How to avoid blood sugar spikes for better health

The chances are that, other than knowing that the energy lull which inevitably kicks in after you’ve gone to town on those red velvet cupcakes is down to a ‘sugar rush’, your grasp of blood sugar management is lacking.

No shade from us if that’s the case: unless you’re one of the 3.9 million people in the UK living with diabetes, it’s unlikely you’ll have learned the ins and outs of monitoring or managing your blood sugar level.

But it pays to know the nitty gritty, not least because your body’s levels of blood sugar influence pretty much all bodily functions, both positively and negatively.

‘Blood sugar’ refers to the amount of glucose circulating in the blood at any given time. ‘Glucose is the smallest unit of sugar that is produced from the digestion of carbohydrates,’ explains Rachel Hampson, nutritional therapist and vice-chair at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition.

‘Transported in the blood, it’s taken in by the body’s cells and used to make energy, which is essential not just for muscular movement and activity, but also for all the biochemical and hormonal pathways in the body.’

What are healthy blood sugar levels?

Levels for a healthy adult should sit somewhere between 4mmol/L and 5.4mmol/L fasting (that is, on an empty stomach) or up to 7.8mmol/L after eating, according to Diabetes UK. These millimoles are equivalent to 1/1000th of a mole; a unit used by scientists to measure molecules.

Levels are obviously impacted when you take in carbohydrates, but there’s no hard and fast rule around what amount it takes to constitute a significant change.

‘People’s blood sugar response to different types of carbohydrate can vary quite significantly depending on metabolism, genetic make-up, stress levels, sleep patterns and even the microbes living in the gut,’ explains Hampson.

A ‘spike’ is roughly defined by scientists as a sudden increase of more than 1.7mmol/L of glucose in your blood. A ‘crash’ is when the total amount of glucose in your bloodstream falls below 3.9mmol/L.

It isn’t only food that nudges the dial; sleep and stress also play a big role. Research published in the American Journal Of Physiology: Endocrinology And Metabolism found clocking less than six hours of sleep could ‘significantly’ elevate your glucose levels by the following morning.

The jury’s out on exactly why, but it’s thought to be linked to sleep’s connection to cortisol. ‘This hormone – triggered by any kind of stressor – promotes the release of glucose, particularly from glycogen stores in the liver,’ says Hampson.

Why are people without diabetes measuring their blood sugar?

‘Historically, the scientific and medical community thought that unless you’d been diagnosed with pre-diabetes or diabetes, your glucose levels should be of no concern,’ says biochemist Jessie Inchauspé, more commonly known by her online moniker Glucose Goddess.

But in 2018, a study from Stanford University laid bare just how many people were experiencing steep highs and lows in blood sugar throughout the day; so much so that around 90% of people who could be medically classified as pre-diabetic had no idea that was the case.

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In a smaller trial they ran as part of the study, they found that 80% of people experienced a glucose spike after consuming a bowl of milk and cereal – arguably an unassuming and common breakfast for most of the western world – more than half of which spiked to levels that took them into a threshold associated with pre-diabetes. ‘It was a huge shock,’ says Inchauspé.

Research suggests higher glucose levels can lead to an increased risk of developing dementia

A slew of studies followed to investigate the potential impact of these fluctuating blood sugar levels. A 2019 study published by the American Chemical Society found that DNA undergoes damage when blood sugar levels are high, which increases risk of cancer.

Research from Current Medicinal Chemistry suggested higher glucose levels could also lead to an increased risk of developing dementia in later life. And another study, presented at the American College of Cardiology’s annual conference last year, linked elevated glucose levels to blood vessel damage, increasing heart disease risk.

‘It’s also been shown that ‘disregulated glucose levels lead to more cravings, to more hunger, to unsteady moods and to poor sleep’, explains Inchauspé.

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It was after she discovered the emerging research on the topic that Inchauspé became passionate about sharing how blood sugar works and making sure the average person has agency over managing their own, launching her Instagram account Glucose Goddess.

She’s amassed over 500,000 followers since 2018, thanks to her easy- to-understand infographics and knowledgeable tips and tricks.

How do too-high blood sugar levels harm your body?

Myriad reasons, now you’re asking. Each of your body’s cells – no matter their location or function – contain mitochondria.

These are little chemical powerhouses whose job it is to absorb glucose from the blood and convert it into energy.

Just as overwatering a house plant is a sure-fire way to kill it, taking on too much available glucose overwhelms mitochondria and effectively calls a halt on them functioning effectively.

It’s why, even if you don’t have a glucose monitor to hand, you’ll still feel the impact of a high-carb meal or sugar-laden snack on your energy levels, with a quick high and a subsequent low.

Indeed, a 2019 meta-analysis in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that loading up on sugar led participants to experience a significant increase in fatigue and lethargy just half an hour later.

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More serious than a sudden need to nap is the fact that overwhelming mitochondria can also lead to the creation of free radicals in the body, Inchauspé explains, which creates oxidative stress.

And as a WH reader, you’ll know that’s bad news. Oxidative stress is responsible for triggering inflammation, a major driver of disease. Three out of five deaths are believed to result from a disease caused by – or related to – inflammation, such as heart disease or dementia.

There’s also the small matter of glycation, which Inchauspé likens to ‘cooking’ that goes on inside your body.

‘With every glucose spike, there’s a chemical reaction where a glucose molecule bumps into another molecule in your body and glycates it. That molecule is then forever damaged,’ she says. The faster that this glycation happens, the faster that your organs – and by extension your body as a whole – will age.

Wait, so what does insulin have to do with it?

The third way a glucose spike impacts the body is something that most people are at least a little familiar with: the release of insulin.

‘When you eat, the gentle rise in blood glucose levels prompts the pancreas to release insulin, which helps usher glucose into cells ready to be converted and used for energy says nutritionist Pauline Cox.

But if you are constantly consuming high levels of carbs or sugary foods the pancreas will respond by pumping out more and more insulin to process it.

In the short term an overload if insulin will flush out too much glucose out of your bloodstream at once, creating a sugar crash. Enter lethargy.

Plus ‘the body will want to try to compensate quickly to restore energy balance, which means craving “quick fix” starchy or sugary foods’ says Hampson.

Too much insulin can also stimulate your body to release more cortisol, leaving you feeling anxious or irritable. Go through this cycle too often and it gets worse as more and more of your cells simply stop responding to the hormone at all. What you may have heard called ‘insulin resistance’.

The ‘calories in, calories out' model of weight management ignores the complexity of hormonal systems in our bodies that manage energy metabolism and fat storage

When that happens, rather than being taken up by the cells to be used as fuel, sugar gets stored as fat. Once again, ‘you become tired and hungry, causing you to crave more of the foods that drive insulin resistance,’ says Cox.

There are long term consequences too. ‘Insulin resistance is the driver of chronic illness, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions of neurological decline,’ she adds. In addition to this, it can also cause you to lose focus and concentration.

It’s why managing your blood sugar can also have a big impact on weight management – one of the big misconceptions around blood sugar, says Hampson.

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‘With weight management, the calories in-calories out model ignores the complexity of the hormonal systems in our bodies that manage energy metabolism and fat storage,’ she says.

When too much sugar leaves insulin unable to do its job properly – ie, help your cells convert glucose to energy – that excess sugar can’t simply float around in your bloodstream, as it’s potentially toxic to blood vessels, nerves and other tissues. So, instead, it’s converted to fat.

How do I manage my blood sugar levels for weight regulation and better health?

Broadly speaking, when it comes to monitoring and managing your own blood sugar level, the aim is simple: try to maintain levels within the healthy range as much as possible, keeping spikes and crashes at a minimum.

How? A good first port of call is to start by checking your baseline, which will tell you how well you’re doing currently. One way is by asking your GP for a glycosylated haemoglobin (HbA1c) test. ‘A HbA1c test does not directly measure the level of blood glucose, but it reflects how blood glucose levels have been over a period of two to three months,’ says Hampson.

While glucose monitors are trending, they are expensive – and you don't necessarily need one to enable you to eat in a way that steadies your blood sugar levels

Or, budget dependent, you could invest in a glucose monitor to track your blood sugar level throughout the day. Different types are available, one of which attaches a sensor to your skin that’s connected to an app on your phone, explains Hampson.

‘The sensors usually last for about 14 days, so you can learn how your body responds to different carbohydrates,’ she explains. But you don’t actually need to spend cash on fancy tests or devices, insists Inchauspé.

Make some of the simple yet impactful changes to your everyday habits listed opposite, and you’ll not only gain long-term health wins, but you should feel the difference, too.

8 ways to eat for steady blood sugar

1 Eat in Order

The next time you sit down to enjoy a meal, think about the order in which you eat the different macros, advises Inchauspé.

First to chow down on: the vegetables. Then proteins and fats. And finally, starches and sugars. So, if you’re tucking into a chicken breast with roast potatoes and broccoli, go for the broccoli first, then the chicken breast and finally the roasties.

Why? Well, the fibre in the veg will line your intestine, which slows down the glucose absorption. Proteins and fats take longer to break down, which slows digestion and how long it takes for the glucose to travel from your stomach to your intestine

2. Ditch the blitz

It’s way better to eat fruit whole rather than whizzed up as a juice or smoothie. That’s because whole fruits contain high levels of fibre, which – just like above – help to slow down the absorption of the natural sugars, regulating blood sugar levels.

3. Get plenty of sleep

It isn’t only food that can impact blood sugar levels. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can increase stress hormones, which cause an increase in insulin levels and, over time, insulin resistance, explains Cox. Try to get six hours per night, but ideally eight or nine.

4. Top up healthy fats

Healthy fats – like nuts, olive oil, avocado, seeds – are calorie dense. Eating them keeps you full for longer and will hold those sweet cravings at bay. ‘They help to move your body from getting energy from sugar to getting energy from fat,’ says functional medicine nutritionist Nicole Goode.

Unlike that quick energy spike from sugar (that as researchers have found can leave you feeling sleepy half an hour later) ‘energy from healthy fats is a slow burn, keeping you satiated for longer without the energy crashes.’

5. Time carbs carefully

‘It is best to time eating carbohydrates for when the body is likely to have a requirement for more energy, which is generally going to be earlier in the day rather than in the evening of just before going to sleep,’ says Hampson. After exercise is a great time to tuck into a high carb meal because it will replace depleted glycogen stores in your live and muscles.

6. Switch to savoury

‘Your breakfast completely dictates your glucose levels for the rest of the day and heavily impact hunger, mood and cravings says Inchauspé. By helping to avoid a glucose spike, savoury breakfasts leave you less likely to feel mid-morning cravings and give you far steadier energy throughout the day. Eggs ahoy.

7. Pair starch with fibre

Bread, pasta and rice all contain a decent helping of starch, which is broken down to release glucose in the blood. But how quickly this happens – and therefore whether or not your cells are overwhelmed, leading to a spike – all depends on whether the starchy foods also contain plenty of fibre, explains Hampson. This fibre ‘makes it harder to get at, so it’s slow- release’. Opt for wholegrain bread and brown rice where you can.

8. Make a meal of it

If you fancy something sweet, eat it as a dessert after lunch or dinner, rather than as a snack or on an empty stomach, suggests Inchauspé.

The fibre, proteins and fats will help you process the glucose more efficiently; plus, by eating fewer meals throughout the course of the day you can reduce how much insulin your body is producing and increase the amount of time your body has to rest and repair from digestion.

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