good gut health – eat fermented foods, drink bone broths, and take a probiotic.
- Eat plenty of antioxidant foods such as green leafy vegetables, plus foods high in zinc, B vitamins, magnesium, chromium and vitamin D.
- Eat 3-5 times per day, not allowing your blood sugar to drop to the point you start to run low on energy, ie. fuel.
- Juice using a method that preserves the fibre (pulp), this will slow the increase in blood glucose. Take care to use maximum 1 cup of fruit per day so juice mainly vegetables and add fruit only if necessary for taste – preferably berries.
- Remove coffee and other caffeine products, this will help to stabilise appetite and other hormonal factors. Avoid using caffeine to boost low energy, especially to get you up and moving in the morning. Stabilising your blood sugar will give you more consistent energy over time.
- Include fermented foods and drinks in your diet to reduce sweet cravings. The sour taste of these ancient foods such as sauerkraut, kefir and kimchi helps to reduce our reliance on sweet tasting foods.
- If you tend to wake up 3-4am feeling anxious or your heart is racing, try eating a small high-protein snack before bed to keep blood sugar stable throughout the night.
- Sleep – Getting enough sleep is crucial to balance your blood sugar levels and to maintain your natural daily hormonal rhythms.
- Exercise – regular high intensity, short burst training will deplete the muscles of glycogen so they can be replenished by the circulating glucose, clearing it from the blood. (5- to 7-minute burst of high intensity exercise each morning)
These are some simple steps to add into your life to improve how your body functions and to support you towards your ultimate health. Keep these points in mind as you choose the foods and drinks you consume and take notice of how these things effect you. If you get the 3pm slump each day, look at what you had for your last meal and what time it was and do something different the next day like eat a more balanced meal with more fats or protein in it – or eat a balanced snack at around 2.30pm. When you crave sugar, eat a little protein or drink some water instead. Reflect on why you are craving sugar, is it low blood sugar, fatigue, dehydration, boredom, habit, emotions etc. and take appropriate steps to rectify that. When you can read the messages your body is sending you effectively, and act on these appropriately, you can achieve great improvements in your health.
If you have any questions, or would like specific advice on your eating or exercise, please contact us on 07) 3208 8308 or book instantly online. Check out other articles packed with simple and practical ways to improve the 6 foundations of your health, including – clean water, fresh air, sunshine, movement, sleep and fresh food.
Written by Dr. Jess Harvey B.Sc. (Anat, Phys), B.Ap.Sci (Comp. Med.), Ma Osteo., Registered Osteopath and Director of Head 2 Toe Health, a multidisciplinary clinic in Brisbane also providing Acupuncture, Massage, Life Coaching and Counselling – where we aim to get you as well as possible, as fast as possible, permanently. We believe in a thorough approach to restoring and maintaining health and address many aspects of our lifestyles that can contribute to pain, stiffness, dis-ease and disease. For any further information, please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or 07) 3208 8308.
This information is intended as a general guide only and is not specific for any particular condition or situation. Please consult with your healthcare practitioner before starting a nutritional program.