Diabetic or Not: What Your Blood Sugar Levels Mean & How To Protect Yourself
If you really want to appear knowledgeable about blood sugar,
just look off into the distance and say, “Well it's really not that simple”, and you will almost always be right... because it isn’t that simple. You can say this about the most basic statement like, “Donuts are bad for you.” And you’ll be correct, because it rarely is that simple. While there are many factors involved, it's as important as ever to know the basics. We aim to provide some fundamental information here for everyone, diabetic or not.
Within in the diabetes space, you have probably heard of insulin. What does it do? It is a gate keeper. Your body’s cell membranes are designed to block the flow of sugar from getting out of the blood stream into your cells. Because of this, glucose (sugar) in the blood can't get in to nourish the cells. Proper insulin opens the cell membranes up just enough to let in the right amount of glucose. Medically speaking, insulin is a trophic hormone, which is produced by the pancreas. Trophic means produced in one place, but used by the body in another place. Generally speaking, and remember it’s not that simple, if insulin is not doing its job, you have diabetes.
Broadly, if you have Type 1 diabetes, it means the pancreas is not producing enough insulin. With Type 2, it means the cell membranes are not listening to the insulin, and even though there is enough, the sugar still can’t get in. What happens is you have the cells starving, even though there is really a lot of sugar in the blood. One of the biggest problems with diabetes is that by the time you have significant pain symptoms, you have already damaged many of your body’s cells. As the saying goes, “Diabetes doesn’t hurt until it has already hurt you.” However, there is more to blood sugar than knowing if you do or don’t have diabetes. Just because you doctor doesn’t tell you that you have diabetes, improper blood sugar levels can hurt cells in your body. There can be long-term effects of even momentary spikes in blood sugar.
You can liken high blood sugar levels to blood “stickiness”, or blocking blood flow in capillaries. This is why spikes in blood sugar effects your eyes and feet. – Small capillaries. Spikes in blood sugar cumulatively damage us as we age. As sugar is circulating in the blood, it forms an agent called A1c. The higher the level of blood sugar, the more the A1c . A1c hangs out in your blood for about 90 days, and is considered by many in the medical profession to be gold-standard to determine if you have diabetes, because it is telling you what your average blood sugar has been over the last 90 days. For example, an A1c of 6.3 means that over the last 90 days, you had an average blood sugar of 126 in US units. Both exercise and proper diet can lower your A1c, but what you eat is the key to more cell preservation as you age. What makes it difficult in getting good eating advice, and why you see so much conflicting information, is that the right food for each of us can be so different. In all medicine in general, and particularly regarding diet, the new research trends are moving toward determining what is good for each individual, rather than trying to come up with a broad brush of what is good for all.
Certain rules might apply to most people, but for many, rules are individually dependent. An example would be, “Older people should eat more protein.” For many geriatrics, that rule is contra to their personal best health. While this person to person variation has a DNA component, one of the biggest person to person differences is the variation in bacteria in the gut which processes food before it moves into the large intestine.Your gut bacteria can dramatically change the nutritional value of what you eat. For example, apples spike my blood sugar, but have virtually no affect on my girlfriend. Carrots are the reverse for her. In all probability, that difference stems from the difference in our gut bacteria.This leads us to a very worthwhile investment of your time to map the effect that different foods have on your body (especially your favorite ones) whether you have diabetes or not.
Unfortunately, there seems to be little correlation between what you like to eat, and what is healthy or detrimental for you. However, you can still be empowered with knowledge about your body by measuring the effect specific foods have on your blood sugar. It's the most valuable mapping you can do, not only because it is the easiest, but also because blood sugar can have the largest effect on your long term health. You will need is a glucometer, test strips, a lancing device, a logbook, a list of your favorite foods, and a list of possible alternate foods, if you favorite food spikes your blood sugar.
The test is very simple:
1. Don’t eat for 2 hours
2. Check your blood sugar
3. Eat only your favorite food, in the same amount as you would usually eat.
4. After eating your favorite food, wait 30 minutes and check your sugars again
5. Record the date/day, time, food, quantity eaten, and your blood sugar.
The difference between your 2 hour fasting blood sugar, and your numbers half an hour after eating your favorite food, is how much it spiked your blood sugar.
Once you see your personal numbers side-by-side for different foods, you will be surprised by two things. One is how different, and often unexpected, the blood sugar levels are between foods that you thought were pretty much the same, and second, how easily you will be guided to eat the healthiest foods without having to sacrifice your enjoyment. When your favorite foods spike your blood sugar, substitute similar foods that you like almost as much, but don’t spike your blood sugar. For me, where apples spike my blood sugar, I like pears almost as much as apples, and pears just raise my blood sugar by a slight amount. By proper mapping and substitution, I was able to lower my A1c by 1.2 without loss of eating pleasure
I recommend you take the time to do your own bodies mapping. It is quite easy to do, and it will guide you toward a healthier diet without your having to guess about your individual needs. It's recomended do this every 6 months to a year, as well as measuring your blood sugar from time to time because of what I call your pancreases’ horsepower. That is, if you are driving along on a level road at low to average speed, even the weakest motor can do the job. If you start climbing a hill, or try to accelerate, a weaker motor won’t be able to keep up with your needs. The equivalent in your body is, if you are not eating a high sugar load like a donut or candy bar, your pancreas can keep up, and keep your “Average” A1c level down. You might get a false sense that everything is running smoothly. But when you eat a big sugar load, if your pancreas is weak, you will see a real spike in your blood sugar, which will build up damage in your body’s cells.
You only have one body. Take care if it, and it will take care of you.
Adapted from a 2020 Virtual speech given by Dr. Christopher Jacobs
*This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your health.