Jordan Douglas, MS, HHC
Chances are you’ve experienced low blood sugar at some point in your life and recognize the symptoms, such as shakiness, light-headedness, fatigue, irritability, nausea, and anxiety. You may also be familiar with some of the symptoms of high blood sugar, such as increased thirst, heart palpitations, or headache. Blood sugar (glucose) levels are very tightly regulated by the body, as the brain requires a constant supply of glucose to use as fuel and to function properly. Two hormones — insulin and glucagon — are responsible maintaining glucose levels within a narrow range. It is perfectly normal for glucose levels to fluctuate over the course of the day, depending on what and how often a person is eating; however, healthy physiology requires that these fluctuations be kept in check within a relatively tight range.
Both insulin and glucagon are secreted by the pancreas. Insulin is stimulated by high glucose levels and acts to decrease levels, while glucagon is stimulated by low glucose and works to increase levels. Once elevated blood glucose levels stimulate the release of insulin from pancreatic beta cells, insulin begins working to lower blood glucose levels through several mechanisms. Insulin stimulates glycogenesis, the mechanism through which glucose is stored in the liver and skeletal muscles as glycogen. Insulin also stimulates lipogenesis, encouraging glucose to be stored in adipocytes (fat cells). In contrast, decreased blood glucose levels stimulate glucagon to begin working to increase glucose levels. Glucagon stimulates glycogenolysis (the breakdown of stored glycogen into glucose) in the liver, and gluconeogenesis (the synthesis of new glucose from amino acid precursors).
Blood sugar balance is intimately tied to the stress response. In response to low blood sugar, the pancreas releases glucagon which tells the liver to release glycogen (the storage form of glucose) to raise blood sugar levels. Key players in the stress response can also raise blood sugar. For example, in times of stress adrenaline and cortisol are released from the adrenals and trigger gluconeogenesis. This is helpful in the fight-or-flight response when we need quick fuel to flee or defend ourselves; however, in the face of chronic stress or daily modern stressors (e.g., blue light, social media, the 24-hour news cycle, traffic, etc.) this can create problematic blood sugar issues.
Mismanaged blood sugar can contribute to obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, adrenal fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, cardiovascular disease and vascular damage. Balancing blood sugar is therefore crucial for our health and proper physiologic function.
Here are a few ways to help stabilize blood sugar:
- Eat within an hour of waking. Remember, breakfast is breaking the fast! Be sure to include a good source of protein at breakfast, such as eggs, yogurt, nuts, seeds or legumes.
- Eat adequate protein throughout the day. Complement this with healthy fats, plenty of fiber, and low glycemic complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are slow burners that don’t cause rapid changes in blood sugar, such as whole grains, vegetables, beans and legumes.
- Eat every three hours. Experiment with eating 5-6 smaller meals and snacks a day. This helps to keep both blood sugar and cortisol levels stable.
Working with a nutrition professional as part of your healthcare team can be tremendously helpful in supporting healthy blood sugar. For additional guidance on supporting healthy blood sugar levels through the diet, email email@example.com to schedule your free 30-minute nutrition counseling appointment.