Do you reach for a chocolate bar or the biscuit tin if you are tired or having a difficult day? Do you find it gives you an instant boost but a short while later you feel bad again? Well it sounds like you may have a blood sugar problem, it's not surprising as sugar is addictive and if your blood sugar is out of balance it is likely to make you want to eat more. Why is this the case? Well let me tell you ….
Sugar is pretty much the only food that has no nutritional value. It only comprises of pure energy as calories, it contains no fibre, no vitamins or minerals and no anti-oxidants or other helpful plant chemicals like phytonutrients.
So why do we eat it at all? Well as I mentioned above, and you have probably discovered yourself, it is addictive! When you eat sugar your brain gets a hit of the hormone dopamine, our reward hormone, which makes us feel great for a short while and makes us want more of the thing that makes us feel good.
When eat anything containing starch or sugar, it gets converted into glucose and enters our blood stream where it triggers the pancreas to release the hormone insulin. The role of insulin is to help glucose get out of the blood and into our cells. High levels of glucose in the blood are dangerous and can cause damage and inflammation so insulin has an important role. The more sugar we eat the more insulin needs to be released. As we eat sugar and it is taken into the cells we can end up on a blood sugar rollercoaster of high and low levels of blood sugar. We can feel great at the top end and full of energy, and then all of a sudden we feel terrible again feeling tired, grumpy and irritable . We feel bad when our blood sugar has plummeted and our body sends a message to make us hungry again to bring the blood sugar back up to normal. So now we have both the dopamine addiction and the low blood sugar from the insulin effect both driving us to want to eat more.
In addition we have other factors that can affect our blood sugar such as stress, which increases our need for blood sugar (in case we need to run away from a lion or so our brain thinks), and causes our liver to release sugar (to provide that energy) into the blood. As a woman certain times of the month fluctuations in our hormones including oestrogen also lead to cravings for more sugar.
So how do we feel when we have high or low blood sugar? Here are the main symptom of blood sugar imbalance:
Low Blood Sugar Symptoms
· Sugar/carb cravings
· Night-waking and alertness
· Irritable/”hangry”/shakiness/poor concentration/weakness/dizziness
· Increased waist:hip ratio
· Brain fog
You are probably thinking, “no wonder I am having problems stopping myself reaching for that cake or biscuit!” and asking what you can do about it. Well the good news is that by consciously noticing the amount of sugar we are consuming, we can begin to reduce it and replace it with other foods that taste good and are better for us. It should have a big impact on how we feel, reducing tiredness, low mood, grumpiness etc… Sugar is a simple carbohydrate meaning that it breaks down easily and therefore converts and is absorbed into the blood as glucose quickly. If we eat foods containing more complex carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables, which are digested and absorbed more slowly, they don’t generate such a big hit. You can also make sure to include healthy fats and proteins at each meal or snack. These limit the effect on blood glucose and help to keep it more stable.
Importantly you should also check for hidden sugars in food. Look at the ingredients in the supermarket before you put it in your trolley. Look for words such as glucose, sucrose, maltodextrin, maltose, fructose, dextrose and high fructose corn syrup. Another tip is to make sure you are eating whole foods and not processed foods. Whole foods are things like apples whereas a processed food would be apple juice. The problem comes when you over consume these foods. Whereas one 120g apple might contain 2.2tsp sugar and would be fine, if you drink a 200g glass of apple juice you will be consuming 8.6tsp sugar because it contains around 4 apples.
In reality you are unlikely to sit down and eat 4 whole apples, because you would be filled up by the fibre they contain, whereas there is very little fibre left in the processed juice. You find a similar problem with grain based processed foods such as bread or pasta. My last tip is to ensure you eat a wide variety of plant foods and foods that are rich in the nutrients that your body needs to help manage glucose and support insulin production. Here are my top tips together with some suggestions on how to use them.
Choose complex carbohydrates – try replacing your cake and biscuits with deeply coloured seasonal fruit such as apples, pears, plums, blueberries, raspberries and brambles.
Eat healthy fats such as olive oil, walnuts, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and flax seeds.
Eat protein at each meal or snack, yoghurt, hummus, nuts, meat (maybe some dried beef jerky), fish (tinned salmon or mackerel).
Make sure to eat whole foods, like an apple or an orange, instead of processed foods like apple juice or orange juice.
Add foods into your diet that are high in micronutrients that are needed for glucose and insulin metabolism such as chromium (romaine lettuce, raw onion, ripe tomatoes, liver, oysters, barley), magnesium (Swiss chard, spinach, kelp, squash, pumpkin seeds, steamed broccoli, halibut, green vegetables, nuts and seeds, zinc (lean cuts of beef, pork, venison, lamb, crab, poultry, seeds, seaweed and wholegrains)
If you are concerned about your blood sugar and want to check it, you can do this using a Blood Glucose Home Testing kit or a Continuous Glucose Monitor. The aim is to identify foods that raise your blood sugar level high and those that keep it stable. You want to be eating more of the foods that keep your blood sugar stable not allowing the peaks and troughs to be too high and too low.
What you are measuring is the amount of glucose in the blood, sometimes called the serum glucose level. Usually, this amount is expressed as millimoles per litre (mmol/l) and stays stable amongst people without diabetes at around 4-8mmol/L. Spikes in blood sugar will occur following meals, and levels will usually be at their lowest in the early mornings.
NICE guidelines for the UK currently recommend the following:
A normal pre-prandial (before meal) blood glucose level will be between 4 and 7 mmol/l.
After eating (post-prandial) levels should be below 9 mmol/l when tested 2 hours after a meal.
When going to bed for the night, levels should be no more than 8 mmol/l.
When you identify a food that causes a high spike at the 2 hour mark you want to either remove this from your diet or cut back the amount that is on your plate (e.g. half it for next time, test again, half again if necessary). Always replace what you take off your plate with an alternative healthy food focusing mainly on vegetables and making sure you have some healthy fats and protein at each meal.
A Blood Glucose Home Testing kit includes a blood glucose machine and testing strips and you can prick your finger and test your blood. The Continuous Glucose monitor has a tiny needle that inserts into your arm and continually samples the glucose levels in the fluid around your cells and you scan it with a smartphone using a App. The latter is a great option because you can check it regularly and see how different foods affect you personally and you don’t need to keep pricking your finger!
You can also try testing with one specific food at a time e.g. porridge oats made with water and test this to see exactly what effect oats have on your blood sugar. This can be key for people who still cannot bring their blood sugar under control having cut out all sugar and refined carbohydrates. Everyone is an individual and how you respond to a certain type of carbohydrate may be different to other people. Oats are a good example of a food that give some people a big spike in blood sugar while for others it has little effect. You need to find out what is best for you after all we are all slightly different individuals.
I have tried both options, having recently trialled a Continuous Glucose Monitor for two weeks, and I was quite surprised how I reacted to certain foods and particularly interested to see that I was having low blood sugar periods during the night in the early hours of the morning in the week before my period. I was waking up bang on the time it was happening and now I know why! I found this option to be much better as I could regularly check to see how different foods affected me. The only down side was that I found the scanning could be a bit addictive as it was so interesting. Once the monitor is fitted it stays in place for two weeks and is very unobtrusive so I would totally recommend it to anyone who is struggling to manage their blood sugar just with finger prick testing.
Making sure you do something to balance your blood sugar is really important as blood sugar imbalances are associated with several chronic diseases or conditions including:
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
Type 2 diabetes
Cognitive impairment, including dementia
If you are worried about your blood sugar levels or you are wondering if poor blood sugar control is contributing towards how fatigued you feel then please download my free energy road map which gives you everything you need to start to get your energy back again.