Dr. Su's Blog
How to Maintain Healthy Blood Sugar Levels
As a primary care physician and someone who works with a lot of cancer patients, I frequently find myself discussing the mechanics of blood sugar control. Optimizing blood sugars supports a healthy cardiovascular system, blood pressure, immune function, hormonal health, wound healing, and longevity. In short, maintaining healthy blood sugar helps you avoid the most common chronic diseases. I thought it would be helpful to discuss the basic physiology of blood sugar control and offer a few easy and supportive ideas to keep blood sugars in the healthy range.
Blood Sugar Explained
When you eat a meal, it usually contains a mix of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. (The recommended ratio of these components is a source of endless Internet intrigue.) Eating carbohydrates leads to an increase in blood glucose, which stimulates the release of insulin from the pancreas.
People have different carbohydrate tolerances, but if you regularly exceed the amount of sugars your cells need, you will start to develop insulin-resistance. I think of insulin like a doorbell: it comes to the cells, rings the bell, and then the sugar is allowed entry. However, if the cells have enough sugar, they don’t respond to the doorbell. This sets up a vicious cycle of increased insulin output to keep ringing the doorbell--and remember that insulin promotes fat storage (weight gain and fatty liver). And because the cells are not letting in the excess sugars, the sugars stay elevated in the blood. Chronically elevated blood sugars lead to accelerated atherosclerosis (clogged arteries), vascular inflammation, increased coagulation (sticky, clotty blood), and oxidative damage. And there is evidence that chronically elevated insulin levels can promote certain types of cancers.
Aside from diet, blood sugars can also be elevated by stress. When we are between meals and need fuel, our livers produce glucose to be released into the bloodstream to keep our cells fed. However, when we are experiencing stress, the cortisol travels to the liver and stimulates this production of glucose. Evolutionarily, this function exists so that if we needed to quickly get away from danger, our muscles would have the blood sugar required to do it. But in our more sedentary lives, if we are chronically stressed, our blood sugars will be chronically high too.
So what can we do to maintain healthy blood sugar levels?
The first intervention is always diet.
As mentioned above, there is no one-size-fits-all diet and some people certainly have a higher tolerance for dietary carbohydrates than others. This is partly due to genetics and body type. As my patients know, I always start by advocating a diet that is mostly vegetables. That includes at breakfast! I’d like to see 50% of someone’s plate filled with veggies of all colors. I also do not demonize starchy vegetables such as potatoes and yams, but if someone has elevated sugars, these are foods to be eaten in small portions.
Also, processed oils can lead to inflammation, elevated insulin, and higher blood sugars. All your saturated fats should come from very clean sources such as dairy or animal meats that have been fully pasture-raised. And it is well-known that omega-3 fatty acids that come from salmon, walnuts, or flax seeds are anti-inflammatory and balance insulin output. Lastly, I always warn people to be wary of cooked polyunsaturated oils such as sunflower, safflower, and corn oil found in chips and crackers. Those oils are fragile and the high cooking temperatures damage their structure and promote inflammation.
Take a stroll.
Another great way to lower elevated blood sugars is to engage in moderate exercise after your largest meal. Maybe exercise is too strong a word… I prefer to think of it like the Italian passeggiata. A brief 15-minute stroll after your meal benefits digestion and prevents the after-meal glucose/insulin spike. And think about the lovely impact this will have on our chronically elevated stress levels!
Fasting enhances insulin sensitivity, meaning the cells are more sensitive to insulin (ie, they “listen” to the doorbell and open the door so the sugar can go in). An easy and recently popularized way to do this is through lengthening your overnight fast. This is not appropriate for all people, but for folks with elevated sugars and less sensitive cell receptors, fasting for longer than 12 hours, and even up to 16 hours, requires the cells to use their stored sugar and resensitizes them to insulin, thereby lowering blood sugar. Try having your dinner earlier in the evening, and then stretching your breakfast to be slightly later.
Supplement with herbs and nutrients.
There are many herbs and specific nutrients that support healthy blood sugar levels. My favorite herbs include Momordica (Bitter Melon), Berberine, Opuntia (Nopal cactus), and Trigonella (Fenugreek). Zinc, Vitamin D, and B-vitamins are all supportive players. My go-to product that covers many of these bases is Natura Health Products® IG Sensitizer®, which I dose at 2-3 capsules with higher-carbohydrate meals.
I hope this has been an engaging discussion of how blood sugar mechanics work and why balanced blood sugars are an important aspect of health and longevity.
Meet Dr. Su!
Dr. Susan Saccomanno, ND, LAc is a contributing writer to the Mederi Blog and a practitioner at the Mederi Center Clinic in Ashland, Oregon. She has over a decade of experience as a family physician with a specialty in holistic cancer care and chronic illness. Dr. Su has been practicing at the Mederi Center since 2014, where she blends the best of naturopathic and Chinese traditions.
Dr. Su became a doctor out of her passion for helping people achieve vibrant health. She received her Naturopathic Doctorate and Master of Oriental Medicine degrees from National College of Natural Medicine, and extended her studies in integrative cancer care in the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System (ETMS), founded and taught by Donnie Yance.