Last Update: May 15, 2023
If the mention of blood sugar makes you think of an elderly relative pricking their finger with a glucose monitor, it’s a common connection to make. (In 2020, 26% of adults over 65 had diabetes.) But high blood sugar isn’t just a concern for diabetics. This wellness marker is important to monitor at every age, and a better understanding of it can inspire you to make positive food and lifestyle choices now that may improve your metabolic health for years to come.
Every cell in our body requires energy to function, which is why metabolic health is so foundational for our wellbeing. But according to a study from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, only 12% of Americans are metabolically healthy. “Poor metabolic health leaves people more vulnerable to developing Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other serious health issues,” the study found. To get started, let’s define a few terms related to how our bodies use, store, and process energy.
Metabolic health looks at how well the body generates and processes all this energy, and is clinically defined as experiencing optimal levels of five markers without the use of medication:
The opposite state of metabolic health is known as metabolic syndrome, where people have three or more of the following:
Your individual levels depend on a variety of factors including your body size and composition, your sex, and how old you are. For example, as you age, the amount of muscle you have tends to decrease. When this occurs, fat can account for more of your weight, which slows down calorie burning. And ladies, take note: metabolic syndrome can increase with the onset of perimenopause and menopause—we cover ways to mitigate this below. In short: one size doesn’t fit all, and your metabolism doesn’t stay static over time, which is all the more reason to make it a regular part of your maintenance routine.
Blood sugar is glucose, aka the main sugar in your blood. It’s your body’s primary source of energy, and is impacted by the foods you eat. The CDC recommends that a normal blood sugar level falls between 80 to 130 mg/dL before a meal, and less than 180 mg/dL two hours after the start of a meal, but notes that your targets may be different depending on your age, health concerns, or other factors, so be sure to check in with a trusted physician to determine where your markers should be.
Overall, the goal is to keep your levels as even as possible throughout the day, rather than experiencing swings that are either too high or too low. If everything is humming along, your blood sugar will rise minimally after meals and quickly return to your baseline, and your fasting glucose (measured after an 8-hour fast or more) will be in a healthy range. Spikes, on the other hand, will lead to your blood sugar being more erratic, resulting in higher peaks after eating (and longer periods of elevated glucose throughout the day), higher morning levels, and other variations.
Things that can make blood sugar rise include:
Things that can make blood sugar fall include:
A woman’s menstrual cycle can also impact levels. Studies show that glucose concentrations tend to be higher in the luteal phase, when higher levels of progesterone may decrease insulin sensitivity, leading to potentially higher blood sugar levels.
The University of Michigan categorizes high blood sugar symptoms as either mild or moderate to severe. While high blood sugar is most often seen in people with diabetes, your levels can spike due to some of the various factors shared above.
Moderate to severe
Some blood sugar fluctuation is a normal part of daily life, but if your body is consistently burdened with processing too much glucose, it may lead to health issues such as anxiety, skin concerns like balding and acne, chronic pain, increased appetite, oxidative stress (an overabundance of free radicals in the body) and more.
Insulin resistance occurs when cells in your muscles, fat, and liver, no longer respond well to insulin. The result? More work for your pancreas, which makes even more insulin to help the glucose enter your cells. It might seem like a good thing—glucose is energy after all—but in this case, the higher insulin levels actually block stored fat from being broken down, so your body can’t use it effectively for energy. Insulin resistance can also be a precursor to diabetes.
In her book WomanCode, FLO Living founder Alisa Vitti is direct about blood sugar’s impact on women: “Unstable blood sugar is the most important underlying cause behind hormonal problems.” She explains that since our endocrine system perceives mismanaged blood sugar as a stressor, it causes the adrenals to pump out cortisol and adrenaline. Over time, this may lead to estrogen dominance, an imbalance in the estrogen to progesterone ratio.
A fasting blood sugar level of 100 to 125 mg/dL indicates prediabetes, which means your glucose levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be officially diagnosed as diabetes. It’s worth noting that 88 million Americans—more than 1 in 3—have prediabetes, and most of them don’t even know it. Changes in blood sugar can be particularly problematic for women in their premenopausal or menopausal years, as the hormones estrogen and progesterone affect how your cells respond to insulin. The Mayo Clinic explains that after menopause, “changes in your hormone levels can trigger fluctuations in your blood sugar level. You may notice that your blood sugar level changes more than before, and goes up and down. If your blood sugar gets out of control, you have a higher risk of diabetes complications.”
Diabetes is a chronic condition that impacts how your body converts food into energy, and involves having blood sugar levels that rise higher than normal, also known as hyperglycemia. With type 2 diabetes, your body struggles to use insulin well and usually develops over many years before a diagnosis is made. The CDC suggests that without taking action at the prediabetic stage (oftentimes when there are no symptoms), people could develop type 2 diabetes within five years.
According to Dr. Mariza Snyder, your liver is “a powerhouse organ and responsible for a host of critical functions in your body, such as controlling your immune system, clotting your blood, producing bile and glycogen, detoxifying medications, and filtering toxins out of your body.” So what happens when things go awry? Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (or NAFLD) is the buildup of extra fat in liver cells that isn’t caused by alcohol, and insulin resistance (above) and high blood sugar are both risk factors, as are high levels of triglycerides and obesity. With the exception of general symptoms like weakness, loss of appetite, and fatigue (which you might also experience after a poor night’s sleep or a brief bout of stress!), NAFLD rarely has more obvious symptoms, so work with your doctor to run the right tests—more on those in the next section.
Now commonly called “Type 3 Diabetes,” Alzheimers occurs “when neurons in the brain become unable to respond to insulin, which is essential for basic tasks, including memory and learning.” The Alzheimer’s Association explains that an estimated 54 million U.S. adults have prediabetes, or blood sugar levels that are higher than normal but not yet in the diabetic range, which can be an early warning sign of diabetes, and also go on to impact the brain. “Most of these people will develop Type 2 diabetes within 10 years. High blood sugar may also be a sign of insulin resistance.”
It’s not always practical to check your blood sugar levels throughout the day (unless you’re diabetic and use a monitor as part of your treatment plan), and there’s no single test that can tell you everything you need to know. Below are the four tests typically recommended for gaining a better understanding of how your body manages and processes blood sugar. In general, triglycerides and fasting glucose are usually included in a standard blood panel that your doctor may order annually. Two other tests—hemoglobin A1C and fasting insulin—will need to be requested as add-ons, so don’t hesitate to become your own advocate and adopt a mindset of prevention.
Triglycerides are fats from the food we eat that are carried in the blood, and high levels may be an early warning sign of prediabetes or diabetes, especially when combined with “additional clinical parameters, such as BMI, blood pressure, and other classic risk factors for cardiovascular disease, or with “high-normal” fasting glucose levels.”
This test measures how much sugar is in your bloodstream after fasting for at least 8 hours. It’s typically part of a standard blood panel that your doctor might order on an annual basis.
Something to keep in mind is that even if you land in the “normal range” at under 99 mg/dL, conventional physicians are unlikely to flag your fasting glucose as something to watch. Naturopaths and functional medicine specialists, on the other hand, recommend an optimal range of between 75-85 mg/dL.
While other tests are a snapshot in time, the A1C test gives you a picture of how much sugar has been in your blood, on average, over the past 2 to 3 months. The American Diabetes Association notes “the higher the levels, the greater your risk of developing diabetes complications.”
A fasting insulin test measures the amount of insulin in your blood when you haven’t eaten anything as opposed to in response to a meal. Ideal fasting insulin levels are less than 8 (or even better, around 4 or 5), which indicates you’re not creating a high insulin demand and your body is producing insulin at optimal levels.
Now that we’ve laid out all the potential pitfalls associated with mismanaged blood sugar over the long-term, let’s dig into all the powerful lifestyle adjustments you can make to improve it, including changes to your diet. Overall, a diet centered on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (particularly peas and beans), and low-fat dairy products is your best bet (which includes watching your carb intake). There are also more specific protocols you can follow:
The DASH diet is a heart-healthy eating plan that focuses less on specific foods and more on a lifestyle that includes the following:
While the keto diet is popular for many, the classic approach might not work for everyone, especially women. In her research, Dr. Sara Gottfried found that reducing carbs may help you lose weight in the short-term, but could lead to hormone disruption long-term. From fluctuations in estrogen and cortisol to a slowing metabolism in the perimenopausal years, “if we are not able to manage our refined sugar intake, over time,” she explains, “glucose levels rise in our blood and we have a situation called insulin resistance and fat accumulation. This is one of the biggest factors in weight loss resistance.” Her updated keto protocol—outlined in her book Women, Food, and Hormones—includes elements to help aid hormonal balance, including a detox, modified carb count, intermittent fasting, and an increase in vegetables and fiber.
Levels Health—a company that makes continuous glucose monitors—has tracked the eating habits of thousands of users over the past several years. While individual results can vary, Levels has identified foods that fall into the “best” and “worst” categories when it comes to blood sugar management. And rather than cut out the problem foods entirely, there are ways to help blunt a spike. For example, instead of eating a large amount of grapes on their own, eat fewer and combine the fruit with fat or protein, like a chunk of cheese.
Everyone’s body is different, but focusing on whole, unprocessed foods is a good place to start.
Also, in the hierarchy of your meal, consuming protein before carbs may help lower your post-meal glucose and insulin levels. The small study, conducted by Weill Cornell Medical College, suggests that “improvement in glycemia may be achieved by optimal timing of carbohydrate ingestion during a meal.” As an example, if you’re enjoying a roasted chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and green beans for dinner, eat more of your chicken and veggies first before digging into your spuds. (Then take a walk after dinner—see our tips in the next section!)
In addition to protein, fiber also plays an important role in blood sugar balance, “Getting enough fiber each day is essential for healthy blood sugar levels,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert and author of Smoothies & Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen. “Adults should get 25 to 35 grams each day, but most of us fall short. If you spread it out to five meals (including snacks) a day, that’s 5 grams of fiber per meal.” To up your intake, try a greens powder that offers prebiotic fiber, like our organic superfood blend that can be added to smoothies or yogurt.
Breakfast is also a great meal to focus on when you’re making changes, specifically aiming for a high-protein, low-carb meal in the a.m. One study noted that following a low-carbohydrate diet may help balance blood sugar levels, and Casey Means, M.D says one of “the best life hacks” is shifting from from a sweet breakfast to a savory one. Opting for frittatas or chia puddings instead of waffles and instant oatmeal will naturally provide more protein, fiber, and other nutrients to put your day on the right track.
Finally, two words: resistant starch, or RS for short. Found in foods like white rice and potatoes, RS is a form that isn’t broken down on the gut, which means the glucose will bypass your bloodstream and is believed to help keep your blood sugar levels more stable. Although more studies are needed to fully understand the impact of RS on metabolic health, the research is promising. One report suggests that RS improves gastrointestinal tract function and overall health, particularly for individuals who are prediabetic or diabetic. A study published in the journal Diabetic Medicine evaluated 20 people with insulin resistance who were either given 40 grams of supplemental resistant starch every day for 12 weeks or a placebo. The resistant starch group saw a 19% increase in insulin sensitivity on average, while those who received the placebo saw a 14% decrease.
There are several types of resistant starch—ranging from legumes to unripe bananas—and a few ways to consider adding it to your diet. Whenever you’re making baked potatoes or white rice, be sure to cook and cool the ingredients before eating them. Your portion can be reheated, but the cooling process is what activates the starch to “resist” absorption. You can also stir powdered resistant starch—in the form of potato starch or green banana flour—into water or nut milk, sprinkle it on a salad, or add it to baked goods.
In addition to choosing foods that won’t cause large glucose spikes, here are some other ways to manage your blood sugar levels throughout the day.
At the end of the day, balancing your blood sugar, prioritizing your metabolic health, and making long-term improvements will likely involve some trial and error (and a solid relationship with your trusted physician). Our recommendation? Start small, educate yourself, collect some data, don’t try to create new habits all at once, and just aim to make good choices as often as you can.
Disclaimer: Information and statements regarding products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Results vary person to person, and there is no guarantee of specific results. Thrive Market assumes no liability for inaccuracies or misstatements about products. Information included in this article is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition. It is not intended to substitute for the advice, treatment and/or diagnosis of a qualified licensed professional.
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