It is estimated that 86 million people in the United States have higher-than-normal blood sugar, and an additional 29 million have been diagnosed with diabetes, a disease characterized by high blood sugar. With so many people either already diagnosed with diabetes or at risk of becoming diabetic, it is no wonder that people are searching for simple steps for how to lower blood sugar. Whether you have had your blood tested and got results for high blood sugar or if you are just wanting to prevent high blood sugar before it becomes an issue, there are many simple lifestyle changes that you can implement in order to prevent diabetes or any complications from pre-existing diabetes.
How Blood Sugar Works
Blood sugar is a result of the process by which your body turns the food you eat into energy. When you eat certain types of foods called carbohydrates, or carbs, your body breaks this food down into smaller molecules during the digestion process. The smaller carb molecules are often called blood glucose, which is just another name for blood sugar.
Foods that contain carbohydrates include:
When we eat any of the above foods, our blood sugar will naturally rise in response as our body transports the glucose through our bloodstream to either be used as energy or stored for later use. In order for this process to occur, the body uses an important hormone called insulin. Insulin acts as a key to help "unlock" the cells of our body. Insulin allows glucose to enter the cells when they need it.
What Causes High Blood Sugar
In order to understand how to lower blood sugar, it is helpful to first have an idea of what causes high blood sugar. High blood sugar occurs in those who have been diagnosed with diabetes and those who are at risk of getting diabetes (also known as pre-diabetes or borderline diabetes). There are two types of diabetes, and the cause for high blood sugar depends on the diabetes present.
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition. For reasons that are still not well understood, the body recognizes its own cells as invaders and attacks organs using processes of the immune system. In Type 1 Diabetes, the organ that is attacked is the pancreas. The pancreas is the organ responsible for producing the hormone insulin. The body thus cannot produce its own insulin. Without this important hormone, blood glucose has no way of leaving the bloodstream, resulting in high blood sugar.
Type 2 Diabetes
In type 2 diabetes, the body often still makes insulin; however, this insulin is not used effectively. This is often referred to as "insulin resistance." The result is glucose building up in the bloodstream, leading to high blood sugar. Over time, the body may also lose its ability to produce its own insulin. Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include family history, sedentary lifestyle, older age, being overweight and poor dietary habits.
How to Lower Blood Sugar: 7 Simple Steps
If you are wondering how to lower blood sugar, there are many steps you can take. It is helpful to only make one or two of these changes at a time, to prevent burnout or feeling overwhelmed.
1. Physical Activity
Exercise is an effective method for lowering blood sugar for several reasons. First, it helps increase the body's sensitivity to insulin. In short, it helps the body use insulin better to move glucose out of the bloodstream, therefore lowering blood sugar. In fact, exercise uses up some blood sugar as muscles burn it for energy during activity. Regular physical activity is also helpful for promoting weight loss. Even a small amount of weight loss (5-10% of your body weight) can significantly improve blood sugar levels.
2. Carbohydrate Choices
Although all carbohydrates raise blood sugar, it is important to note that not all carbs are created equal. If you work to incorporate higher-quality carbs into your diet, you will not only get more nutrients from the carbs you eat, but it can also help lower blood sugar. The healthiest carb choices include fruit, starchy vegetables, beans, whole grains and dairy. These foods are high in fiber and other nutrients so it is best to choose these types of carbohydrates most often.
Alternatively, the carbs found in candy, baked goods, sugar-sweetened beverages or anything containing added/refined sugars have low nutritional value. They are devoid of fiber or any vitamins or minerals that benefit the body and often spike blood sugar higher and for longer when compared to other types of carbs. These foods should be saved as treats and left for special occasions.
3. Portion Control
If you are already choosing the healthier types of carbs and are still wondering how to lower blood sugar, the next step to consider is portion control. There is still such a thing as too much of a good thing. This is because even the healthiest carbs still get converted into blood sugar, and if we eat too much of them in one sitting, it can be difficult for the body to process that large amount of sugar all at once.
When you are choosing nutritious carbs like whole grain pasta, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, etc., it can help to keep your portion between 1/2 to 1 cup at each meal. If you read nutrition facts labels, this would equate to approximately 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates at each meal. Always consult your health care provider or a registered dietitian to make sure these general recommendations fit within your specific meal plan.
4. Add Fiber
Although fiber is a type of carbohydrate, it cannot be fully absorbed into our blood stream and does not raise blood sugars like other types of carbohydrates do. Rather, it helps slow digestion and thus reduces the rate at which our blood sugar rises after a meal; this is also how to lower blood sugar. In addition to lowering blood sugar, fiber helps promote satiety which can assist with weight loss. It also helps lower cholesterol naturally. It is recommended that women aim to consume 25 grams of fiber each day while men need 38 grams of fiber daily. To boost your fiber intake, be sure to include a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds in your diet.
5. Stress Management
Stress management is often an overlooked method for how to lower blood sugar. This is because stress is known to increase levels of cortisol and glucagon in the body. These hormones are known to cause insulin resistance and increase blood sugar. To make things worse, stress can often lead to overeating high-sugar foods, which further leads to elevated blood glucose. To prevent this, practice daily stress management techniques. This can include meditation, exercise and any ritual that helps you relax, like a warm bath or a cup of calming tea.
Similar to stress, lack of sleep can cause an increase in hormones that cause insulin resistance and high blood sugar. Sleep deprivation can also contribute to cravings for unhealthy foods and weight gain. To prevent these unwanted side effects, strive for at least 8 hours of sleep each night. If you have trouble sleeping, you can try the following to facilitate a better night's sleep:
- Less napping: limit naps to only 30 minutes, and schedule them earlier in the day
- Limited caffeine: avoid caffeine or alcohol close to bedtime
- Physical activity: exercise regularly, especially aerobic exercise like walking or biking
- Firm regimen: establish a regular bedtime routine that includes reducing exposure to television, cell phones, or computers before bed
- Restful setting: prepare a comfortable sleeping environment (a cool, quiet place free of bright lights)
7. Diabetes Medications
When talking with patients about how to lower blood sugar, many doctors will recommend diabetes medications. There is a variety of medications available that help lower blood sugar, and it is important to work with your healthcare provider on deciding which medicine is best for you. Be sure to ask your doctor about whether your diabetes medicine needs to be taken with meals as this can greatly alter the effectiveness of certain kinds of medications. Missing medications is a common occurrence for many, so work with your provider on finding strategies for remembering to take your medicines regularly.
There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to how to lower blood sugar. There are many steps you can take, including improving your diet, exercising, managing stress and improving sleep. Talk with your healthcare provider, dietitian or diabetes educator on how to implement the above strategies.