Maintaining healthy blood sugar is essential to everyone’s health, regardless of whether or not you have diabetes.
According to researchers, the range for normal glucose levels is typically between 70-100 mg/dL when fasting, and maximum post-meal levels of less than 140 mg/dL (two hours after eating). However, normal blood glucose levels can vary from person to person and depend on various factors. Your body constantly regulates your blood sugar levels to keep them within those normal ranges outlined by the CDC.
When we eat a meal, our digestive system breaks down food into tiny molecules of nutrients that are absorbed into the bloodstream. Glucose levels are regulated by a hormone called insulin, released from the pancreas. Think of insulin as a traffic cop. It tells the blood sugar (glucose) where to go and where to be stored. Once you eat something that breaks down into sugar (glucose), the pancreas secretes insulin, which has the primary job of moving that glucose into your cells, lowering the glucose in your blood. With optimal amounts and good insulin sensitivity, glucose fuels your nervous system and is burned off as energy. The glucose the body doesn't need to use immediately for energy; it stores in the liver and muscles, called glycogen. This insulin response is normal and healthy. The problems happen when you have chronic excessive glucose from a poor diet in your bloodstream. Suffice it to say the more sugar you eat, the more insulin you release. Because insulin’s job is to help store energy away, the more sugar you eat, the less access you have to stored energy—as while it is insulin’s job to store sugar, it is also its job not to let it out. That means you’re going to store that excess sugar as fat. When you need energy, you’ll get hungry for more sugar to fill the energy demands that aren’t being filled by the sugar locked away because you’ve got too much insulin circulating in your blood for too long.
What is Insulin Resistance?
Insulin resistance means you require higher and higher insulin levels for the same result—to drive glucose into cells as fuel. It's the law of diminishing returns: insulin becomes less effective at lowering blood glucose over time because the cell becomes numb. Eventually, you have high insulin and high glucose. This causes elevated insulin and blood sugar levels, potentially leading to type 2 diabetes.
Insulin alone doesn’t cause weight gain (you also need to eat more calories than you expend). Hormones and weight loss are complicated, everyone’s carbohydrate threshold is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer. However, one of the fundamental solutions to lasting weight loss and optimal health is maintaining normal glucose and insulin levels.
Action plan to improve insulin sensitivity: So, we want to be insulin sensitive. The big question is how?
The number one way to increase our insulin sensitivity is with movement. Include strength training where you are lifting weights. Weight lifting significantly increases insulin sensitivity by increasing non-insulin-dependent glucose uptake, which allows your muscles to replenish glycogen without insulin. Include exercise that burns glycogen stores (glucose storage space). This could include HIIT, sprints, intense cycling, CrossFit-like workouts, or training fasted. (note: Exercise may spike your glucose. This is different than a food spike. Exercise will ensure long-term lower glucose levels).
Avoid being sedentary. Break up every hour of sitting with 5 minutes of activity. Aim for 10,000 steps per day. Walk after meals.
Focus on whole foods with minimal processing. Pay attention to how your body responds to the foods you eat. Balancing your meals with protein and fiber-filled foods is a great way to blunt a higher glucose spike and stabilize your levels. As a result, you’ll stay fuller and satiated for longer. For most people, the more physically active you are, the more carbohydrates you can tolerate without glucose spikes.
Drink Apple cider vinegar: Studies show that drinking two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar with filtered water helped reduce blood sugar levels in people with insulin resistance.
Try Intermittent Fasting: For some, this may improve insulin sensitivity. As always, this is not a one size fits all protocol, but a 16/8 fasting protocol is safe for most people. That might look like you eat your meals between 11 am - 7 pm or 10 am - 6 pm and fast the rest of the time (you should be sleeping most of that fasting period).
Time it Right: We tend to be more insulin sensitive earlier in the day. Therefore, eating the bulk of your carbohydrates for lunch and breakfast instead of dinner may be beneficial. Opt to have carbs before or after exercise, as that is when we are insulin sensitive.
You can monitor your glucose levels by monitoring your fasting levels and an A1C test that measures your average blood sugar levels over the past three months at your yearly exams. You can also wear a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). If you'd like to check your insulin specifically, you would need a fasting insulin test from your PCP. If you plan to do annual labs, you can request this lab (it may cost extra).