Ask The Dr.

Understanding the factors that impact your blood sugar, and how to manage them.
Moving the body is key to keeping your blood sugar under control. Photography by FLY:D Art

By Dr. Frank Lipman

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the dangers of sugar in the diet and high levels of sugar in the bloodstream, and it won’t be the last. We’re in the midst of a national metabolic crisis—more than half of adult Americans are either prediabetic or diabetic, with rising rates of childhood Type 2 diabetes a growing concern.

OK, that’s the bad news. The good news is that advances in medical science have refined our understanding of how diet and lifestyle affect glucose levels (that is, the amount of sugar that circulates in the bloodstream), putting more power in your hands to ensure that sugar isn’t doing a number on your health. It’s never been easier to identify the troublemakers so you can clean up your sugar act before real metabolic trouble begins. So what influences blood sugar? Here are a few of the biggies, and a few thoughts on how to manage them smartly:

Food matters—so dine defensively.

To keep your glucose levels under control, the art of sugar self-defense is essential. As much as possible, lose the low-fiber, high-carbohydrate foods, especially processed foods and sugary drinks that digest with lightning speed, dumping too much sugar too fast, straight into the bloodstream. Those high glucose levels (and sudden surges) cause nothing but metabolic mayhem, pumping up harmful free radicals, eroding blood vessel health—and, in the process, promoting inflammatory symptoms throughout the body (skin wrinkles, fatigue, headaches, anxiety, weight gain).

While cutting carbs—particularly the speedy ones—to the bone is an excellent way to keep glucose levels low, you can enhance the positive effect by making sure to consume whatever carbs you do eat with high-fiber non-starchy vegetables and foods that are high in fats and protein. These are all great at slowing down the digestion of carbohydrates.

Don’t just sit there—let your blood flow!

Moving the body—we’re talking any kind of physical activity here—is key to keeping your blood sugar under control. My advice: Break up seated work hours every 45 minutes or so (even more if you can!) and try these ideas on how to work more daily movement into your routine without a ton of extra effort.

De-stress your blood sugar.

Though most people probably don’t realize it, another factor that throws off your blood sugar is that old culprit lurking behind so many ills: stress. How to deflate the blood-sugar-boosting stress balloon? Studies have shown that simple deep breathing exercises can have a positive effect on blood sugar. But any practice that chills you out is good for your (parasympathetic) nervous system and your metabolism. I’m a big fan of sitting meditation, yoga and, whenever possible, spending unstructured time outside in nature. For some of my patients, it might be a sauna or a hot bath in the evening that does the trick.

Sleep away high blood sugar.

Good sleep is the essential ingredient that brings your nervous system and your metabolism into happy alignment. Consistently logging poor, restless nights of sleep, or trying to get by on less than seven hours a night, has the effect of driving up cortisol, your primary stress hormone, which in turns promotes insulin resistance and cravings for carb-heavy “comfort foods.” Bottom line: Fix your sleep now to sidestep problems later.

People are different.

Keep in mind that a lot of this variability in the way people’s bodies respond to what they eat has to do with their microbiome: the community of bacteria that lives in the gut. As a general rule, the more good-bacteria-friendly high-fiber food you eat, the more resilient your gut will be, and the better it will be able to handle carbs without sending blood sugar soaring.

Finger-pricking is so yesterday—and day to day, not all that helpful.

A new generation of continuous glucose monitors—patches that stick to the skin—measures glucose levels throughout the day and downloads the data to your smartphone or dedicated reader device. Being able to take stock of the sugary enemy, with accurate glucose readings, is the tool you need to outsmart it.