You Can Have "Stable" Blood Sugar With A Sneaky Insulin Issue: An MD Explains
Insulin, generally, is a good thing. In most healthy people, it's what brings your glucose levels back down; whenever you face a blood sugar spike, your body responds by releasing the hormone, which "keeps your blood sugar 'normal,'" says functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, M.D., on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
The problem occurs when you repeatedly experience these blood sugar spikes—to constantly keep blood sugar levels down, your body has to make more and more insulin; pretty soon, your body may become "numb" to the hormone, resulting in insulin resistance and, potentially, diabetes down the line. That's why experts recommend getting your blood sugar levels routinely checked, just to make sure they're not frequently spiked.
But let's say your fasting blood sugar falls within the "normal" range (which is anything less than 100 mg/dL). You should be off the hook, no? Well, not necessarily. According to Hyman, you should check your insulin levels, too.
How you can have stable blood sugar levels & high insulin.
Your blood sugar levels may be considered "stable," but Hyman says your insulin might be working on overdrive to keep them that way. And once your insulin runs out of gas, well, that's when your blood sugar stays sky-high—and all those aforementioned issues can crop up.
He's seen the exact scenario play out in his practice: "I've just had a patient, his blood sugar is a little bit high—110, in the prediabetic range," he says. (For what it's worth, 88 million American adults fall into this prediabetic range1, according to the CDC.) "His average blood sugar, called hemoglobin A1C, was perfectly normal." On paper, the patient's doing OK. Until Hyman measured his insulin levels: "[Stable levels] should be less than 5 [mIU/L]. Over 10, I start to worry. This guy's insulin was 100, fasting, which is astronomical," Hyman explains.
Essentially, he was in the process of becoming resistant to the effects of insulin—he wasn't totally there yet, but the gears were certainly turning. "He's got to make more and more insulin to keep the blood sugar 'normal,' until he can't," adds Hyman.
What to do about it.
All that being said, there's no one way to gauge metabolic health. It may take a smattering of markers—around six, as we've previously discussed—to assess your overall metabolic health status. The process also tends to bubble up silently for some time, the symptoms becoming noticeable at a much later stage, which is all the more reason to get routinely tested if you can.
Just remember that even if your blood sugar levels come back "stable," that doesn't necessarily mean you're in the clear. Your insulin levels, Hyman notes (as well as those other markers of metabolic health, like cholesterol, triglycerides, and so on), are just as important to keep in mind.
But on a blood-sugar-specific note, Hyman says you also want to make sure you're not eating foods that consistently ramp up your levels. Even if, say, your glucose monitor doesn't show an increased spike, your body may be pumping out tons of insulin to keep it that way. Limit those refined, processed carbs and sugars, as well as sneakier inflammatory foods (like highly refined oils). "[They] create a reaction in your body that leads to the production of insulin," says Hyman. (See here for foods that can stabilize blood sugar.)
The bottom line? Measuring your blood sugar levels is important, but it's not the only marker you should focus on in terms of metabolic health. Specifically, says Hyman, your insulin levels may be working on overdrive, even if your blood sugar looks "normal." That's not to scare you into doubting your healthy blood sugar levels, but it is a case for taking a deeper look into your health—something we can certainly get behind.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.