More than almost any other single health factor, blood sugar balance has the power to make or break your health! For anyone experiencing anxiety, irritability, sleep issues, lack of vitality, lack of focus, weight loss resistance, muscle fatigue, joint pain, sugar or food cravings, premature signs of aging or inflammation – we need to look at blood sugar and insulin levels.
First, let’s review what happens when we eat a meal. The carbohydrates in food are broken down into simple sugars and absorbed into the bloodstream. In response to rising blood sugar, the pancreas releases insulin. Insulin then escorts glucose from the bloodstream, through receptors on cell membranes, into the cells of the body where the glucose is used to fuel the cell’s activities. Over time, blood sugar levels go down and the pancreas stops secreting insulin.
When we eat high-carbohydrate foods like sugar, flour, white rice, potatoes, fruit juices, dried fruit, etc., our blood sugar and insulin rise quickly and dramatically. If we repeatedly eat too much sugar and too many carbs without balancing them with protein, fat and fiber, the receptors on our cells can become less sensitive to insulin. It’s like the boy who cried wolf, if our cells are always “hearing” insulin cry out to help them take in more sugar, over time the cells stop listening. This is known as “insulin resistance”.
In early stages of insulin resistance, you can actually get hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) because your body starts to overreact. Your body learns that the cells aren’t listening to the normal levels of insulin, so it produces more insulin, which temporarily increases the amount of sugar going into the cells and can cause a drop in blood sugar that is lower than ideal. Low blood sugar can make you “hangry,” irritable, unfocused, fatigued, hungry, shaky, or have difficulty sleeping.
Your body’s goal, and our goal working with our patients, is to keep blood sugar within an optimal range both day and night. This way you have the fuel you need to run your metabolism, get a sound night’s sleep, feel calm and focused ALL day, and make wise choices when it comes to nourishing yourself with food. With that goal in mind, here are our four keys to blood sugar balance!
KEY #1: WHAT TO EAT
Clean Protein, Healthy Fats & Fiber from Complex Carbs with Every Meal (aka PFF Meals)
- Clean Proteins Include: Wild fish like salmon, sardines, halibut and cod (look for fish that are low in mercury and high in omega-3 fatty acids); hormone-free, ideally organic, poultry; 100% grass-fed meats; organic grass-fed yogurt; organic pastured eggs. Vegan options include quinoa, nuts, seeds, tofu, edamame and tempeh, as well as legumes listed in the fiber section.
- Healthy Fats Include: Raw organic nuts and seeds; avocado; coconut; olives; grass-fed butter or ghee; cold-pressed organic oils such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil (the last 2 are best for cooking); small amounts of unheated nut and seed oils *after* cooking (e.g., walnut, flax, pumpkin seed oil, etc.). Stay away from refined vegetable oils and never heat oils to their smoke points!
- Fiber Sources aka Healthy Carbs Include: All the crunchy veggies and leafy greens you want; one to three 1/2-cup servings per day of starchy veggies (e.g., butternut squash, carrots, beets, etc.), whole gluten-free grains (quinoa, brown rice, millet, buckwheat, etc.) and/or beans and legumes; up to two small-to-medium-sized servings of low-sugar fruit. Stay away from flour-based foods, such as bread, crackers, pastries.
The right fruit and not too much: Stick to 1-2 small-to-medium servings of low-sugar fruit each day, but combine with some protein and fat. Berries are an excellent choice with a handful of almonds — low in sugar, high in fiber, antioxidants and other nutrients. Or, a small apple with almond butter is another good example. A resource such as http://glycemicindex.com/ can be a useful tool as a starting place for finding low sugar options, but please know that the best way to understand your own body’s response to different foods is through home blood glucose monitoring.
Don’t be fooled by “natural” sugars: Honey, maple syrup, agave, coconut sugar will all cause increases in blood sugar and insulin! Just because they are natural and may have more nutrients than refined table sugar, they are not good for blood sugar regulation. Consider trying low-sugar sweeteners like stevia, monk fruit, licorice, and Lakanto.
Avoid or limit caffeine and alcohol: Caffeine raises blood sugar by raising cortisol. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone that activates a fight or flight response. One of cortisol’s jobs is to raise our blood sugar so our muscles have the energy they need to run away from a threat. If your blood sugar is elevated, but you’re not using that fuel, it will get stored away as fat. Alcohol also causes blood sugar dysregulation, especially sugary cocktails, wine and beer.
KEY #2: BALANCE YOUR PLATE
Each meal, shoot for:
- 1/2 plate of crunchy and/or leafy veggies (fiber and nutrients)
- 1/4 plate of clean protein
- 1/4 plate of fat and/or starches — you can skip the starches and go for all healthy fats if you prefer.
An example would be a salad base with 3-5 ounces of protein on top, 1/2-cup of quinoa or cooked root veggies, and 2 TBS of organic extra virgin olive oil, as well as a sprinkle of nuts/seeds. This balance of protein, fat and fiber at each meal ensures slow conversion and uptake of sugars.
KEY #3: SMART MEAL TIMING
Eat most of your food in the early and middle part of the day. This is when your body is most metabolically active and primed to use your food as fuel. Lunch is the main meal in many other countries, where obesity rates are lower than the US. Insulin sensitivity decreases at night, so this is not an ideal time for a huge meal.
Leave 4-5 hours between meals and 13 hours between dinner and breakfast. Ideally, you’ll be able to do this without getting ravenous or having excessively low blood sugar. People with hypoglycemia, insulin resistance or diabetes may need to eat more small, frequent meals through the day to maintain their blood sugar. Our goal is to restore insulin sensitivity and stabilize blood sugar, so you don’t need to eat that often, but it’s perfectly okay to have a balanced PFF snack between meals 1-2 times daily if needed.
Leave 2-3 hours between dinner and bedtime. This allows time for proper digestion and supports optimal circadian rhythm and optimal sleep. However, if you find yourself waking at 2-4am hungry, you can eat a small protein-rich snack before bed. A hard-boiled egg or a small handful of nuts are great options and can prevent your blood sugar from dropping in the night.
KEY #4: SLEEP, EXERCISE AND RELAX
Sleep is critical for blood sugar regulation. This goes both ways. You need stable blood sugar in order to sleep well, and sleeping well helps your metabolism to keep your blood sugar balanced. Have you noticed more sugar/carb cravings after a poor night sleep? That’s one sign that your lack of sleep is impacting your glucose regulation the next day.
Ideal sleep is falling asleep within 20 minutes of trying, without long or multiple wake-ups per night. Short sleep duration is defined as anything less than 7 hours of sleep nightly, and the midpoint of sleep should fall between midnight and 3am.
Exercise helps sensitize insulin receptors. Strength training can dramatically improve insulin sensitivity within 3 months because lean muscle mass stimulates a higher metabolic rate. Any kind of regular movement, even a gentle walk after dinner, can help your body to utilize blood sugar more effectively. Be aware that exercise is a stress on your system, so if your adrenals are burnt out and aerobic exercise leaves you feeling exhausted, find movement practices that are less vigorous and won’t spike your cortisol as much.
Relaxation helps keep cortisol levels stable. Elevations in cortisol increase blood sugar. This is useful in the right conditions, but when we have chronic stress and high cortisol, we can develop high blood sugar which can lead to insulin resistance over time. As much as possible, try to reduce your stress and include regular stress relief such as taking a hot bath, getting a massage, or doing a meditation or journaling practice.
Could you use more help to address your concerns with blood sugar balance? We warmly invite you to schedule a complimentary “Vitality Discovery Call” so we can get to know you and help you figure out your best next steps from here.