How your lifestyle can affect your blood glucose levels (and why you should care)

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What you will learn

  • Why what and when we eat has a significant impact on our blood glucose levels. And why it is important to have balanced presences of carbs, protein, and fats on your plate.
  • How drinking enough water will ensure that your blood glucose levels won’t spike up for no reason.
  • Why it is crucial to respect nature’s circadian rhythm and what effect it has on our metabolism.
  • Meal timing and frequency have a direct impact on our blood glucose levels. Yet it is highly individualized.
  • How lack of sleep impacts hormones that affect insulin sensitivity, and what the consequences of sleep deprivation are.
  • What kind of effects stress has on our body's metabolism.
  • The effects of physical activity, especially after a meal, on your blood glucose levels.

We have written before about the fundamentals of blood glucose, insulin and glucagon and how excess blood sugar leads to weight gain. Now we will dive into how you can influence your blood glucose levels.

What is food really? Most people’s first thought is that food is energy, like the petrol (or electricity) you would put into your car. Indeed, you get your energy in the form of blood glucose-or in layman’s terms, blood sugar- from the food you eat. Your body has a beautifully complex system in play to ensure that blood glucose levels are kept within normal range, avoiding diseases such as diabetes or metabolic syndrome. And just like you wouldn’t put the wrong type of fuel in your car, what and when you eat matters when it comes to your blood glucose levels and overall health.

Food is just one of the many factors that come into play for your metabolism to function optimally. While you cannot influence them all, a lot are modifiable. Here are seven proven ways your lifestyle can influence your blood glucose levels:

“Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”

Hippocrates certainly knew what he was talking about. Research has shown that what we eat has a significant impact on our blood glucose levels. So let’s look at the three big picture nutrition categories: carbs, protein and fat, one by one.

Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are one of the main sources of energy for human beings. They comprise three types of carbohydrates and they include fibre, sugar and starch. They are usually low in calories and thus, help in maintaining a healthy diet.

In our HELLO INSIDE Daily Plate, carbohydrates are represented in the fruits, vegetables and smart starches category.

Carbs come in two forms: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are in foods such as table sugar and syrups and can be found in packaged cookies, baked treats, and most breakfast cereals. Complex carbs can be found in foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans. Generally speaking fruits and non-starchy vegetables (Cauliflower, Peppers, Tomatoes, …)  are low in energy since they contain high amounts of water and fiber and contribute to maintaining normal weight. However, fruits also can contain large amounts of simple carbohydrates, which can produce a quick rise in your blood glucose.

You may have already heard that eating complex carbohydrates is better than eating simple carbohydrates[1]. Bringing up fruits here: They also can contain large amounts of simple carbohydrates, which can produce a quick rise in your blood glucose. Here’s why: the simpler the carbohydrate, the quicker it passes through the digestion and absorption process, meaning that the faster and higher your blood glucose levels rise. Complex carbs have lots of fiber which has been shown to minimize fluctuations in blood glucose levels throughout the day[2].

A high-fiber [3]diet delays absorption of nutrients, provides our ingested food with a structure, slows down nutrient absorption, increases satiety, reduces hunger and decreases overall caloric intake. All these make for a lower glucose and insulin response[4].

The science is less settled when it comes to fats and protein. But here’s what we do know:

Protein. Protein is thought to positively impact blood glucose levels, but research remains unclear as to why. It seems that the quality and quantity of the protein makes a difference too[5]. 25% of your daily plate should come from smart protein, such as lean meat, low-fat dairy products, fish and legumes. 

Fats. The category fats and oils is found outside of our HI plate, because...

When it comes to fats, a diet high in saturated fat has been shown to lead to insulin resistance[6]. Overall, it seems like small to moderate amounts of fat have a mild effect on circulating blood levels, while large amounts of fat could result in higher levels because of insulin resistance. Therefore, it would be wise to watch your intake of saturated fat. However, not all fat is the same. Unsaturated, “good” fats in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and fish are essential not just because they provide energy and allow vitamins to be absorbed, but also because they actually protect your heart and brain health.

Make sure you drink enough water

Your blood glucose levels might be higher[7] even in cases of mild dehydration. This is because adequate water consumption helps your kidneys do their job better, excreting extra sugar through urine. The average middle-aged male would need at least around 2.5 litres per day, more if they are physically very active. The positive effect of water consumption on blood glucose levels can be easily seen using a continuous glucose monitor and HELLO INSIDE's mobile app.

Live in line with nature’s rhythms – respect your circadian rhythm

Wind down and go to bed when it’s dark, wake up and be active when there’s light outside. How many of us do this in our day and age? Yet our metabolism is highly regulated by what we call the circadian rhythm: a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle and repeats roughly every 25 hours. According to research[8], a disrupted circadian rhythm leads to an increased risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Researchers have shown this in particular by studying the health of shift workers, whose circadian rhythm[9] is constantly disrupted due to the nature of their job.

Sleep Well

If you don’t sleep enough, hormones which affect insulin sensitivity are impacted, causing a decreased insulin activity during the day[10]. In fact, partial sleep deprivation for a long period of time can decrease insulin response to sugar by as much as 30%, yet another factor that might be negatively impacting shift workers' health.

Time your meals properly

Those snacks you’re having in front of the TV after dinner have been linked to weight gain, dysfunction in energy expenditure and abnormalities in appetite, stress and sleep hormones[11]. All of these have a direct impact on our blood glucose levels. Interestingly enough, the time of day when you eat carbs seems to matter too: having a carb-loaded meal at night has an unfavorable effect on blood glucose, especially if you are already experiencing impaired sugar metabolism. It seems like our insulin sensitivity, thus our blood glucose response, is better in the morning. Generally speaking you should eat your carbs in the earlier part of the day rather than in the evening. However, meal timing is also something that’s highly individualized. If you want to find out which meals work for you at what time of the day, you can use HELLO INSIDE's mobile app in combination with continuous glucose monitors to find out. There is a fascinating ongoing research on the impact of meal frequency and timing on longevity.

Manage your stress levels

When we’re stressed, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, stimulating hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These hormones suppress body mechanisms crucial to a healthy function resulting in increased blood glucose levels. This happens because our body needs to have energy rapidly available to survive in a threatening situation. This can be very beneficial in case of actual, physical danger. However, nowadays, our stressors are mostly psychological (your job, your relationship, the weather …) and chronic. So stress response, designed to protect you, becomes harmful.

Move your body

Physical activity has a beneficial effect on our blood glucose levels. It makes your body more sensitive to insulin[12] – so blood glucose gets into the cells instead of staying in the blood[13]. Interestingly enough, timing plays a role here too: exercising after a meal seems to be more effective than before a meal[14]. However, another research paper has shown that aerobic exercise before a meal can also lower glucose level concentrations[15]. So if you’re the type of person to go for a run straight after waking up, keep doing it. And even if you don’t like exercise, research has shown that just moving for 2min every 20 min will help reduce your sugar response after a meal[16]. The positive effect of going for an activity after a meal can be easily seen using continuous glucose monitors and HELLO INSIDE's mobile app.

Conclusion

Eat well and not at night, sleep enough, respect nature’s rhythm, drink your water, move your body- all these sound obvious, but now you know exactly why they influence your blood glucose levels. Which of them are you more willing to address now, soon, or later? Make a plan and stick to it. Your health is worth it.


[1]  J. Brand-Miller, S. Hayne, P. Petocz, S. Colagiuri Low-glycemic index diets in the management of  diabetes: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials Diabetes Care, 26 (8) (2003), pp. 2261-2267

[2]  Müller M, Canfora EE, Blaak EE. Gastrointestinal Transit Time, Glucose Homeostasis and Metabolic Health: Modulation by Dietary Fibers. Nutrients. 2018 Feb 28;10(3):275. doi: 10.3390/nu10030275. PMID: 29495569; PMCID: PMC5872693.

[3]  Lattimer JM, Haub MD. Effects of dietary fiber and its components on metabolic health. Nutrients. 2010;2(12):1266-1289. doi:10.3390/nu2121266

[4]  J. Brand-Miller, S. Hayne, P. Petocz, S. Colagiuri Low-glycemic index diets in the management of  diabetes: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials Diabetes Care, 26 (8) (2003), pp. 2261-2267

[5]  Rietman, A., Schwarz, J., Tomé, D. et al. High dietary protein intake, reducing or eliciting insulin resistance?. Eur J Clin Nutr 68, 973–979 (2014).

[6]  Sears B, Perry M. The role of fatty acids in insulin resistance. Lipids Health Dis. 2015;14:121. Published 2015 Sep 29. doi:10.1186/s12944-015-0123-1

[7]  Kessler, K.; Hornemann, S.; Petzke, K.J.; Kemper, M.; Kramer, A.; Pfeiffer, A.F.; Pivovarova, O.; Rudovich, N. The effect of diurnal distribution of carbohydrates and fat on glycaemic control in humans: A randomized controlled trial. Sci. Rep. 2017, 7, 44170.

[8]  Panda, S. Circadian physiology of metabolism. Science 2016, 354, 1008–1015.

[9]  Vetter, C.; Devore, E.E.; Wegrzyn, L.R.; Massa, J.; Speizer, F.E.; Kawachi, I.; Rosner, B.; Stampfer, M.J.; Schernhammer, E.S. Association Between Rotating Night Shift Work and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease Among Women. JAMA J. Am. Med. Assoc. 2016, 315, 1726–1734.

[10]  Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function.Spiegel K, Leproult R, Van Cauter E Lancet. 1999 Oct 23; 354(9188):1435-9.

[11]  Kessler K, Pivovarova-Ramich O. Meal Timing, Aging, and Metabolic Health. Int J Mol Sci. 2019 Apr 18;20(8):1911. doi: 10.3390/ijms20081911. PMID: 31003407; PMCID: PMC6514931.

[12]  Pedersen BK, Saltin B. Exercise as medicine - evidence for prescribing exercise as therapy in 26 different chronic diseases. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2015 Dec;25 Suppl 3:1-72. doi: 10.1111/sms.12581. PMID: 26606383.

[13]  The effect of walking on postprandial glycemic excursion in patients with type 1 diabetes and healthy people.Manohar C, Levine JA, Nandy DK, Saad A, Dalla Man C, McCrady-Spitzer SK, Basu R, Cobelli C, Carter RE, Basu A, Kudva YC Diabetes Care. 2012 Dec; 35(12):2493-9.

[14]  Haxhi J, Scotto di Palumbo A, Sacchetti M. Exercising for metabolic control: is timing important? Ann Nutr Metab 62: 14 –25, 2013. Doi:10. 1159/000343788.

[15]  Rynders CA, Weltman JY, Jiang B, Breton M, Patrie J, Barrett EJ, Weltman A. Effects of exercise intensity on postprandial improvement in glucose disposal and insulin sensitivity in prediabetic adults. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 99: 220 –228, 2014. doi:10.1210/jc.2013-2687.

[16]  Peddie MC, Bone JL, Rehrer NJ, Skeaff CM, Gray AR, Perry TL. Breaking prolonged sitting reduces postprandial glycemia in healthy, normal-weight adults: a randomized crossover trial. Am J Clin Nutr 98: 358 –366, 2013. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.0517