How To Balance Your Blood Sugar (And Why It Matters)
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
Balanced blood sugar is the foundation of health. It affects metabolic function, weight, fertility, and the risk for chronic diseases. When blood sugar is balanced, you feel stable energy, clear thinking, and strong immunity.
Yet only 12% of Americans are metabolically healthy, meaning they have balanced blood sugar and meet other parameters of optimal health.
Today’s article will dive into the benefits of blood sugar control and how to achieve it through diet and lifestyle strategies. Keep reading to learn more about:
- What is blood sugar
- Health benefits of blood sugar balance
- Causes of blood sugar imbalances
- Blood sugar spikes, dips, and long-term consequences
- How to improve blood sugar balance with lifestyle habits
Let’s jump in!
Blood Sugar Basics
Blood sugar is the amount of glucose in your blood at any given time. Glucose is the primary fuel for your cells; cells turn glucose into energy (as ATP).
Glucose primarily comes from eating carbohydrate foods – foods that contain sugar and starch. Whole food sources of glucose include whole grains, legumes, fruit, starchy vegetables, and nuts. Processed and refined foods containing flour and added sugars are concentrated sources of glucose.
The body regulates glucose levels in the blood to keep them in range. After a meal, blood sugar rises, and the body produces insulin, a hormone that helps move the glucose from the blood into cells for use.
In the absence of enough glucose from the diet, the body can make glucose from protein and fats (called gluconeogenesis) or release glucose from glycogen stores (called glycogenolysis). This helps keep blood sugar stable overnight, for example.
While dietary influence is the most significant factor in determining blood sugar balance, exercise, sleep, stress, and other lifestyle factors also influence blood sugar.
Benefits of Balanced Blood Sugar
When blood sugar is balanced, it doesn’t spike too high after a meal or drop too low between meals. Your body can handle and metabolize the amount of glucose coming in.
You want your glucose throughout the day to look like rolling hills instead of high peaks and low valleys.
Balanced blood sugar means:
- Grounded, stable energy between meals
- Gradual onset of hunger cues instead of hunger being an emergency (feeling “hangry”)
- Clear thinking and focus
- Clear skin
- Balanced hormones (blood sugar influences thyroid, stress, sex, and other hormone systems)
- Stable mood
- Restorative sleep
- Resilient immune system
- Improved fertility
- Ease in maintaining a healthy weight
- Improved lifespan and healthspan (more healthy years of life)
- Reduced risk for chronic disease
What Causes Blood Sugar Imbalance?
Many factors can contribute to blood sugar imbalances, but the biggest is the American diet and lifestyle.
The average American eats upwards of 150 pounds of sugar per year! Even if you aren’t eating candy or drinking soda regularly, you’re likely getting a hefty dose of added sugar from everyday foods like yogurt, salad dressings, peanut butter, tomato sauce, crackers, and other packaged options.
The US Dietary Guidelines suggest limiting added sugars to 10% of daily calories, or about 10 teaspoons of sugar per day. The World Health Organization recommends reducing added sugars to 5% of daily calories or less.
Still, the average American is eating around 17 teaspoons of sugar per day!
Sugar and starch hit the bloodstream quickly, causing a spike in blood sugar. The body can handle an occasional blood sugar spike, but high blood sugar multiple times per day leads to issues.
In addition, high-sugar processed foods are calorie and carb-rich yet nutrient-poor. The body requires a lot of micronutrients to effectively metabolize glucose, which are found in whole foods, not processed ones.
When you add sedentary behavior, lack of sleep, high stress, toxin exposures, and other realities of the modern lifestyle to a processed foods diet, it’s no wonder that so many people are walking around with blood sugar imbalances.
Blood Sugar Spikes
When blood sugar spikes high after a meal, it’s called hyperglycemia. Excess glucose in the blood promotes:
- Inflammation (chronic inflammation is associated with disease)
- Oxidative stress (free radical damage to cells)
- Glycation (glucose attaching to proteins, contributing to aging and disease)
Over the years and decades, regular glucose spikes contribute to insulin resistance. Remember that insulin helps move glucose from the blood into cells. In insulin resistance, the cells become numb to insulin. Insulin is speaking, but the cells don’t get the message.
Insulin resistance shows up as high glucose in the blood but less glucose in the cells for energy production. You might feel tired and lethargic, have difficulty losing weight, and notice more signs of aging.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, is also a sign of blood sugar imbalance. Low blood sugar is almost always preceded by high blood sugar as the body attempts to achieve balance after the initial fast input of glucose.
Low blood sugar might feel like:
- Intense hunger (feeling “hangry”)
- Low or unstable energy between meals
- Brain fog
- Waking at night
The brain interprets low blood sugar as stress and pumps out the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol helps to raise blood sugar to restore balance. However, over time episodes of high and low blood sugar contribute to chronic stress.
How to Balance Blood Sugar
As you can see, we want to prevent large swings in blood sugar levels throughout the day and instead keep blood sugar balanced. Here are some strategies to promote more balanced blood sugar:
- Read ingredient labels and limit added sugars. You’ll find sugar in the ingredient list of most food products. It might not say sugar, but sugar, by any other name, is still sugar. You may find it on the label as corn syrup, fructose, evaporated cane juice, barley malt, dextrose, brown rice syrup, or under a host of other names.
You can also check the nutrition facts panel under “added sugars.” For reference 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon.
- Don’t eat “naked” carbs. In other words, don’t eat carbohydrate foods alone (at least most of the time). Pair carbohydrates with the magic trio: fiber, fat, and protein. When you eat meals, eat veggies + protein + fat + starch or fruit. A balanced plate means balanced blood sugar.
Dress up your carbs at snack time. Here are some ideas:
When you choose desserts or sweets, eat them after a meal so the carbs digest along with the meal. Sweets will trigger a larger glucose spike when eaten on their own.
Eat breakfast. A balanced protein-rich breakfast sets your day for more balanced blood sugar. Try a savory breakfast instead of a sweet one. Or, if you prefer oatmeal, smoothies, or waffles, be sure to load them with protein. (Here are some make-ahead breakfast ideas.)
Exercise. Exercise has many benefits, but in terms of glucose, exercise moves glucose from the blood into cells without insulin. Pretty cool! A 15-to-30-minute walk after a meal helps to improve blood sugar balance and energy production.
Check your stress. Since stress increases blood sugar, find ways to manage stress. It might be exercise, meditation, journaling, therapy, or making changes in your life.
Prioritize sleep. Poor blood sugar balance can certainly interrupt sleep, but poor sleep also impacts blood sugar. When you don’t sleep well, you feel hungrier, eat more, and your blood sugar may be higher the next day. If you need help sleeping, check out these tips.
Look at your numbers. Most of us get a fasting blood sugar test at our annual physical. The doctor may not say anything until it gets out of range, but if you notice it creeping up over time, you can intervene sooner rather than later (hire a dietitian to help you).
You may also ask for fasting insulin levels and hemoglobin A1C (3-month average of glucose) or use a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) for a few weeks to learn more about your body’s response to your diet.
- Tune in. Regardless of numbers, your body will tell you when your blood sugar isn’t balanced. It communicates in symptoms. If you notice intense hunger or fatigue an hour or two after a meal, you might work on adjusting that meal using the tips above. If you feel stable energy between meals, can go several hours without eating, and have good focus, your blood sugar is probably stable.
The habits you cultivate today will shape your future metabolic health. This is good news because blood sugar has so much to do with daily eating and lifestyle habits, which are largely within your control. You don’t need to strive for perfection but keeping blood sugar balance in mind creates a foundation of good metabolic health and prevention.
This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding blood sugar, supplements, and your health.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian, functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, pregnancy, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.