Poor concentration, hormonal fluctuations, low energy levels or energy fluctuations, poor sleep, low mood, weight gain, cravings for carbohydrates and sweet foods can all be associated with poor blood sugar balance. But excess sugar intake is not only associated to these problems it can have potentially more serious effects. In 2019 3.9 million people had been diagnosed with diabetes in the UK, with about 90% of these people having type 2 diabetes and if nothing changes it is estimated 5 million people will have diabetes in the UK by 2025. But sadly it isn’t only diabetes that may be a problem, high levels of insulin (the hormone which controls blood sugar) also increases the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, polycystic ovaries and breast cancer.
Sugar, sugar everywhere!
But it is really hard to avoid added sugar in modern day life and often we aren’t even aware we are eating it. Sugar is hidden in so many foods such as sauces, yoghurts, pre-packaged and processed foods, tinned food, granola/breakfast bars and cereals. To make matters worse it is not always referred to as sugar on labels but can be listed as glucose, maltose, sucrose, dextrose, starch or corn syrup to name a few. So when buying foods, do check the label. When looking at packaging 4.2g of sugar is the equivalent of 1 teaspoon. Having a look at labels, is a real eye opener and you may well be surprised how much sugar your favourite foods contain.
What effect does sugar have on my brain?
Sugar actually produces a drug like effect on our brains, activating the brains reward system, but if we eat too much sugar it can create cravings, a loss of control and an increased tolerance to sugar, meaning we want and need more to get the same results. Over consumption of sugar can have an addictive effect on the brain, not to mention causing that dreaded weight gain.
Blood sugar explained
To maintain good health, blood sugar needs to be kept in a narrow range. When food is eaten, the hormone insulin is released to lower blood sugar. Some of the sugar goes to the brain and muscles where it used as fuel and any excess is taken to the liver where it is turned into fat and stored. This is why insulin is known as the fat storing hormone and why excess sugar consumption is linked to weight gain.
If we eat refined carbohydrates, which are quickly turned into sugar, such as white pasta, supermarket breads, biscuits, cereals, cakes or sugary foods and drinks this causes a quick rise in blood sugar and the body to produce high levels of insulin. The blood sugar then goes down too quickly and this causes the crash we experience after that bar of chocolate or cake or high sugar cereal. Do this too often and the body begins to crave sugary foods and over time it can become difficult to control blood sugar.
When things go wrong
Over time this sugar rollercoaster can begin to cause problems, creating something called insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is where the cells in the body don’t take in glucose as well as they should because they have become resistant to the hormone insulin, causing a decrease in their sensitivity to it. This causes the blood sugar to remain high, meaning more insulin needs to be released to move the sugar into storage in the liver, muscles or fat. But if this goes on for a long time it can lead to prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.
Signs that your blood sugar control may be struggling
- Cravings for sugary or starchy foods.
- Feeling the need to eat every couple of hours.
- Energy and concentration dips often mid morning and mid afternoon.
- Over reliance on caffeine and sugar to ‘keep you going’.
- Once you start, it feels difficult to stop eating sweet foods or carbohydrate rich foods.
- Weight gain, especially around the middle.
- Hormonal imbalances causing pre-menstrual syndrome or menopausal symptoms.
- Waking in the night.
- Feeling irritable, struggling to concentrate or feeling faint if a meal is missed or delayed.
- Regular headaches.
If you are concerned about your blood sugar levels, please visit your GP to discuss this.
Menopause and insulin
As oestrogen levels drop in the peri-menopause and menopause unfortunately it effects insulin sensitivity. This can be linked to weight gain, especially belly fat which is often an unwanted effect of the menopause. Taking measures to optimise blood sugar control is very important at this time to prevent weight gain, insulin resistance and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Things we can do to improve blood sugar balance
Thankfully there are lots of things that can help balance blood sugar. Here are my top 5 tips to help balance your blood sugar.
- Ditch ready meals and processed foods as much as you can and eat real, non processed, whole foods instead. Sounds easy I know but in reality this can be difficult. But there are lots of simple recipes available online, some great one dish cook books. I love The Green Roasting Tin and The Roasting Tin books, which have some great one dish recipes. Or why not try batch cooking at the weekend or on your days off, which can mean you are prepared for when you don’t have much time and are more likely to reach for a ready meal or takeaway. I have also recently been trialling meal box schemes and love Mindful Chef, who provide food boxes and recipes for simple, healthy meals to cook from scratch. Try to avoid refined carbohydrates such as supermarket bread, white pasta, white rice and cereals and choose slower releasing carbohydrates where possible, choosing the higher fibre or wholegrain options. Choosing higher fibre or wholegrain options will slow down the release of sugar into the blood stream, which has a better impact on blood sugar levels and they also keep you feeling fuller for longer, so can also help with weight loss.
- Make sure you have protein at every meal: Try to have a good quality source of protein at every meal (a palmful is a portion). These include poultry, red meat (preferably grass fed and no more than 2 portions a week), fish, lentils, pulses, beans, quinoa, hummus, falafel, eggs, nuts and seeds are good sources. Protein helps slow down the release of sugars and keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
- Increase fibre rich plant foods: Eat vegetables in abundance and choose lower sugar fruits such as berries, apples, pears, plums, peaches, citrus fruits or cherries. This will help slow down the release of sugars in food and fibre rich food provides bulk, making you feel fuller for longer. Also by eating lots of plant based foods you can increase the diversity and amount of beneficial gut bacteria leading to better gut health. This can contribute to a reduction in hunger hormones and may contribute to weight loss.
- Don’t drink your sugar: Fruit juices, high juices, smoothies, flavoured waters, alcohol and fizzy drinks are full of sugar. Water is a wonderful alternative but if that sounds boring, try adding fresh fruit, try tangy lemon or lime and/or herbs or spices; mint, rosemary and grated ginger all work well added to sparkling water, still water or soda water on ice for a refreshing low sugar drink. You could also try different herbal or green teas. Green tea has research to support that it is associated with a decrease in HBA1c, fasting glucose levels and fasting insulin levels which are all good for blood sugar control.
- Eat the Mediterranean way: Eating a Mediterranean diet has research to support it has an effect on insulin sensitivity so can be really useful at balancing blood sugar and potentially reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. In peri-menopausal and menopausal women it was found to be associated with better blood sugar balance and a reduction in in the development of type 2 diabetes. Trying to eat a rainbow of colours of vegetables and some fruit, lots of fish (especially oily), nuts, seeds, wholegrains (wild rice, barley, oats, quinoa, rye), low amount of dairy, low consumption of sugar, no more than 3 portions of meat a week (if red meat, preferably grass fed and no more than 2 portions) and lots of olive oil (extra virgin from one country is the best) are a great way to implement this healthy style of eating.
Stress: Don’t forget to consider your stress levels, as when stress is present there is a release of glucose into the blood stream to prepare for the flight or fight response which creates a surge in blood sugar. If this happens too often it can create a blood sugar rollercoaster. Also the stress hormone cortisol is thought to be linked to cravings for sugary foods, so is another reason to address your stress. Do whatever you can to to de-stress this could be meditation, mindfulness, breathing exercises, exercise, reading, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), yoga or social support (have a cup of tea and a chat with a friend or loved one), your blood sugar will thank you for it! Here are a couple of articles which may be useful: 7 ways mentally strong people deal with stress and stress management.
Sleep: Sleep can also have an effect on blood sugar levels, so good quality sleep is worth prioritising. You can read all about that in my sleep blog.
What to do when you crave sugar
Going cold turkey on sugar or gradually reducing it from your diet is a personal choice. If you are getting cravings, which are really common when reducing sugar, here are a few tips:
Drink a large glass of water when you get a craving. Hunger can be a sign of dehydration, so having some water or a cup of herbal or green tea may help stop that feeling of hunger and may help reduce the sweet craving.
Do some deep breathing. Take a deep breath to a count of 4 then gently pause and breath out for a count of 6. Do this several times to move yourself into a relaxed state. This may be useful especially if your cravings are caused by stress.
Practice a short yoga, meditation or exercise session.
Distraction. Do something else that requires using your attention to take your mind off your craving.
Eat a small amount of nuts or a palmful of berries if you are still craving something sweet. It is a good idea to have a healthy snack for when you are working or out and about so if you do have a craving you have less reason to reach for a chocolate bar, packet of crisps or cake.
I hope you have found this blog helpful and it helps you make the first steps to reducing your sugar intake and balancing your blood sugar levels. Blood sugar balance is one of many areas I work on with the women I treat in my clinic. If you are struggling with hormonal imbalances, menopausal symptoms or women’s health issues then please do get in touch to book a free call to have a chat about working together. Or sign up to my mailing list which means you will get my monthly blog delivered straight to your inbox plus extra tips to help balance your hormones and also hear about any events I am involved in. I am also on Facebook so do come and like or follow my page. Have a wonderful day.