Blood sugar balance - why it matters and how to achieve it
I will start by saying that I'm writing this particularly with the female body in mind, in relation to our hormonal balance and also symptoms associated with peri-post menopause life stage. Stress is one of the biggest threats to hormonal balance, too much cortisol & adrenaline, and because the adrenal glands are overloaded in periods of prolonged stress, so they can't get on and produce other hormones, in particular, oestrogen at levels that the body needs. Whilst the ovaries are the main producer of oestrogen, the adrenal glands contribute too.
When the body is under continued stress it realises that the adrenals are too overloaded to make oestrogen, so our fat cells 'crack on' and produce some instead. The liver is responsible for clearing excess oestrogen, and if the liver is fatty, inflamed or overloaded, then it can't do it's job so it stores excess oestrogen in our fat cells. The problem is the then that this hormonal fat around the stomach is harder to shift as it's not just the result of eating too much.
So where does blood sugar come in to it? Basically when your blood sugar drops, your body releases stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. And if we're stressed already, then we're just topping up already high stress hormone levels rushing around the body. So avoiding sudden drops and surges in blood sugar levels makes a huge difference in making sure you're adrenals aren't 'overloaded'.
Your body is designed to keep blood sugar levels within a specific range and when it goes outside of that (either above or below), there is a health risk. When there is a spike in blood sugar (caused by eating high volumes of sugar foods and refined carbohydrates, plus caffeine, alcohol and nicotine) the body releases the hormone insulin to try and get the sugar from the blood and store it in the liver and muscles for when we need it. If stores are already at their max, then the excess sugar/ energy is stored as fat.
When the blood sugar levels are low, you feel tired, irritable, shaky, dizzy and crave sugar. This sugar crash causes the body to release cortisol and adrenaline to try and regain balance. These hormones send messages to the liver, asking it to release sugar in to the blood. And cortisol also makes us crave sugary foods, alcohol and caffeine - in order to give you that quick fix or pick me up. So the liver releases sugar, you also consume a sugar 'fix' and blood sugar spikes and then you can see we're back on that rollercoaster again - making the adrenals work over time, and oestrogoen production is sidelined once again.
If you go to bed with high blood sugar levels, insulin will kick in and then the blood sugar levels drop at around 2 or 3am when your stress hormones have arrived and you awake for no apparent reason. This happens to me when I've been drinking alcohol! Then the impact of the insomnia or lack of sleep also fuels the adrenal overload.
How do I know if I've got a blood sugar imbalance?
Typical symptoms are - low energy, fatigue, sugar cravings, carb cravings, PMS, moodiness, insomnia, irritability, low mood, depression, dizziness, anxiety, headaches, palpitations, reliance on caffeine or alcohol and weight gain. I'm sure we can all identify with some of those! Over time you can develop a pre-diabetic state called insulin resistance when the body cells stop responding to insulin so you just always have too much blood sugar.
So how do I achieve blood sugar balance?
The two key nutrients needed to help balance blood sugars are:
Complex carbohydrates - which are high in fibre and release more slowly that refined carbohydrates. Examples include: vegetables, fruits with edible skins (apples, berries etc), wholegrains (brown rice, wholemeal bread or wholewheat pasta), oats, pulses and sweet potatoes.
Protein - which is harder to digest and helps to slow down the release of carbohydrates (so avoids a spike in blood sugar) meat, fish, seafood, eggs, lentils, chickpeas, beans, dairy, cheese, greek yoghurt, quinoa, nuts, seeds and nut butters
The trick is to eat both of these together at each meal and snack - so a combo of protein and complex carbohydrates. And on the flip side, avoid refined carbohydrates and sugary foods such as cakes and biscuits. Then the more stable you keep your blood sugar the less likely you are going to have a blood sugar crash that then makes you crave the sugary stuff.
So what does this mean in practice? Here are some typical meals and some swap ideas for how to get that better complex carb and protein combo:
You have toast with jam or marmite on - swap to an unsweetened nut butter, and use wholemeal, seeded or rye bread to up the fibre
You have an egg on white toast - swap to poached or scrambled egg on wholemeal, seeded or rye toast for more fibre and have at least two eggs for extra protein
You have sugary breakfast cereal or granola with milk - swap to a low sugar cereal (less than 5-6g of sugar per 30-40g portion and / or add a tablespoon of seeds (pumpkin, chia etc) to increase protein content
You have natural yoghurt with berries or chopped fruit - swap to authentic greek yoghurt (not greek style) for increased protein and add a tablespoon of seeds or ground flaxseed
You have porridge with banana - add a tablespoon of unsweetened nut butter or scoop of protein powder, and perhaps sprinkle over cinnamon for its blood sugar balancing properties
You have a homemade fruit smoothie - add a tablespoon of ground flaxseed, a scoop of protein powder, authentic greek yoghurt, and / or use veg as well as fruit (e.g spinach, avocado, cucumber)
You have mashed avocado on toast - add smoked salmon or eggs, and make sure you have it on wholemeal, seeded or rye toast
Smart sugar balancing snacks:
small handful of nuts (approx 7-10) with a piece of fruit such as an apple or satsuma
chopped veg with hummus
apple or celery with unsweetened nut butter
hard boiled egg and spinach leaves
small pot of plain yoghurt with some berries and tablespoon of seeds
a couple of oatcakes with cottage cheese or nut butter or hummus
make your own "cereal" or fruit & nut bars (I've loads of recipes on here)
What foods aren't so great at helping blood sugar balance?
I think we probably all know this, but here is a reminder - you don't have to cut these out all together, but think of more as a occasional treat and one off than a daily occurrence:
Refined carbohydrate: white bread, white rise, white pasta, white noodles, high sugar breakfast cereals, cakes biscuits, muffins, pastry
High or hidden sugar foods: chocolate, sweets, ice cream, processed pasta sauces and soups, fruit flavoured yoghurts, dried fruit, tomato ketchup
Some drinks: alcohol - particularly sweet wines and beer, energy drinks, fruit juices, cola and other carbonated drinks and too much caffeinated tea and coffee
There is a lot more to be said about this subject but I don't want this to be the worlds longest and overwhelming blogpost. And in terms of making a difference, start with one change at a time and make it a habit or part of your lifestyle. All of those changes add up and make the difference over time. Add any comments of questions below and I will do my best to help you!