Do You Have Healthy Blood Sugar? Here's How To Tell + How To Lower It Naturally
Remember that time you ate too much birthday cake as a kid (...or maybe that was last week)? For a few minutes you were flying high, happy as can be. Then came the equally intense crash, leaving you exhausted, cranky, and craving another sweet treat.
We’ve all experienced the profound impact our blood sugar levels have on energy and mood, and it’s no fun. But beyond being an energy-draining annoyance, imbalanced blood sugar can seriously impair your ability to meet the demands of daily life, and—if chronically elevated—wreak havoc on your long-term health.
Even if you think you lead a relatively healthy lifestyle and have your blood sugar levels under control, not everyone’s good at spotting the warning signs. In fact, a staggering one-third of Americans have prediabetes—higher than normal blood sugar levels that aren’t yet considered type 2 diabetes—but 90 percent of them don’t even know it.
With prediabetes, instead of fueling your cells, sugar builds up in your bloodstream. High blood sugar occurs when your pancreas doesn't make enough insulin or your cells become resistant to the action of insulin, or both. Among other complications, prediabetes puts you at greater risk for stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Even for people who aren’t necessarily at a high risk for developing diabetes, poorly managed blood sugar can lead to common complications, including fatigue, weight gain, and sugar cravings.The good news: With the right lifestyle and dietary tweaks, lowering your blood sugar and avoiding complications is easier than you think.
Here's how to tell if your blood sugar is out of whack and simple ways to lower your blood sugar naturally and effectively.
Signs your blood sugar is out of whack
When you don’t manage your blood sugar levels appropriately, hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can occur as levels rise and fall drastically. This comes with number of unpleasant side effects, including:
- Sugar and carb cravings
- Weight gain
- Trouble concentrating
- Mood swings or nervousness
- Dry skin
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent peeing
- Blurred vision
- Nerve damage or tingling sensations
- Slowly healing cuts and bruises
15 ways to lower blood sugar naturally
If the above symptoms sound all too familiar, consider implementing the following strategies to lower your blood sugar to healthy levels and keep it balanced.
1. Follow a minimally processed diet.
Your first dietary step towards more balanced blood sugar: ditching (most of) the packaged foods and focusing on high-quality whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and quality meats and fish. Many processed foods are high in sugar, refined grains and carbs, and artificial ingredients and flavorings, while being low in blood-sugar-stabilizing fiber and protein. Of course, it’s also important to be realistic. You’re probably not going to be able to nix packaged foods completely, so just make a point to select those that are made from mostly whole-food ingredients, like a bar that lists just nuts, seeds, and dried fruit on its label.
However, it's also really important to recognize that the glycemic load of a healthy diet matters as well. Meaning, if you’re eating a bunch of dried fruit and whole grains, you might see your blood sugar actually spike. Furthermore, it’s important to be aware of your food labels—a lot of "whole grains" such as cereals are, in fact, highly processed. That being said, taking the concept of “whole grains” a step further and making sure your diet consists of whole kernel grains is crucial.
2. Load up on fiber
Your minimally processed diet should be heavy in non-starchy, fiber-rich vegetables and (to a slightly lesser extent) fiber-rich fruit and whole grains. That’s because fiber slows down the digestion of carbohydrates and the absorption of sugar, which means you experience a more gradual rise in blood sugar levels after meals. Fiber has also been associated with a reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Good sources of fiber include leafy greens, brussels sprouts, broccoli, artichokes, raspberries, pears, beans, lentils, peas, avocados, pumpkin seeds, and oatmeal.
3. Eat plenty of high-quality protein.
Like fiber, protein tempers insulin secretion, leading to a more gradual rise in blood sugar after a meal. It also fills you up better than any other nutrient. Eating a protein-rich breakfast may be particularly important, as it helps set the tone for the rest of the day. The amount of protein you need in your diet depends on a number of factors, but general protein recommendations for healthy adults are 0.8 to 1.0 gram per kilogram of body weight (55 to 68 grams per day for someone who’s 150 pounds). Good animal sources include wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, and pasture-raised chicken and eggs. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, load up on these eight plant-based protein sources.
4. Consume healthy fats.
Like fiber and protein, fat buffers blood sugar spikes. In fact, unsaturated fats have been specifically linked to improved insulin resistance. Just be sure to avoid refined fats, including trans fats and processed vegetable oils, like corn, soybean, and safflower oils, which can be pro-inflammatory. Sources of quality fats to consider adding to your diet include: nuts, olive oil, ghee, coconut oil, avocado, and fatty fish like salmon.
5. Switch up your carbs.
Lowering your overall intake of carbohydrates is also important for balanced blood sugar, but you don’t need to cut them completely (they're still a crucial source of fuel for your body). Simply swap out refined carbohydrates like bread, white pasta, and candy for fiber-rich, whole-food sources such as whole grains, sweet potatoes, and fruit, which contain a number of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants essential for health. Again, keep in mind the glycemic load of your carbs—a whole sweet potato might cause a spike in blood sugar as well.
6. Balance your meals.
Eating some protein, fiber, and healthy fat with all of your meals can help stabilize blood sugar and manage your appetite, especially when your meal also contains carbohydrate-dense foods like high-sugar fruits (mangos, grapes, cherries) or starchy vegetables (potatoes). Each of these nutrients helps balance blood sugar on its own, but they’re even better together. We love a good kale salad topped with avocado and grass-fed steak.
7. Eat bigger meals earlier in the day.
A giant, late-night dinner is your blood sugar’s worst enemy. That’s because our bodies become more insulin resistant as the day goes on—so a meal that you eat in the evening will cause a greater spike in blood sugar than a meal you eat in the morning. Because of this, many nutrition experts advise front-loading your meals, or eating bigger meals earlier in the day and having a smaller dinner at least three hours before bed.
8. Sleep more, stress less.
Both sleep deprivation and stress can cause elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which raises blood sugar. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, and adopt stress-busting habits such as exercise, meditation, or yoga. One study found that nursing students who did meditation and yoga experienced lower blood sugar spikes after meals. If you're ready to start your meditation practice, check out mindbodygreen's 14-Day Guide to meditation with mbg Collective member Light Watkins.
9. Drink plenty of water.
Drinking water helps your kidneys flush out excess blood sugar through your urine. One study found that people who drank more water had a lower risk of developing hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). Can’t seem to drink enough? If water is just too plain for your taste buds, add slices of citrus, or sip on a flavored seltzer or herbal tea throughout the day to hit your hydration quota.
10. Exercise regularly.
Your muscles need blood glucose for fuel, which means that when you take that barre or CrossFit class, you’re helping move blood sugar from the bloodstream into the muscles where it’s then burned up. Over time, this can lower blood sugar levels and increase insulin sensitivity (i.e. how well your cells are able to absorb glucose from the blood and use it for energy). Intense exercise can temporarily raise blood sugar, so if you have poor blood sugar control, it make sense to start moderate (think: walking, jogging, or yoga), and then work your way up.
11. Take a shot of apple cider vinegar.
Swigging ACV may not sound appealing, but it could help keep blood sugar in balance if taken before you eat. Some research has found that consuming apple cider vinegar before meals reduced blood glucose levels of patients with prediabetes by nearly half. The theory is that acetic acid, a component of the vinegar, slows down the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar in the bloodstream. Pro tip: Mix a tablespoon or two into a glass of water—taking it straight will burn!
12. Sprinkle on some cinnamon.
Research on cinnamon’s blood sugar-stabilizing powers is a little mixed, and it may not be a wonder spice. But if you’re adding it to an already healthy diet, it may have a subtle benefit, especially if you add a lot of it into your diet (more than just a teaspoon). Some studies suggest that cinnamon lowers blood sugar by increasing insulin sensitivity, or making insulin more efficient at moving glucose into cells. Try sprinkling it onto oatmeal or into low-sugar smoothies. Bonus: It tastes delicious!
13. Eat magnesium-rich foods.
Magnesium seems to be of particular importance when it comes to keeping blood sugar balanced. Deficiencies in this mineral have been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, and one study found that people with the highest magnesium intake were 47 percent less likely to develop diabetes. Supplementing with magnesium has also been shown to lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity. Making a point to consume plenty of magnesium-rich foods—leafy green veggies like spinach and Swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, black beans, dark chocolate, and avocado—is smart in general, as magnesium plays a role in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. Nosh on some chromium-rich foods like broccoli, barley, and oats, while you’re at it. One study found that the combined effects of chromium and magnesium were more beneficial than either mineral alone.
14. Get familiar with l-glutamine.
L-glutamine, an amino acid needed in large amounts by your body, has been shown to help build lean muscle by suppressing insulin levels and stabilizing blood sugar. One study found that supplementing with L-Glutamine for six weeks improved body composition in patients with type 2 diabetes. L-glutamine has also been shown to help heal a leaky gut, which is important for digestive health and immunity. In addition to supplements, you can find L-glutamine in foods such as bone broth, grass-fed beef, cottage cheese, spirulina, asparagus, broccoli rabe, salmon, and turkey.
15. Pop a probiotic.
Probiotics are an obvious supplement for digestive health, but they may play an important role in lowering blood sugar, too. One small study found that people who were following a heart-health DASH diet and also consumed probiotics experienced a decrease in fasting blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C levels (a marker for testing long-term blood sugar levels). Start by adding healthy, probiotic-rich foods to your diet such as kefir, plain yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, or even a little low-sugar kombucha. And, to help probiotic bacteria to thrive, eat plenty of prebiotic foods such as fiber-rich leafy greens and vegetables.
The bottom line: Take a whole-body approach to lower blood sugar
No single food, supplement, or workout session is going to be the magic bullet. To lower blood sugar (and keep it balanced for good), start eating a minimally processed diet that contains fiber, protein, healthy fats, and high quality carbohydrates; get regular exercise; make sure you’re hydrated and well rested; play around with meal composition; and experiment with research-backed superfoods and supplements.
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