Like so many of my patients, you probably know your cholesterol levels, and you might even recall your last blood pressure reading. But what about your blood sugar levels? Do you know your A1C? Just as importantly, do you know how to maintain healthy levels of blood sugar (also known as glucose)?
If not, don’t be embarrassed. I blame the medical establishment’s obsession with cholesterol levels – even though those figures are far from the whole story on heart health. But nearly every day, I am reminded of how little attention most people pay to blood sugar numbers – until they become insulin resistant (also known as pre-diabetic) or develop full-blown diabetes.
Most patients shrug off a diagnosis of elevated blood sugar, in spite of the fact that it is a serious condition that will become diabetes unless you change your ways. For example, it’s well established that diabetes damages the delicate endothelial cells that line all of our blood vessels. This enables plaque to build up, eventually leading to cardiovascular disease. But that process begins, long before a diabetes diagnosis, with elevated blood sugar. So, even if your cholesterol levels are perfect or close to it, high levels of blood glucose could be harming your heart and blood vessels.
When a patient is having problems with elevated glucose, I make certain they understand one thing: They now have an opportunity to maintain their health by getting a solid grip on blood sugar management or they could slip into type II diabetes, which is a real health disaster.
It’s very simple – the patients who pay attention and make changes to reduce their glucose levels thrive. The ones who ignore my advice usually end up with type II diabetes and all the complications it brings, including potentially very serious consequences such as an increased risk of heart attack and heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancer, vision difficulties, and even amputations. Understand that I am not talking about a slightly elevated risk here, either. For example, individuals with diabetes have as much as four times the risk of a stroke as people without this disease.
Signs and Symptoms
Glucose is essential to good health. Every cell in the body uses it to produce energy, and it’s especially important for the brain, the body’s biggest glucose consumer. Even though glucose is clearly important, too much of a good thing can put your health at risk.
As a practicing physician, I see plenty of indications that glucose management is a problem. Excess weight, especially around the waist, is one red flag. But I check all my patients’ glucose levels because an individual of normal weight can have glucose management problems, too. I look for elevated blood sugar and then check for two or more of these symptoms:
- Extreme thirst
- High levels of triglycerides (a fat found in the bloodstream)
- Cravings for carbohydrates and sweets
- Low levels of HDL (high-density lipoprotein), also known as good cholesterol
- Repeated infections, including flu and yeast infections in women
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Difficulty thinking, foggy brain
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Vision disorders
- Repeated need to urinate
- Sexual dysfunction in men
Having only three of these markers is enough for a diagnosis of pre-diabetes. These symptoms show that your body is losing its sensitivity to insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas. Insulin’s primary job is to escort glucose, converted from the food you eat, into your cells, where it is used for energy production. If the cells refuse to take on more glucose (either because they already have plenty or due to insulin resistance), it is stored as fat for later use.
For people eating a moderate amount of well-balanced calories – in other words, eating a reasonable amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrates for their activity level – insulin resistance is not normally an issue. But for people who snack throughout the day or consume large amounts of simple carbohydrates, like fast food and sugary beverages, or who frequently overeat, the amount of glucose in the body can be overwhelming.
In those cases, the pancreas may not be able to maintain insulin production. Or the cells could reject insulin’s attempts to force more glucose into them. The end result is too much glucose in the bloodstream and not enough in the cells. The excess glucose, as well as the insulin in the blood stream, damages the linings of your arteries – and this is the beginning of cardiovascular disease.
Four Tips for Prevention
Without some serious lifestyle changes, anyone with elevated blood glucose is at risk for developing pre-diabetes. Once that happens, you are on a slippery slope where the risk of full-blown type II diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and certain cancers increases dramatically. Fortunately, there are things you can do now to get your health back on track.
Here are the things you must do if you are insulin resistant…
1: Know Your Numbers (A1C)
The most common method of measuring blood glucose is with the hemoglobin A1C (HbA1c) test. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), an HbA1c above 6 indicates diabetes, and scores below that are in the healthy range. In my clinic, I prefer to advise patients to keep their A1C below 5.5. This is a healthy level, and, if it is above this level, it’s time to make some real changes. By using a lower standard and correcting the situation early, patients can avoid some of the early health damage that comes with elevated glucose levels.
Another test that I suggest you ask your physician for is a fasting glucose test. If you’ve had blood work done recently and you fasted for 24 hours in advance, your doctor may have done this test, so check to see if you can get the results from your doctor’s office. I like to see my patients’ fasting glucose around 85 mg/dl.
People who are overweight face three times the risk of developing type II diabetes, compared to normal weight individuals. But when weight goes down, so do blood glucose levels. In fact, studies have shown that individuals who dropped just five percent of their body weight reduced the likelihood of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, in some cases, by a whopping 70 percent!
One of the best ways to lose weight and correct blood glucose problems is with exercise. Schedule 30- to 45-minute daily walks, if time permits. Or take several short, 10- to 15-minute walks during the day. 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 day, here’s some good news: Two recent studies show that very short exercise sessions improve glucose management by reducing insulin resistance and other pre-diabetes 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 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, start slowly – with simple walking, for example – and work your way up to more intense and longer workout routines.
3: Eat Smart
Some people live to eat (and eat whatever they want). But eating to live is the way to stay healthy. And yes, there’s a big difference between the two. I recommend the Mediterranean diet as a good “eat to live” strategy for many of my patients, since it has consistently been shown to have impressive health benefits, such as lowering your risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.
Following the Mediterranean diet means building meals around vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, and seeds, with small portions of lean protein. I recommend purchasing high-quality, extra virgin olive oil for cooking instead of using conventional vegetable oils. Not only is this diet filling and nutritious, but patients often report that they lose weight effortlessly while on this eating plan.
4: Add Some Vinegar
Here’s a simple trick that many people with blood glucose problems find useful – consume a small amount of vinegar with meals. Several studies have found that just two teaspoons of vinegar with a meal helps reduce blood sugar. Try making your own salad dressing with red wine, balsamic, or apple cider vinegar. Or simply mix the vinegar with a teaspoon or so of organic, raw honey and drink it before a meal.
Curcumin supplements are another way to prevent blood glucose issues from spiraling into type II diabetes. Groundbreaking research, published in the American Diabetes Association’s publication, Diabetes Care, found that individuals with insulin resistance who took curcumin supplements (750 mg twice daily) for one year did not develop diabetes, while more than 15 percent of a control group who took a placebo were diagnosed with the disease.
Curcumin has an impressive track record when it comes to minimizing the effects of aging, while reducing inflammation and supporting heart and brain health.
In addition, look into glucose-management supplements. Recent research shows that certain natural substances can make a big difference in your body’s response to glucose. Berberine, chromium, 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 support supplement.
Millions of people are suffering with the consequences of high blood glucose levels and aren’t even aware that their health is at serious risk. If you find yourself relying on unhealthy carbs, caffeine, and sugar to get through the day and your weight is increasing, there’s a very real chance you may be suffering from insulin resistance, now’s the time to make better choices and get control of your blood glucose levels. As my patient, Bert, discovered, the pay-off for better glucose management is well worth the effort.