by Deborah Lynn Blumberg September 23, 2021 4 min read

What is blood sugar and why is it important? Blood sugar is linked directly to how we function and feel — it affects our overall health and well-being from our appetite to mood, sleep and ability to manage our weight.

To optimize health, it's wise to understand what blood sugar is, how it should function normally, and how to strike the right balance when it comes to blood sugar levels.

Blood Sugar Regulation in a Healthy Body

Blood sugar, also known as blood glucose, is a sugar that comes from food, and it's the main source of energy for our bodies. Glucose gives the body's organs and muscles the nutrients they need. The pancreas, liver and small intestines all play a role in glucose production, storage and absorption.

After we eat, glucose enters our bloodstream, raising our blood sugar levels. When glucose rises, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. Our small intestine absorbs glucose from the blood into the cells for energy, and insulin directs any extra glucose to the liver and muscles to be stored as glycogen, regulating our blood sugar level. Once reserves are satisfied unused glucose will most likely then store as body fat.

The pancreas also makes another hormone called glucagon, which functions in the opposite way of insulin. When we need more sugar in our blood, glucagon raises our blood sugar levels by prompting the liver to turn glycogen back into glucose and then release it into the blood. Together, insulin and glucagon keep blood sugar balanced.

The Blood Sugar Roller Coaster

Blood sugar balance is a foundation of health and essential for optimal wellness. When blood sugar levels swing between extreme highs and lows, people can experience some negative health effects, both over the short term and long term.

The goal is to keep blood sugar within a stable range throughout the day. Regularly moving between spikes and dips can lead to dysregulated blood sugar levels and many issues such as food cravings, mood swings, impaired concentration, body aches and pains, and difficulty maintaining a healthy weight.

The ideal range for optimal, balanced blood sugar should stay between 70 or 75 to 95mg/dL for most of the day. Exact targets will vary based on individual factors like age and current health, and will also fluctuate at different times throughout the day such as when you wake up, after eating and before you go to bed.

Effects of High and Low Blood Sugar

High blood sugar occurs when glucose in the blood rises above a person's optimal range. Chronic high blood sugar can occur when a person's diet is heavy in processed carbohydrates. When blood sugar is high, you might experience cognitive issues, not thinking as quickly or making more mistakes. You might feel nervous or have less energy. The long-term effects of high blood sugar can extend much further than storing excess body fat — chronically elevated blood sugar puts people at a much higher risk of serious health conditions, including loss of vision and disease.

Blood sugar that falls under 70 mg/dL is typically considered low. Low blood sugar can be the result of missing a meal, an intense exercise session or consuming alcohol in excess. Signs of low blood sugar can include sweating more than usual, feeling sleepy/tired, a fast or irregular heartbeat, shaking, irritability, hunger and dizziness. Some people who experience low blood sugar can even faint.

Steps to Balancing Blood Sugar

The good news is there are plenty of daily practices that can help promote balanced blood sugar.

  • Skip the snacks. This will always depend on individual factors like body type, activity levels or metabolism, but in general, most people can better balance blood sugar levels by not snacking throughout the day. Aim to allow at least three to four hours between meals for blood sugar levels to decrease and return to a normal range.
  • Focus on whole foods predominantly. Ask yourself, do I see this food in nature? Prepare meals made from simple, whole foods and minimize processed ones. For example, for dinner, enjoy wild salmon, sweet potato, broccoli and grilled asparagus with some olive oil drizzled on top.
  • Eat balanced meals. A balanced nutritional plan includes all macronutrients and micronutrients and is key to optimal health. The majority of your meals should be made up of veggies with lots of fiber, protein and healthy fats. Eat lower glycemic fruits like berries or kiwi - delicious in a morning smoothie, or include other fruits as a light afternoon snack or around your workout. You should feel satiated for a few hours after each meal. If you're not, try adding a bit more protein and see if that helps satisfy you for longer.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.Moderate amounts of alcohol can spike blood sugar, while heavy amounts can cause blood sugar levels to drop. Limit drinking to just a few drinks a week and opt for low-sugar alcoholic beverages like light beer, wine or distilled spirits.
  • Get moving.Movement is key for wellness. If the recommended 10,000 steps a day seems daunting, start small at just a few thousand steps. Take a 10-20-minute leisurely walk after dinner to support digestion, promote better-regulated sugar levels and sleep. If you have trouble moving, a sauna may also provide some of the benefits of exercise, including promoting balanced blood sugar.

As you work to balance your blood sugar, one way you can keep track of your progress is with a simple at-home test kit known as a glucometer. Usual times to test blood sugar include when you first wake up (before eating or drinking), before a meal, two to three hours after eating and at bedtime. As blood sugar becomes balanced, many people find they're sharper, more energetic and healthier overall.

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