How Blood Sugar Influences Metabolism + 5 Ways To Balance It Naturally
When you're feeling low in energy, you can snack yourself out of a slump. If you're feeling anxious or upset, you might turn to your favorite meal for comfort. When you're feeling celebratory, you may want to treat yourself to something sweet.
Food plays so many roles in our lives, but it's important to remember the various types of foods you put into your body affect your blood sugar levels in different ways and, ultimately, affect your metabolism and overall body composition in the short and long term.
What is blood sugar?
Blood glucose, aka blood sugar, is sugar that exists in the bloodstream.
This monosaccharide is provided to our bodies via macronutrients (carbohydrates, specifically) in food and drinks that are broken down by the body and serves as the human body's main source of energy. While macronutrients like protein and fat are not sources of sugar, they do affect the ways our body absorbs sugars in the gut.
Blood glucose that isn't being used gets stored in the liver and muscles1 as glycogen, or as lipid in fat tissue when consumed in excess amounts. Any macronutrient consumed in excess ultimately can be stored as adipose (fat). When your body and brain need an energy boost, a hormone in your pancreas called glucagon signals your body to dip into your glycogen storage, converting the compound back to the simple and versatile sugar glucose and dispersing it into the bloodstream for use in cells and tissues throughout the body.
Blood sugar balance is the stabilization of blood glucose levels after a meal—i.e., levels that don't spike too high and come down at a reasonable rate. On the other hand, an unhealthy blood sugar response might look like a rapid increase in blood glucose followed by a low dip.
"Blood sugar (or glycemic) balance and control are concepts that extend throughout your day and the longer term of life. So it's a real-time, meal-to-meal concept as well as a long game," explains Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, mbg's vice president of scientific affairs.
How blood sugar affects metabolism & weight.
Blood sugar is most commonly associated with a person's energy levels (physical and/or mental), but what you may not realize is that blood sugar plays a role in numerous bodily functions—such as fueling muscle during physical activity2 and keeping your immune system strong. Blood sugar also affects your metabolism and overall body composition, in which both high and low blood sugar levels can contribute to unwanted weight gain.
See, the human body keeps a reserve of glucose stored in the liver and muscles to ensure it has the fuel it needs to function properly. But, similar to how your phone can hold only so much data, these organs can hold only so much glucose. When more glucose is consumed than utilized, the excess gets stored in fat tissue and converted into fat, which can result in weight gain over time from extra adipose stores.
So where does metabolism fit into all of this? Well, metabolism is the complex process following digestion and absorption in which your body converts the macronutrients (specifically carbohydrates in this particular discussion) from foods you eat and the beverages you drink into glucose, which later gets converted into ATP (i.e., cellular energy).
“Not to give anyone biochemistry nightmares, but how cool is this: One glucose yields 38 ATP energy molecules, which are used throughout our entire body all day and night to function and thrive,” Ferira shares.
When there's extra glucose inputs in the bloodstream, the body prioritizes dealing with it by laying down more glycogen stores in the liver, and ultimately, adipose (aka body fat stores) instead of burning it for fuel, Ferira explains. Since your body is prioritizing energy conservation (anabolism) over burning calories (catabolism), your metabolism and extra energy stores can slow you down.
"Your body values nutrients. It's like if someone offered me a $100 bill; I'm going to take it and tuck it away. And if someone offers me five $100 bills the next day, I'm going to take those and tuck them away too, and now my money purse is larger, more stuffed. Same with our body and nutrient inputs," Ferira says, adding, “it’s a situation of too much of a good thing.”
How a healthy (and active) metabolism supports blood sugar balance.
While metabolic health consists of many facets—like blood sugar status (glycemic control and insulin sensitivity), blood pressure and endothelial function, inflammatory status and more—it’s a bidirectional relationship, really.
According to performance dietitian and co-founder of FWDfuel Sports Nutrition Kylene Bogden, M.S., RDN, CSSD, IFNCP, a person can directly support metabolic health if they "consume a balanced diet that is minimal in added sugar, stay active, and their body is able to properly digest, absorb, and utilize the food they consume." In other words, our daily nutrition and lifestyle choices directly impact our metabolic health trajectory.
Unfortunately, according to a 2019 survey, only 12.2% of American adults are metabolically healthy. It's a dismal statistic, but the good news is that assessing your metabolic health isn't as complicated as it sounds.
Nutrition specialist and New York Times bestselling author JJ Virgin, CNS, BCHN, previously told mbg that someone with a fast metabolism will "easily maintain a healthy weight, burn fat, and experience sharper mental focus and sustained energy throughout the day."
Someone with a slower metabolism (i.e., less metabolic efficiency), however, might have trouble losing weight, feel gassy or bloated, or notice their hair becoming thinner or their skin drying out. A common link: Blood sugar levels that fluctuate too widely (think: spikes and dips) instead of remaining balanced (with the help of normal insulin function, of course).
Alternatively, when blood sugar levels are controlled, Bogden says the body should run "like a well-oiled machine." Healthy blood sugar levels are reflective of an active metabolism, but a healthy metabolism is also indicative of well-balanced blood sugar levels.
How to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Having a general idea of what healthy blood sugar levels look like and comparing them to your personal blood glucose status can help you better understand your body and what might be causing any fluctuations you experience.
Healthy blood glucose levels3 (i.e., from a blood test) in a fasting state are less than 100 mg/dl, while glucose level cutoffs following an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) or a meal (referred to as a “casual” glucose measurement) will be higher. Partnering with a health care provider to know your glucose status is a critically important health metric to monitor and prioritize throughout life.
You can find out your body's glycemic control by requesting your doctor perform a hemoglobin A1C lab test (HbA1c), which is a blood test that measures your average blood sugar level over the course of three months.
That said, holistic nutritionist, wellness expert, and celebrity health coach Kelly LeVeque tells mbg that what is considered a "healthy" blood sugar range is specific to each individual and determined by both the height and quantity of blood sugar spikes a person experiences over the course of a day, which is why a long-range snapshot from HbA1c can be such a valuable health metric.
"Optimal health comes when we can eat specific foods to feel satisfied and get what we need. That causes a gradual increase in blood sugar and sustains us between meals," explains LeVeque. "The easiest and most effective way to support blood sugar balance and consume these nutrients is to eat meals that provide a mix of macronutrients—like protein, fat, and fiber—and to enjoy these in their whole-food form."
Here are five other ways you can maintain healthy blood sugar levels naturally:
Maintain a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet.
You know the saying "You are what you eat?" Well, the same goes for your metabolism. If you want to keep your blood sugar balanced and optimize your metabolism, being mindful of foods and dietary patterns in relation to their impact on blood glucose control is key.
LeVeque recommends first focusing on incorporating foods from what she refers to as "The ab Four" into your diet: protein, fat, fiber, and greens/vegetables deep in color. "These foods provide essential amino acids from protein, essential fatty acids from fat, fiber, and nonstarchy produce that has little to no effect on blood sugar."
Next, it's important to be cognizant of foods that could cause a spike in blood sugar. These include simple carbohydrates(as opposed to the complex, fiber-laden types of carbohydrate you receive from whole grains, legumes, vegetables, etc.), sugary treats, and added sugars. (Generally, the more processed and refined a food is, the less it resembles the original plant source, and the faster and higher the blood glucose spike.)
"When you look at sugar and starches that have been removed from their fiber cell and are considered acellular carbohydrates (aka processed carbohydrates), they have an exaggerated effect on blood sugar," LeVeque notes. "Think things like orange juice, sugary condiments, and baked goods."
However, this isn't to say you can't enjoy these types of foods in moderation—or modify a recipe to make it more blood-sugar-friendly. To be on the safe side, LeVeque advises enjoying fruit in its whole form, using condiments without any added sugar, and enjoying homemade baked goods so you can use higher-fiber flour and lower amounts of unrefined sugar.
There are also different ways of eating that lower and/or maintain an individual's blood sugar levels. These include low-carb, high-protein ketogenic patterns, as well as vegetarian, vegan, and Mediterranean diets that are rich in plant-based proteins and natural fiber sources. (See an example of what a metabolic scientist eats in a day here, for reference.)
Take a supplement that targets metabolic health.
Certain vitamins and minerals promote a healthy metabolism, so you might want to consider taking a targeted supplement that provides metabolic health support, like mbg's metabolism+.*
This new mindbodygreen supplement is wholly powered by plants and packed with ingredients that help promote metabolic efficiency and healthy blood sugar levels, as well as healthy weight and body composition.*
For example: The inclusion of veld grape extract derived from the stems and leaves of the Cissus quadrangularis succulent found in India can combat oxidative stress, encourage healthy appetite hormone levels, and help balance a person's fasting blood sugar levels.*
Other highlighted ingredients of mbg's metabolism+ include grains of paradise (a unique botanical in the ginger family that fires up the metabolism5) and antioxidant-rich green tea leaf extract (think: EGCG and caffeine) that works to sustain a healthy metabolism6 and promote feelings of fullness.*
Practice stress management.
As it turns out, both our mental and physical health could benefit from stressing less.
"As [the stress hormones] adrenaline and cortisol are released, our liver mobilizes stored glycogen, breaking it down to glucose and providing our bloodstream with energy if we need it," LeVeque explains. "This means our blood sugar can rise and subsequently fall thanks to not ingesting food during stressful events and high-intensity training."
Engage in physical activity regularly.
Sticking to a regular movement ritual or workout routine is definitely beneficial to your cardiovascular and whole-body health—and, in turn, your metabolism. Per the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the average adult should exercise for approximately 150 minutes per week (which averages out to roughly 20 minutes per day).
That said, any movement is better than no movement at all. Find what kinds of exercises you genuinely enjoy doing, and create a routine that works for you.
Like good nutrition, a healthy sleep cycle is critical to achieving a healthy metabolism and nurturing metabolic health throughout life.
According to licensed naturopathic physician and certified nutrition specialist Bethany Tennant, N.D., CNS, it's important to prioritize a good night's sleep because quality sleep encourages healthy blood sugar regulation and a good night's rest strengthens the body's ability to handle glucose efficiently.
To improve the quality of your sleep, stick to a regular sleep-wake schedule, switch to decaf in the early afternoon, and create a sleep environment that makes you feel calm. Be mindful of what you snack on before bed as well—those sweet treats you crave before turning in can contribute to a blood sugar spike—not something you want before bedtime.
Balancing your blood sugar levels on the daily and throughout life is an absolutely critical component to living a healthy lifestyle, as it directly affects your metabolism, metabolic health, and more.
There are multiple ways you can approach stabilizing your blood sugar levels, including prioritizing healthful nutrition, physical activity, quality sleep, and leveraging a targeted supplement like mbg's metabolism+ that's formulated with full-potency, science-backed doses of botanicals that promote metabolic efficiency, appetite regulation, and healthy blood sugar levels.*
Julia Guerra is a health and wellness writer reporting for mindbodygreen, Elite Daily, and INSIDER. Formerly the beauty editor for BestProducts.com, she's contributed to Women's Health, Cosmopolitan, PopSugar, and more. A book worm and fitness enthusiast, her happiest moments are spent with her husband, family, sipping tea, and cuddling with her Tabby cat, Aria.