The Blood Sugar Level Rollercoaster
Blood sugar levels… you may have heard this phrase being thrown around, but do you really know what it is referring to and what can affect our blood sugar levels?
Here, I’ll break all of this down and highlight the importance of balancing blood sugar levels and how to do this through your diet and lifestyle.
What are blood sugar levels referring to?
The term blood sugar level simply refers to the amount of glucose or sugar circulating in the blood stream at any given time. These levels therefore vary throughout the day, and are reliant on the following:
- Food and drink intake
- Stress levels
When we eat food containing carbohydrate (including fruits and vegetables), it gets broken down into its sugar or glucose molecules. The beta cells within the pancreas detect the increase in blood sugar levels, and they pump out insulin. Insulin is the key that allows our cells to open and let the glucose in, where the glucose is used for energy, and the blood sugar levels return to a more normal level.
This process is how are body normally regulates blood sugar levels, however this can become imbalanced due to our diet and stress levels.
Not all carbohydrates are the same. The main difference when it comes to blood sugar levels is refined and unrefined carbohydrates.
Refined – these are the processed carbohydrates where lots of the fibre and nutrients are removed in the factory processing, and other ingredients such as sugars are added in. Due to the heavy processing, these carbohydrates are easy for the body to breakdown and are released into the blood stream very quickly. Examples include white bread, white pasta, pastries, baked goods, sweets, cakes, chocolates etc.
Unrefined- these are carbohydrates that are less refined and therefore naturally contain more fibre and nutrients. Processing is minimal and therefore they take the body longer to break down into sugar and release into the bloodstream. Examples include wholegrains such as wheat, rye, oats, spelt, legumes, beans, fruits and vegetables.
As you can see, a diet which is processed carbohydrate heavy can result in vast peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels throughout the day – otherwise known as the blood sugar rollercoaster.
A typical daily blood sugar rollercoaster may look like this:
Breakfast – jam and butter on white toast
Snack – tea and some chocolate biscuits
Lunch – cheese and pickle sandwich on white bread
Snack – chocolate bar or crisps
Dinner – pasta with tomato sauce
It’s important to note that these peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels I describe are general reactions, however individuals may react slightly differently. This is an interesting area of research which is currently emerging, I will keep you updated with the advances.
Stress levels may not be the first things that come to mind when talking about blood sugar levels, but it can impact them. How? Well, when we are feeling stressed, our adrenal glands produce hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which coverts glycogen (stored glucose) into glucose in the blood stream. This is to prepare the body mentally and physically to attack or run away from the situation (the well-known ‘fight or flight’ response). Acutely, this mechanism can be affective, however if stress is chronic (ongoing) and coming from source such as financial stress, busy schedules and responsibilities, the increase in blood sugar may not be necessary, and can contribute to higher blood sugar levels.
Why are blood sugar levels important?
Our blood sugar levels play a huge role in our energy levels, as well as other areas such as hunger, cravings, mood swings, hormonal imbalances and the risk of developing diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The cells can only accept a certain amount of sugar, so any excess can be transported to the liver and stored as fat. The fat is generally stored around the middle (central adiposity) which is also a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
How can we balance blood sugar levels?
So, now we have highlighted the detrimental effects of long term higher blood sugar levels, you might be thinking how you can reduce them?
Firstly, dietary habits and patterns. The main step to balancing blood sugar levels is to combine the 3 macronutrients; carbohydrates, proteins and fats. The act of eating these food groups in combination slow the release of the sugar into the blood stream, as fats and protein take longer to break down and digest.
The presence of fibre is also another factor. Fibre is harder for the body to digest and break down, so starches which contain more fibre will provide energy that is released slower and is longer lasting. Opting for unprocessed fibrous grains such as lentils, quinoa, buckwheat, oats, cooked then cooled potatoes will ensure higher fibre content than more processed carbohydrates.
Secondly, stress management or reduction will be important if stress is a contributing factor for you. Sleep deprivation can also put stress on the body, so trying to get 7-9 hours of good quality sleep will be a goal to work towards.
Thirdly, engaging in some physical activity can actually make our bodies more effective at managing our blood sugar levels. Scientifically, exercise enables our cells to become more sensitive to insulin. The government recommends we are physically active for 150 minutes or 2.5 hours a week (moderate intensity). These can include a brisk walk, swimming, dancing, jogging, exercise class, HIIT workouts…. The list goes on. Find what works for you and what you enjoy and try and work up slowly to the recommended level.
Top tips for blood sugar balancing:
- Always look at your meals and try to identify your sources of fat, protein and unrefined carbs.
- Be mindful of ‘empty sugars’ such as those from fruit juices, soft drinks, hot drinks such as lattes and sources/condiments (ketchup, sweet chilli, chutneys) which may be hiding substantial amounts of sugar.
- Adding a sprinkle of nuts/seeds/flaxseeds to both sweet and savoury meals can be an easy but effective way to make a meal more balanced. For example, adding a handful of nuts to porridge.
- Make the most of starchy vegetables – vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, swede, turnip and butternut squash contain lots of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients (beneficial plant chemicals), fibre and will provide a slow release of energy. Adding roasted root vegetables to salads are great for this time of year.
- Find some time for relaxation – this one finds its way into nearly every blog I write, regardless of the specific topic. Stress can have a huge impact on many body systems, blood sugar levels and blood pressure being just two examples. Putting some time aside each week can be an effective way to ensure you are taking some time out of your busy schedule to relax and reduce stress levels. Find the activity that you enjoy and find relaxing, not what you think you should enjoy!
*** This blog post is not intended or implied to be a substitute for seeking professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Information provided here is general and is not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent or cure any diseases or conditions. Please contact your GP or private health consultant if you have any personal health concerns, or consult a registered nutritional therapist for personalised dietary and lifestyle advice and guidance.