During the holidays, I spent some time thinking about ways my patients could simplify the process of improving their health. As you know by now, contributing factors to good health include:
- A whole foods, mostly plant-based diet
- Regular, moderate exercise
- 7 to 8 hours of deep, restorative sleep each night
- Stress management
- Plenty of fresh, purified water
- Appropriate nutritional supplements
Making lifestyle changes can be overwhelming for anyone who wants to get healthy. Where do you begin? Isn’t it just easier to do what you’ve been doing and hope someone discovers a miracle cure?
Fortunately, there is a simple way to significantly improve your health without making complicated, confusing lifestyle changes. My suggestion: Get a handle on your blood glucose (sugar) levels.
Taking the Mystery Out of Glucose Management
You may be wondering why I’ve put glucose management at the top of the list. After all, glucose is just a simple sugar your body uses to produce energy. Is it really that important? My answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” For one thing, glucose is essential to good health. Every cell in the body uses it to produce energy, and it’s especially important for the brain, which is the biggest glucose consumer of all.
Even though glucose is clearly a necessity, too much of a good thing is not helpful. No doubt you’ve heard of the obesity epidemic. A majority of Americans are now considered obese or overweight. Health experts use a standard known as Body Mass Index (BMI) to gauge the ratio between height and weight.
|Body Mass Index (BMI) Classifications|
To check your own BMI, simply enter “BMI calculator” into your favorite search engine.
Excessive weight, especially around the waist, is one sign of glucose management problems. But I check all my patients’ glucose levels, because an individual of normal weight can have glucose management problems, too, especially if they have these symptoms:
- Extreme thirst
- Cravings for carbohydrates and sweets
- Repeated infections, including flu, and yeast infections in women
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Difficulty thinking, foggy brain
- High blood pressure or hypertension
- Vision disorders
- Weight gain, particularly in the abdomen
- Repeated need to urinate
- Sexual dysfunction in men
These are signs that your body may be losing its sensitivity to insulin, the fat-storage hormone made by the pancreas. Insulin is produced when the food you eat is converted to glucose and absorbed into the bloodstream. Insulin’s job is to deliver glucose to your cells, where it can be used for energy or stored for future use. But when you repeatedly overeat or snack all day, the excess glucose overwhelms your body. Sometimes the pancreas slows or stops insulin production. Other times, cells refuse to recognize insulin, leaving you with high levels of glucose in your blood but not enough in your cells.
High levels of glucose in the blood are one of the leading indicators of prediabetes, also known as insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome. In addition to excessive weight, especially in the waist area, symptoms of prediabetes include:
- High levels of triglycerides (a fat found in the bloodstream)
- Elevated blood sugar
- High blood pressure
- Low levels of “good” HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol.
An individual who has at least three of these markers is considered prediabetic and at risk for developing full-blown type 2 diabetes. Once an individual is diagnosed with diabetes, he or she has an elevated risk of heart attack, stroke, and certain cancers. Now you can see why glucose management is so important to your overall health.
Getting a Grip on Glucose
Here are some tried-and-true tactics you can use to maintain healthy glucose levels throughout the day.
Eat whole foods. Get in the habit of building meals around whole foods, like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, eggs, and lean protein. That means skipping prepared, processed foods and the long list of chemicals required to create them.Ideally, you should be eating food that has no ingredient list on the wrapper. This may take some getting used to, but it can be done. As my patient Greg told me, “The first month or so was hard. I really missed the frozen microwaved meals. Then one night I got home late from work and didn’t feel like cooking, so I popped a frozen sandwich in the microwave. I started to eat it, but all I could taste was salt. Then I read the ingredient label on the package. There were only a couple words in there that I recognized. So I threw the sandwich away and made myself a salad. It took a few extra minutes, but at least I didn’t feel like I was filling myself full of chemicals.”
Start the day with some protein.Loading up on quickly digested carbohydrates (bread, pastries, fruit) first thing in the morning leads to a surge of glucose and a spike in insulin levels, two things you do not want. Protein — from egg whites or whey protein powder, for example — provides the balance needed for healthy metabolism and helps prevent hunger later. I recommend balancing your diet this way throughout the day to maintain healthy glucose levels.
Eat less, more often. Divide your targeted calorie intake by the number of scaled-down mini-meals you would like to eat each day. For example, a 2,000-calorie diet of 5 mini-meals equals 400 calories per meal. This method helps many of my patients avoid the energy highs and lows that so often accompany glucose problems.Often, patients report that mini-meals help stop diet-derailing hunger pangs, too. Shelley, a long-time patient who was heading toward a diabetes diagnosis, found that mini-meals helped her avoid the bingeing that was ruining her health. “I was skipping breakfast and lunch to lose weight,” she explained, “but instead I would be starving before dinner and wolf down an entire bag of bagel chips or cookies. Very counter-productive, because I was actually gaining weight instead of losing. The mini-meals keep me going all day, and I have way more energy, too.”
Go Mediterranean. Studies repeatedly show impressive health benefits from the so-called Mediterranean diet, including a reduced risk of developing heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. Focus on fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, and seeds. These filling, nutritious, high-fiber foods digest slowly, helping you maintain healthy glucose levels while enjoying flavorful meals.In addition, substitute seafood for red meat most days, and purchase a good-quality extra virgin olive oil to use in place of conventional cooking oils. Patients on the Mediterranean diet report feeling healthier than ever and often drop pounds without really trying.
Drink up. As regular readers know, I wish more people would make fresh, filtered water their first choice of beverage. Unfortunately, we’re surrounded by sodas, juices, energy drinks, and custom coffee with as many calories as an entire meal. The simple carbohydrates in these beverages can send blood glucose levels soaring, while providing you with exactly nothing in the way of benefits.That’s why I recommend green tea as a flavorful alternative to junk drinks. A significant body of research shows that two to four cups of green tea every day helps prevent high blood sugar from damaging organs throughout the body. As a bonus, green tea also revs up metabolism and promotes weight loss. If you’re not fond of the taste of green tea, try the fruit-flavored versions that provide a hint of sweetness without sugar.
Make time to exercise. Schedule 30- to 45-minute daily walks inside or out, depending on weather. Taking several short (10- to 15-minute) walks after eating is another option. Exercise improves insulin sensitivity, so it helps maintain healthy blood glucose levels while also assisting with weight management, heart health, circulation, and so much more.If it’s tough to squeeze exercise into your calendar, here’s some good news: Two recent studies show that very short exercise sessions benefit glucose management by reducing insulin resistance and other prediabetes markers. Both studies involve high-intensity interval training on stationary bicycles. In one, people in the study exercised three times weekly for 10 minutes at a time. During the 10-minute sessions, they increased intensity and to “all out” — but only for 10, 20, or 30 seconds at a time. Even with this minimal amount of exercise — just 30 minutes total per week! — insulin sensitivity increased by an impressive 28 percent, and aerobic capacity improved as well. An earlier, related study had similar results.
If you have not been exercising, have your physician give you the go-ahead before starting any type of workout, whether it’s daily walking or brief, high-intensity interval training. Even with a doctor’s permission, sedentary individuals should start exercising slowly to avoid injuries and work gradually toward more fast-paced routines.
Minimize stress. It’s hard to overestimate the role of stress in glucose imbalance. When you’re stressed, all you may be thinking about is the terrible driver who nearly forced you off the road. But inside your body, even worse things are happening. Inflammation increases and insulin resistance rises, throwing glucose management into turmoil.These days, we repeatedly face stressful situations our bodies are not prepared to handle. That’s why I urge my patients to look into relaxation and stress-management techniques and use them on a regular basis. Some people find that yoga or tai chi works best, while others tell me that they feel less stressed when they take a few brisk walks throughout the day. If those options aren’t practical for you, consider massage, meditation, breathing exercises, dance, music or art therapy, or self-hypnosis. My patients Marsha and Stanley found that having a massage therapist come to their condo each week was not an extravagant indulgence but a real boon to their health. “Massage helps me relax so well that I wouldn’t quit now for anything,” Stan said. “It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done.”
Take supplements. Look into glucose-management supplements. Recent research shows that certain natural supplements can make a big difference in your body’s response to glucose. Berberine, Gymnema sylvestre, and alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), for example, help maintain healthy glucose levels and improve insulin resistance. In fact, I consider these substances so important that I’ve included them in my own blood sugar-management supplement.
Is 2013 the year you finally achieve your health goals? I certainly hope so, and that’s why I’m emphasizing the importance of good glucose management. It’s not hard to accomplish, and I think you’ll see the benefits are more than worth the effort.