The body sources glucose primarily through carbohydrate intake. Other ways include the conversion of glycogen to glucose (glycogenolysis)—or breakdown of non-carbohydrate sources to glucose (gluconeogenesis)—that takes place in the liver. Blood glucose provides energy derived from food to the cells in the body.
It may come as a surprise to you, but there are many other factors—unrelated to food or exercise—that impact our blood glucose levels. From longevity to metabolic health, research supports the idea of monitoring and regulating blood sugar levels for a host of reasons. Below, we’ve highlighted some common mistakes that you can look out for and do some course corrections to avoid glucose spikes and crashes.
Mistakes you need to stop making to keep blood sugar levels in check
1. Not fixing a sedentary lifestyle
Exercise and physical activity are important factors in glucose regulation. Exercising regularly has been proven to improve insulin sensitivity, boost metabolic health and reduce blood sugar levels.
This is because exercise—in any form—breaks down glucose or fat for energy, along with providing other benefits. Exercise can be segmented into vigorous/intense workouts and low/moderate-intensity exercises. Vigorous exercises, such as HIIT, resistance training, aerobics and low-impact cardio, are forms of anaerobic activity, where glucose is broken down without oxygen being used for energy.
On the other hand, by using an incessant supply of oxygen, aerobic activity produces energy without any additional source since it is low intensity. Regular activity in either form increases blood flow in the muscular system, oxidative capacity, lipid (fat) metabolism and signals proteins that enhance insulin action, resulting in better metabolic health.
A common refrain one hears when it comes to weight-maintenance and health is the number of calories one…
Although anaerobic activity breaks down glucose directly, even less-vigorous activity has a significant effect on the regulation of sugar and overall metabolic health. Low-intensity aerobic exercise, like walking for about an hour, enhances insulin action for at least 24 hours. Even in brief (3−15 minute) bouts, mild physical activity is effective in acutely reducing postprandial (after a meal) hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar) and improving glycemic control. In fact, a report in the British Medical Journal concluded that higher levels of total physical activity, at any intensity, were associated with a substantially lower risk of premature mortality.
A large portion of the energy expended by the body comes from exercise or non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Activities like walking, standing, typing or even fidgeting are forms of NEAT, and they can go a long way in boosting metabolism and reducing blood sugar levels or glucose spikes.
A meta-analysis of various studies found that a sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk of diabetes, and reducing sedentary behaviour can enhance glucose and lipid metabolism.
2. Demonising fats
Diet is a key part of keeping blood glucose in check. In their quest to avoid sugary and processed foods, people often tend to demonise fats. However, research suggests that a diet containing more healthy fats, such as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, is far more effective in controlling blood sugar levels and preventing metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes than a high-carbohydrate diet. Other studies have also concluded that a low-carbohydrate diet that’s high in saturated fat improved insulin-resistant dyslipoproteinemia (a disorder related to fat metabolism) without adverse effects on LDL cholesterol. Because fat plays a crucial role in glucose uptake, it is important to have a diet that is balanced with healthy fats and protein. Some common sources of healthy fats include olive oil, nuts, avocados and fatty fish.
Similarly, a recent meta-analysis of over 4,00,000 participants found elevated mortality risk for people who followed high-carbohydrate diets. Instead, diets that provide 50–55% of total energy from carbohydrates with a healthy balance of protein and fats were associated with lower mortality risk, which was further reduced with the substitution of plant-based proteins for carbs.
Another way to be more aware of what foods are best to manage blood sugar levels is the glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly different carbohydrate foods cause glucose levels to spike and, thus, it provides a broad dietary guideline in terms of foods to avoid sudden increases in blood sugar. Foods that are low GI (up to 55) to moderate GI (56–69) can help to balance blood sugar levels and manage insulin resistance. Fibre-rich foods, such as vegetables, oats, barley, certain types of fresh fruit (like apples, berries), legumes, nuts and yoghurts, have a low or moderate GI and are less likely to cause a sudden increase in glucose levels.
3. Not getting enough sleep
Insufficient, poor quality or irregular sleep misaligned with the circadian rhythm (internal body clock) can lead to hormonal imbalances, dysregulated metabolism and other factors. These may directly or indirectly affect your metabolism and, thus, your ability to maintain normal and stable glucose levels.
Sleep and glucose metabolism are closely related to each other. For starters, low sleep levels can lead to increased circulating cortisol (a stress hormone), which results in gluconeogenesis (production of glucose from non-carbohydrate sources). This, in turn, affects glucose regulation. A study linked six days of sleep restriction with an increase in evening cortisol levels and nighttime growth hormone concentration, which induces a rapid decrease in muscular glucose uptake. Both these factors can also result in reduced insulin sensitivity, gluconeogenesis and continued spikes.
Sleep duration also affects the response of the hormones associated with appetite: leptin (subsides hunger) and ghrelin (stimulates hunger). Insufficient sleep tends to offset the difference between the two hormones, potentially resulting in several metabolic irregularities, leading to changes in food intake and causing overeating. In the long term, this can lead to metabolic dysfunctions like diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
4. Not addressing unchecked stress
Stress has a high correlation with metabolism and glucose levels, and chronically heightened levels of stress can predispose individuals to diseases linked to insulin resistance such as metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Chronic stress and chronically elevated glucose levels cause the pancreas (which produces insulin to lower glucose levels in the blood) to become less effective at responding to a high glucose stimulus, causing a drop in insulin activity and raising blood sugar levels consistently over time.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) controls the body’s response to danger, real or perceived. Stress stimulates the SNS and activates the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, which releases cortisol. Cortisol inhibits insulin sensitivity in stressful situations. In addition, heightened levels of cortisol over an extended period of time can also have an impact on blood pressure and overall metabolic health.
Research suggests that green spaces and natural environments can lessen stress. The Japanese practice of forest bathing is known to reduce high blood glucose levels.
5. Not drinking enough water
Hydration plays an essential role in maintaining glucose homeostasis. A number of studies have found that dehydration significantly slows down the metabolic rate. A study at the University of Utah found that subjects who had 8–12 glasses of water per day burned calories at an accelerated rate, compared to the control group that consumed only 4–6 glasses. Good hydration levels are also positively linked to metabolic health.
Since metabolism occurs at a cellular level, the body’s ability to create and burn energy is impaired when hydration is not sufficient. Increasing cell hydration allows cells to restore glucose transport across the cell membrane, which is an important part of the process of generating energy.
Glucose transporters are found in the plasma membrane, where they bind to glucose and enable its transport across the lipid bilayer, a thin membrane around all our cells. Water is vital for the functioning of the two classes of glucose transporters: sodium-glucose cotransporters (SGLTs) and facilitative glucose transporters (GLUTs), which allow cells to absorb and process glucose.
Both mild and severe dehydration can have a notable impact on glucose levels, and the body tends to compensate with higher insulin levels and forcing the kidneys to work harder to filter out excess sugar. Over time, this can lead to higher levels of glucose in the bloodstream and ultimately, conditions like insulin resistance and diabetes.
6. High caffeine and alcohol intake
Consuming too much caffeine or alcohol can have profound effects on blood glucose and overall metabolic health. Caffeine can lower your insulin sensitivity. When insulin sensitivity lessens, insulin resistance sets in and your cells don’t react well to the hormone and don’t absorb sugar efficiently from your blood after you eat or drink. This causes your body to make more insulin. Caffeine also raises levels of certain stress hormones, like epinephrine (also called adrenaline) that elevate blood sugar levels. It also blocks adenosine, a hormone that plays a dominant role in how much insulin your body produces.
Moreover, too much caffeine can compel you to stay awake, and lack of sleep may further lower your insulin sensitivity. A study found that drinking more than three cups of coffee a day could lead to hypoglycemia, which is a deficiency of glucose in the bloodstream. The caffeine content in coffee gives you an instant burst of energy but also causes blood sugar levels to drop soon after.
Similarly, alcohol intake also adversely affects the balance of blood sugar. The liver makes and releases blood sugar in the bloodstream while you sleep or between meals. Drinking alcohol, however, hinders the liver’s ability to release glucose into your bloodstream. When alcohol breaks down in the liver, it obstructs the production of new glucose and leads to a decline in glucose levels and increases insulin secretion. Alcohol initially leads to a spike in the glucose level, which is generally metabolised speedily, but this could lead to a sharp drop a little further into a heavy-drinking session.
The scientific community is showcasing a growing interest in the connection between a diet consisting of a high intake of refined sugars and the adverse effects it could have on metabolism, increasing the risk of heart disease, obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes. Experimental studies being conducted have shown that high consumption of fructose (over 100 g/d) can reduce insulin sensitivity. When your insulin sensitivity is low there is an increased pressure on your pancreas to produce more insulin to clear the sugar in your blood.
7. Consuming refined sugar
One of the ways to navigate refined sugar intake is to read food labels as sugar is more often than not camouflaged on food labels. Here are some of the names for added sugar that will help you avoid or cut back on the amount or frequency of the sugar:
- brown sugar
- corn sweetener
- corn syrup
- fruit juice concentrates
- high-fructose corn syrup
- invert sugar
- malt sugar
- syrup sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose).
- coconut sugar
- agave nectar
- rice syrup
Total sugar, which even includes added sugar, is often listed in grams. Make sure you take note of not only the number of grams of sugar per serving but also the total number of servings. While it may only say 10 grams of sugar per serving, the normal amounts of servings can range from three to four. You can easily consume 30 to 40 grams of sugar without even realising it.
Researchers have observed that about half of added sugar comes from beverages, including coffee and tea. A study published in Public Health found that about two-thirds of coffee drinkers and one-third of tea drinkers put sugar or sugary flavourings in their drinks. The researchers additionally noted that more than 60% of the calories in their beverages came from added sugar.
We tend to slip up when it comes to adhering to ideal metabolic health practices, but heightening our awareness of our blind spots can be the first step in maintaining consistent blood glucose levels. Not fixing our sedentary lifestyle, ignoring sleep hygiene, eliminating fats from our diet and not hydrating are some common glucose mistakes. Exercising regularly or at least staying active in small ways, having a balanced diet that contains healthy fats and limits carbohydrate intake, getting regular and sufficient sleep, managing stress and limiting the consumption of caffeine and alcohol are some simple steps that we can take to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention or alleviation of any disease, disorder or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns and before undertaking a new health care regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes.