Blood Glucose Optimization and CGM Experiment
Tis the season for celebrations, cozy sweaters, comfort drinks, cookies, candy and…roller-coasters. Ok, not the fun theme park rollercoasters, but the blood sugar peaks and dips coming from those comfort drinks, cookies and candy. I am not here to be the Grinch or make you feel guilty about indulging in all that the Christmas season brings, but I do want to take time to sharing some background on how blood sugar swings impact our overall health, and how to mitigate blood sugar swings in the first place.
So, lets get the hard part over with and talk about why non-diabetics should care about their blood [sugar] glucose. And to do that – we can start with a little vocabulary:
Blood Glucose: blood glucose (or sometimes called blood sugar) is the result of processing the carbohydrates we eat. Too high of levels of blood glucose is dangerous and we need insulin to shuttle glucose out of our blood so it comes down to a normal level.
Insulin: insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas and moves through our blood to regulate blood glucose levels. Insulin has an effect on every tissue and organ in our body by helping shuttle glucose through blood to various parts of our body.
Individuals with diabetes don’t produce any or enough insulin naturally.
Insulin resistance: you may have heard of the word insulin resistance and that it may be a root of chronic health issues. Insulin resistance is when our cells stop responding to insulin and over time need more and more until they stop working effectively. The result of insulin resistance that progressed through the body/cells/organs is Type II diabetes.
Insulin sensitive: being insulin sensitive is what we want to strive for – and it’s when we have an intake of just the right amount of carbohydrates that insulin can be effective at shuttling glucose it through the body.
As an example, throughout the holiday season (from Halloween candy through the New Years Eve celebration) there is an abundance of processed foods full of sugar and carbohydrates. When we eat the sugar the amount of glucose in our blood increases. The hormone insulin comes in to help shuttle the glucose out of our blood and into our cells (tissues and organs). If insulin production is always ramped up the process becomes compromised and our blood glucose stays elevated (insulin is no longer able to keep glucose homeostasis). If this happens over time, one may become pre-diabetic, diabetic (Type II) or experience other health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, dementia, kidney failure along with reproductive and mental health issues.
My focus as a cancer survivor and nutritional therapy practitioner is to do what’s in my control to minimize tumor growth and spread. And it’s no coincidence that a major part of my cancer treatment and survivorship plan was/is to reduce my overall insulin through fasting, intermittent ketogenic diet and exercise to slow down cancer growth. Not only do some cancer cells thrive on glucose, but as and over abundance of insulin signals fat-cells to grow, it does the same with cancer cells. And unfortunately breast cancer is especially sensitive to insulin, as the average breast cancer tumor has over six times more insulin receptors than noncancerous breast tissue – yikes (study).
My goal as a breast cancer survivor is to be insulin sensitive by eating and living in a way to keep the glucose in my blood low and my insulin production effective. I have tested different lifestyle hacks to support my glucose metabolism, and recently did an experiment with a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to confirm insights I have learned through school and research, and to understand my own glucose impacts. Here is what I learned through experimenting on myself:
Balanced Macronutrients: one of the foundations of Nutritional Therapy is to keep blood glucose in balance with balanced macronutrients (that’s the healthy fats, quality proteins and plant-based carbohydrates). Too many carbohydrates without fats and proteins can make blood sugar spike and stay high. When we eat purposely in balance with fats and proteins with our carbs, the blood sugar peak is not as high.
Eat with purpose: build your meals purposely identifying which element of your meal will bring in your healthy proteins and fats.
Fiber blunts the spike: fiber helps blunt the glycemic load of carbohydrates. This may be familiar to those who have tried the keto diet and used net carbs (carbs minus fiber) or looked at the GI index of foods that can help predict how common foods affect blood sugar.
Eat with purpose: meals dense in vegetables and other higher fiber foods like legumes and some fruits help offset the carb rush. I experimented with this having granola by itself and granola with chia pudding and my glucose spike was less with the granola + chia pudding – thanks fiber!
Post meal movement: you’ve probably heard the advice, a quick walk after a meal will help with blood glucose control! This is because the energetic demands of the movement helps shuttle the glucose into the muscles without needing insulin to save the day.
Move with purpose: In my experiments a short walk after lunch (my biggest meal of the day) really helped lessen the glucose peak and it didn’t have to be a long or strenuous workout, just a nice 15 minute walk did the trick.
Coffee isn’t a meal: in my past life, I started the day with a nice black Americano with a splash of cinnamon to wake me up and support my intermittent fasting routine. I would sometimes feel a little uneasy / queasy / amped (blood glucose rush) with my coffee on an empty stomach but didn’t think too much of it until I saw the spikes and valleys it created using my glucose monitor. Some people are not sensitive to caffeine, but I notice especially as I get older (and more in-tune to my body) it does affect me. This makes sense because in the morning our blood glucose should be at it’s lowest (due to the fasting overnight) so breaking it with caffeine or a carb only that raises blood sugar rapidly is really hard on the body.
Break-fast with purpose: after listening to my body and seeing the data I am now starting my day with a shake that has good protein and fats before my caffeine. I experimented with this using my glucose monitor and the shake had limited impact on my blood glucose due to the lower glycemic carbs I use (frozen berries), healthy fats (flaxseed, coconut manna, cacao nibs) and quality protein (collagen or an organic high quality protein powder). To support my intermittent fasting, I switched to an earlier eating window (usually 9 am to 4 pm).
Meal spacing: like every health topic, there has been mixed messages about how often we should eat, from OMAD (one meal a day) to six small meals – the jury is out and it may be more specific to each person. For me, I have been mindful of trying to space out my meals/snack 3-4 hours to give my digestion enough time to process the food I eat and so my migrating motor complex has time to sweep through undigested food particles so there isn’t build up. This has also been one of the biggest challenges for me especially as I eat in a smaller eating window. But wearing the glucose monitor I also noticed that nibbling on food throughout a period of time vs having a meal negatively impacted my glucose because it doesn’t give my body enough time to lower glucose into normal levels so each bite compounds the glucose effect. This was most evident when I spent an afternoon preparing dinner (and munching while I was prepping) and then eating dinner. The munching raised the glucose into moderate levels and then a dinner on top increased it even more.
Eat with purpose: spacing my meals and snacks will be an ongoing work in progress, but at least something I will be more aware of in the future. This is also very bio-individual – some individuals with faster natural metabolism, like ectomorphs, need more frequent meals/snacks than an endomorph with sluggish metabolism and digestion.
Exercise intentionally: one of my biggest “ah ha” movements with the continuous glucose monitor was that my exercise drastically impacted my blood glucose and in fact, my highest peaks by far were my soccer games and HIIT workouts like hot Pilates. This can be due to the fact that the body is under high demand and pulls glucose out so it is circulating and can be used during these higher demand workouts – and in this case the high glucose is not a bad thing as it is helping to use up glucose stores! I also saw that steady state lower impact cardio like a light jog kept my glucose stable and low. One notable benefit of aerobic exercise is that it can increase glucose tolerance for the following 24 hours because exercise allows muscle tissue to absorb glucose without the rise of insulin. (study)
Move with purpose: having a variety of aerobic and anaerobic exercise sessions per week supports reducing overall glucose tolerance. However, too much anaerobic (high intensity) sessions may also be a stressor as it activates sympathetic state and raises blood glucose and insulin demands.
Destress: frequent stress can activate the sympathetic nervous system and that fight or flight mode tells your body to prepare to run away from a tiger – so it better ramp up glucose! However, in our modern lives we are usually not running from a tiger, however the stress from work and personal issues still sends a signal to our cells that glucose is needed. In addition to stress increasing our circulating glucose, it can also signal many to overeat – so it’s a double-whammy! When I experimented with my glucose monitor I saw a definite decrease in glucose after my morning meditations and breath work.
Breathe with purpose: set a few times throughout the day to do some simple breathing exercise – maybe in the morning, before a big meal and before bed. It takes practice and discipline, but it works.
So to recap: eat balanced, move more and breathe often! And I highly suggest doing a 1 month experiment on your own with a continuous glucose monitor. I used Nutrisese and like it as it came with a health coach and nice app to help understand my personal data. But there are other brands like January AI and Levels that also look like good options! And if you need 1:1 support to help optimize your blood glucose and improve your insulin sensitivity I offer limited nutritional therapy coaching support!