Getting Off the Blood Sugar Roller Coaster

Picture this… It’s a weekday and you wake up late because you didn’t sleep well the night before and woke up multiple times. You rush to get ready for work and grab a coffee and bagel as you run out the door to consume as you drive to work. You have what seems like an endless stream of emails to answer once you get in but you can’t focus. Mid-morning rolls around and you crash, so you pop into the coffee shop near your office for a muffin and latte. For lunch you grab a sandwich, chips, and soda to go. You have a headache by mid-afternoon and are struggling to stay awake, so you eat an energy bar to perk you up. Once you leave the office you are so tired that you either have to will yourself to workout or you just go crash on the couch, drinking a glass of wine with dinner to help you unwind from the day.

Does this story, or some iteration of it, sound a little bit like you? This is the roller coaster known as blood sugar dysregulation.

The level of blood sugar, also known as glucose, circulating in the body is tightly regulated at all times by our central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). If blood sugar levels move out of the optimal range, the brain triggers the release of hormones to help bring it back into balance. This process, known as blood sugar regulation, is vital to our health. It is responsible for energy production and the balance of our energy throughout the day, for the integrity of every tissue and organ, proper hormonal balance, brain health, mood, memory, and cognitive function. If our blood sugar is out of whack, causing the blood sugar regulation system to run in overdrive, our health will start to take a hit and we can experience symptoms such as erratic energy output, sleep disturbances, brain fog, and hypoglycemia. Long term consequences of blood sugar dysregulation include insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.

So how do glucose levels in the blood get out of whack?

First off, let’s explain what glucose actually is. It is a simple carbohydrate that, with fatty acids and proteins, can be converted to ATP, which is the fuel used in all cells of the body. It is an important source of energy. When we eat, the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) in our food are broken down into glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids. After they are processed by the liver or lymphatic system (in the case of some types of fatty acids) glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids enter into our bloodstream, where they are transported all over our body to provide energy, build tissues and hormones, fight infection, repair damage, etc.

When glucose enters the bloodstream after a meal it causes blood sugar levels to rise, which prompts the central nervous system to tell the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin is an energy storage hormone that shuttles glucose to the cells, where it is converted to ATP for cellular energy. Once the cells have had their fill, excess glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen and, if there is any excess glucose left once glycogen stores are full, in the fat tissue as triglycerides. In between meals when glucose levels in the blood begin to fall again, the central nervous system signals the pancreas to release the hormone glucagon, which increases blood sugar levels by prompting the liver to convert glycogen back into glucose, muscles to convert stored glycogen to glucose to be used locally, and, if needed, fatty acids in fat cells and protein can also be converted to glucose in the liver to provide additional fuel.

Glucose levels can get out of whack through the excess consumption of processed carbohydrates and sugary foods. As these carbohydrates are broken down, the glucose level in our blood rises rapidly, which our bodies see as an emergency to be immediately dealt with. Insulin is released to help bring down sugar levels but it can often overcorrect, causing blood sugar levels to drop too low (think of the crash after a sugar rush), which the body also sees as an emergency. The central nervous system then releases adrenaline and cortisol, which are the emergency back-ups to glucagon and can bring up blood sugar levels quickly through the same ways discussed above. If an individual continues to eat a diet high in processed food and sugar, this process will continue to repeat itself over and over again like the highs and lows of a roller coaster.

How do we get off the blood sugar roller coaster? By eating a diet of nutrient-dense, whole foods that contains the right proportion of macronutrients with each meal. The right proportion of macronutrients will be different for everyone, but it’s important to not let them get too out of balance. Healthy fats are critical, as they help slow the absorption of carbohydrates, which can help sustain energy levels and keep you fuller longer. Starting the day with a healthy, balanced breakfast instead of eating on the run will do wonders for your energy throughout the day. And having healthy snacks on hand for when you do get hungry can go a long way.

To busy? Not an excuse, sorry. We are all busy. Plan ahead. Make a batch of hard boiled eggs and cook some bacon for your weekday breakfasts. Cook a whole chicken and a few other cuts of meat. Make some overnight oats in the crock-pot and cook up a batch of quinoa. Roast a few pans of vegetables, which can be eaten with a hard boiled egg and a slice of bacon for breakfast, combined with a protein and quinoa for lunch and dinner.

It takes a little bit of effort but isn’t our health worth it? Not only will you feel better ever day, and sleep better to boot, but you will reduce your risk of the modern diseases of our time: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. I don’t know about you, but I would do pretty much anything to not experience any of those conditions in my lifetime. What about you?