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Blood Sugar & Insulin: The Essentials
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim
You have approximately 5 liters of blood traveling around in your blood vessels and heart at any given moment. In these 5 liters of blood, you need only about one teaspoon of sugar for all of your regular activities. If you regularly have more than a teaspoon of sugar floating through your blood vessels, the excess sugar can slow down your circulation, which, over time, can cause all of the problems you would expect to have if you had thick maple syrup clogging up your blood vessels. This is essentially what happens when a person becomes diabetic.
In order to keep the amount of sugar floating through your blood vessels at around a teaspoon, your body releases insulin whenever you eat foods that result in sugar entering your bloodstream. Eating sugary foods, most sweeteners, grains, cookies, pastries, cakes, pasta, and starchy vegetables like potatoes all lead to a release of sugar into your bloodstream. Insulin works by stimulating your cells to sponge up this excess sugar out of your bloodstream. Once inside your cells, sugar is used for energy, with any excess amount being converted to fat tissue.
If you regularly eat sugary foods and too many processed carbohydrates, your body will have released so much insulin that it will begin to lose its sensitivity to insulin, which means that your cells won’t receive as strong a signal to sponge up excess sugar out of your blood. This will lead to excess sugar floating around your blood vessels and all the health problems that come with this scenario.
Although many doctors consider 110 - 120 mg/dL (6.1 - 6.7 mmol/L) as the upper range for a normal fasting blood sugar level, I am convinced that a healthy fasting blood sugar level should be in the range of 70 - 90 mg/dL (3.9 - 5 mmol/L).
You can get your fasting blood sugar/glucose test done at your doctor’s office, or with a home monitor, performed after at least six hours of fasting. The difference is that laboratories measure the sugar in a component of your blood called plasma, while home monitors measure the sugar in whole blood. It is believed that home monitors that measure sugar in whole blood give readings that can be around 15 percent less than plasma readings from laboratories. Some home monitors are calibrated to give plasma-equivalent readings. Regardless of what kind of home monitor you might use, it's handy to have an objective way to ensure that your food choices are keeping your fasting blood sugar level close to or in a healthy range.
If you have too much sugar floating around in your blood vessels, it is likely that you also have too much insulin traveling through your system as well. Even if your fasting blood sugar level is in a healthy range, it is possible that you have too much insulin floating through your vessels, particularly if you have high triglycerides and/or are overweight. Normal blood sugar and high blood insulin can be the result of your cells losing some sensitivity to insulin, which necessitates that your body releases extra insulin into your blood circulation in an attempt to stimulate your desensitized cells into sponging up excess sugar out of your blood circulation.
What's the problem with having too much insulin in your circulation?
Excess insulin is known to cause:
Weight gain, since insulin promotes the storage of fat
Lower cellular levels of magnesium, a mineral that is essential for keeping your blood vessels relaxed and your blood circulation efficient
An increase in sodium retention, which leads to holding excess water in your system, which causes high blood pressure
Increased amounts of inflammatory compounds in your blood, which can cause direct physical damage to your blood vessel walls and encourage the development of blood clots which can lead to heart attacks and respiratory failure
A reduction in HDL, an increase in undesirable small molecules of LDL, and an increase in triglycerides, all of which increase your risk for heart disease
- Possibly a higher risk for cancer due to insulin's ability to contribute to cell proliferation
You can test your insulin level by asking your doctor or laboratory for a fasting insulin test. Less than 10 IU/mL is ideal. Anything over 10 IU/mL indicates that you are eating too many foods that are stimulating excess insulin release from your pancreas, paving the way to all of the negative health effects listed above.
What can you do with your food and lifestyle choices to support healthy blood sugar and insulin levels?
Make non-starchy vegetables the foundation of your diet. Dark green leafy lettuce, tomatoes, celery, cucumber, cabbage, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, and all unmentioned green vegetables are excellent choices.
Reduce or eliminate your intake of sugar and all foods that contain sugar. Some of the most concentrated sources of sugar are soda, cookies, chocolate bars, donuts, pastries, ice cream, and ketchup.
Reduce or eliminate your use of sweeteners like molasses, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, pasteurized/heated honey, and maple syrup.
- Limit intake of fruit juices. Even freshly squeezed fruit juice taken over the long term can lead to high blood sugar and insulin levels. If you want to taste fruit, eat whole fruit, not the juice. The fiber, vitamins, and minerals that come with whole fruit help to slow down the pace at which the natural sugars from fruit enter your bloodstream.
Do activities and exercises that build or maintain your muscles. Muscle tissue acts as a storage site for extra sugar. The more muscle tissue you have, the better you can regulate your blood sugar and insulin levels.
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