Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects approximately 29.1 million Americans. Of those Americans with diabetes, 11.8 million are age 65 or over.The rate of pre-diabetes in people as young as 20 years old, however, increases each year. Therefore, age is not a reliable determining factor when wondering if you should be concerned about your blood sugar.
Blood sugar extremes are a serious risk, but they do not affect everyone. Being aware of the common signs of low or high blood sugar could help you determine if it’s something you need to worry about. If you show signs that your blood sugar is off, there are several approaches you can take to remedy the situation.
What Is a Healthy Blood Sugar?
Sugar provides fuel for all of the cells in your body and is necessary for energy. Your body uses the foods you eat to produce the form of sugar necessary to maintain proper cell functioning. Like other functions of your body, balance is the key to optimum health.
Your supply of sugar comes not only from the sugar you eat, but from other food sources, too. For instance, your body turns carbohydrates into sugar through the process of digestion, and then it uses that sugar to fuel your cells. When you eat food that is already in the form of sugar, it also goes into your bloodstream to fuel your cells.
Your body uses insulin to activate the sugar in your bloodstream. To fuel your cells, you need sugar and insulin combined. While you can consume sugar directly, insulin has to be produced by your body. Without insulin, the sugar you consume is not available to your cells.
The process of balancing sugar in your body for energy involves two parts: consumption and insulin production. By adjusting the amount of insulin produced, your body can regulate how much sugar goes to energize your cells. You can have some control over the amount of sugar in your bloodstream by controlling your consumption of sugar and carbohydrates, but ultimately, it’s your body’s production of insulin that determines how much fuel your cells get.
When you eat, the level of sugar in your bloodstream increases and triggers insulin production from your pancreas. Insulin lowers your blood sugar by helping it move into your cells. Excess sugar can be stored in your muscles and your liver. If you go a prolonged period without eating, your blood sugar level drops. This drop causes your pancreas to produce a different substance to get sugar out of storage and use it for energy.
Optimum health is obtained when your blood sugar remains fairly constant.The high just after eating and the low when you are hungry should not vary too much. When your blood sugar is too high or too low, your body works extra hard to reach its natural balance.
Blood sugar is measured by the number of milligrams of sugar in each deciliter of blood (mg/dl). The average healthy blood sugar level is right around 90 mg/dl. Most doctors would want you to keep your blood sugar in a range between 70 and 150.
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What Are Symptoms My Blood Sugar Is Off?
If your blood sugar becomes too high or too low, you will feel certain symptoms. The warning signs of low blood sugar include:
- Profuse sweating
If your blood sugar gets extremely low, you could lose consciousness or even lapse into a seizure. For healthy individuals, though, low blood sugar is not likely to reach that extreme.
The other extreme, high blood sugar comes with signs that include:
- Blurred vision
- Weight loss
- Difficulty focusing
If your blood sugar remains high for an extended period of time, you risk damage to your organs, nerves and blood vessels. Extreme complications can include stroke, coma or even death.
An otherwise healthy person may experience low or high blood sugar on occasion without being in real danger. Recognizing the signs of acute blood sugar issues and reacting appropriately at the time may be all that is required. However, persistent signs of blood sugar problems, especially high blood sugar, should be brought to the attention of a medical professional.
What Should I Do If I Have Low Blood Sugar?
Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, can be resolved rather quickly. If you find you are having some of the symptoms listed above, you should take steps to increase the amount of sugar in your blood right away. The easiest way to do this is to eat something with a concentration of sugar in it. Here are some suggestions:
- A tablespoon of honey
- 4 ounces of regular soda (not sugar free)
- 20 grams of carbohydrates
- A 15-gram glucose supplement
- 4 ounces of fruit juice
- A tablespoon of corn syrup
- 8 ounces of milk
Any of these snacks should return your blood sugar to normal levels within a few minutes. You should make a concerted effort to maintain a healthy diet with meals at regular intervals. Eating sugar or carbohydrates, which are present in many foods, raises your blood sugar level.
If you are prone to episodes of low blood sugar, you may need to eat more often. Eating frequently will keep your blood sugar from dipping too low between meals. If you continually experience low blood sugar episodes, you should consult a doctor.
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What Should I Do If I Have High Blood Sugar?
High blood sugar can be controlled by a number of diet and lifestyle changes. If you experience high blood sugar, it is usually a good idea to try these things to lower your blood sugar:
- Increased exercise — Exercise increases the amount of energy your body uses, which means it could help you burn up that excess sugar in your bloodstream. It also increases your circulation, moving toxins through and out of your system faster. When your blood sugar is high, you might feel hyper, like you have nervous energy. It is a good idea to burn that extra energy through exercise.
- Increase water intake — Drinking water helps flush excess sugar out of your blood stream. It is an effective way of diluting the ratio of sugar to blood in your system. Increasing your water intake will also fight against dehydration, which can be caused by high blood sugar.
- Adjust your diet — Your blood sugar is directly influenced by the foods you eat. Taking in a large amount of natural sugars and carbohydrates could cause your blood sugar to spike and put stress on your body to produce enough insulin to mitigate the problem. There are also other foods you can eat that influence your blood sugar. Getting enough fiber, for example, helps the excess sugar pass through your body instead of being stored. It is a good idea to consult a nutritionist about your high blood sugar to get specific dietary recommendations.
- Adjust your medications — This measure should only be taken with the assistance of your doctor. If your blood sugar is consistently high, your doctor may want to change the dosage of the medication you take or switch you to a different product entirely.
There are a lot of changes you can make with diet and exercise to get your blood sugar under control. In addition to changing what you eat, you may also adjust the amount and frequency with which you consume your meals. Food will naturally spike your blood sugar, and fasting brings it back down. The key is to find the right balance of eating and fasting throughout the day to keep your blood sugar fairly constant. Large meals raise your blood sugar, and if they are followed too quickly by another meal, your blood sugar has not had enough time to go down. The subsequent meal only raises your blood sugar even further.
Exercising to lower blood sugar is another balancing act. Under certain conditions, exercise could produce stress hormones that force your liver to release stored sugar into your blood stream. Without any insulin to help your body use that sugar, it just sits in your blood stream. It is a good idea to talk with your doctor about the right type and amount of exercise for you. A doctor can give you some tips about specific exercises you can do to lower your blood sugar, too.
What If My Blood Sugar Fluctuates From High to Low?
Everyone’s blood sugar fluctuates throughout the day based on eating habits and insulin production. The pancreas manages a system that is designed to keep blood sugar within a normal range despite changes in your sugar intake and your need for energy at any part of the day.
Blood sugar that does not stay within that normal range, however, could indicate that there is a problem with your insulin system. When that sugar-regulating system breaks down, it can go in either direction. Taking in carbohydrates might overload your body’s capacity to produce insulin and lower your blood sugar, keeping it elevated for prolonged periods of time. Your body may also find it difficult to activate enough of your stored sugar reserves when you are fasting.
Your fueling system is vital to life, and extremes in blood sugar levels can have long-term effects on other organs. If your blood sugar swings from too high to too low frequently, or if it lives on the high side or low side of the scale typically, you may need help regulating your blood sugar. It is a good idea to consult a doctor to find out what sugar-regulating mechanisms might be good for you. Your doctor can assess your blood sugar over time and suggest diet, lifestyle or even medicinal changes to help you achieve optimal health.
How to Manage My Blood Sugar
Managing blood sugar, especially if you are diagnosed with diabetes, is a life-long challenge. It’s not as easy as cutting sweets out of your diet or running two miles every day. It’s about finding the right balance of diet and exercise that work for you.
The key to managing blood sugar is monitoring it daily and adjusting your routine accordingly. Checking your blood sugar before and after meals for several days can give you an idea of how your body is working. It also helps to notice and record any symptoms you may feel when your blood sugar is high and when it is low.
Make changes to your diet and exercise routine one at a time to see what effect they have. Since the goal is to keep your blood sugar within a small range, extreme changes are not advised. Make changes gradually to lower your high blood sugar level and raise the low one. Eventually, you should get them closer together, but your blood sugar will always fluctuate throughout the day.
When making lifestyle changes to affect your blood sugar, remember the time you spend sleeping. During that time, you are not doing any exercise or taking in any food. You may find that you need to have a small snack before bed to maintain your blood sugar in the normal range throughout the night. Eating first thing in the morning, or at least drinking some fruit juice, could also help you balance the stagnant time you spend sleeping.
Do not forget the effect stress has on your blood sugar as well. Stress causes your body to release more energy-producing sugar into your blood stream as part of the evolutionary fight-or-flight response. If your blood sugar is already high, the stress reaction will only make it higher.
Therefore, reducing stress may help lower high blood sugar. At least, it certainly will keep it from getting any worse. There are a number of stress-reducing exercises you can try. Yoga, tai chi and meditation are just a few of the more popular ones. There are also breathing exercises that can help you reduce stress and lower blood sugar.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations in central and western Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals.