By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
The term “blood sugar” gets thrown around often in conversations about health and wellness, especially in relation to diabetes. But many people don’t know exactly what blood sugar is and how it impacts the body. Here’s the skinny to help you better control or lower your blood sugar.
Blood sugar (also called glucose) is sugar that is transported through the bloodstream. Most of the food we eat gets converted into glucose—a major source of fuel for cells and energy for the entire body. But cells don’t just see glucose in the bloodstream and wave it in. Glucose needs an escort to get where it needs to be. So here comes insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas, to usher glucose and other nutrients into the cells. Without this process, our cells would literally starve to death.
High Blood Sugar and Diabetes
Here’s where it gets tricky. Our bodies release insulin proportionate to the amount of glucose dumped into the bloodstream: the more glucose, the more insulin needed. When lots of glucose and insulin circulate regularly in the bloodstream, insulin can becomes persona non grata: after time, cells no longer recognize insulin, and they become resistant to it (this is what doctors mean when saying a person has “insulin resistance.”) So blood sugar levels rise above normal and stay elevated because the glucose can’t get in. When this happens, you can develop diabetes.
There are two main types of diabetes. Type 1 is a chronic autoimmune condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Type 2, the more common form, occurs when the body either does not produce enough insulin or becomes resistant to insulin due to a long-term destructive cycle of too much blood sugar and insulin. Crowded with these substances, your arteries can become inflamed. Over time, high levels of glucose in the blood can lead to serious problems with your heart, eyes, kidneys, gums and teeth, and nerves.
The statistics on diabetes are seriously staggering. In 2012, an estimated 29 million Americans had diabetes—most of those cases type 2. Another 86 million people age 20 and older had “prediabetes.”
Type 2 diabetes really is a lifestyle disease. Most Americans eat too many sugars and refined carbohydrates, which puts them on a perpetual high blood sugar and insulin roller coaster ride. In other words, a constant supply of simple carbs and sugars is going to bring you down.
Why’s a cardiologist so concerned about diabetes? Well, for one, heart disease and stroke are two of the most dangerous complications of diabetes. And people with diabetes tend to have other health issues that put them at even higher risk of heart disease, including high blood pressure, obesity, and abnormal cholesterol levels. Heart disease and stroke also happen to be the leading causes of death among people with diabetes.
How to Lower Blood Sugar Naturally
Clearly, diabetes is a serious condition. If you do have major issues with blood sugar control, you probably need some type of medication to keep it in check. But if you have mild or moderate blood sugar problems, you likely can take steps to lower it naturally, without the need for drugs. I am a big fan of natural approaches in these cases. It’s amazing how quickly and beautifully the body responds to positive lifestyle changes.
Make Smart Dietary Choices
If you’re not pre-diabetic or diabetic, know that I’m not trying to scare you out of eating sugar altogether. Many people have a “sweet tooth” and need a sweet pick me up here and there. The keys are to respect limits, practice strict moderation with sugar, and make smart choices.
The first thing you absolutely need to do to keep insulin and blood sugar in check is to limit your intake of sugar and high-glycemic, refined carbs (breads, pastas, pastries, cookies, etc.) in favor of foods that lower blood sugar, like lower-glycemic, complex carbs (whole grains), vegetables, and some high-fiber fruits.
Another way to manage blood sugar is to balance the carbs you take in with enough proteins and fats to slow down the release of insulin. For example, if you’ve gotta have a pasta fix, make it as a side to vegetables and beef, chicken or fish. Or, add meat and veggies to your sauce and limit portion size. If you like bread, have a slice, but not 2 or 3 or 4. Eat it with eggs, avocado, cheese, nut butter or another source of fat or protein (I like to dip bread in extra virgin olive oil with dipping spices). If you need to fill up on something, make it fresh vegetables; munch on them raw or steam them and drizzle them with olive oil. The fiber will slow down your digestion, which means less insulin release.
If you like sweet snacks, like dried fruit or chocolate, balance with nuts or cheese, or limit your portion sizes. Don’t snack absentmindedly; pay attention to the way they make you feel and learn to stop before your blood sugar spikes. You can treat yourself without harm, just be careful and find satisfaction in smaller amounts.
Now, for those with blood sugar control issues, you unfortunately have to be stricter about sugar consumption. For example, higher sugar fruits like watermelon, papaya, and mango should be avoided. You should avoid sugar as much as you can, and make sure any indulgences are just one or two small bites and balanced by foods with higher fat and protein content.
Exercise also lowers blood sugar naturally. Even moderate activities like walking cause your body to use more glucose to supply extra energy. Over time, regular exercise not only lowers blood sugar levels but also makes the insulin in your body work more efficiently.
More often than not, the lifestyle changes mentioned above, combined with a few key supplements, can lower blood sugar naturally and effectively. Two of my favorite are Pycnogenol and benfotiamine.
Pycnogenol is an extract from French maritime pine bark. As a cardiologist, I simply can’t ignore Pycnogenol’s benefits for the heart. It boosts nitric oxide—a powerful vasodilator that helps relax and dilate the smooth muscles in the arteries. By doing so, it helps to regulate blood pressure and blood flow.
Even better, Pycnogenol lowers blood sugar naturally by boosting glucose intake by cells that are resistant to the effects of insulin. In a study of 77 patients with type 2 diabetes, taking 100 mg of Pycnogenol for 12 weeks significantly lowered blood sugar levels compared to placebo. Nitric oxide levels also increased in those who took the supplement.
The typical daily dose of Pycnogenol is 50-100 mg.
Benfotiamine is thiamine (vitamin B1) in a fat-soluble form. Diabetes can lead to neuropathy, a common complication, by depleting thiamine. So taking benfotiamine improves pain and nerve function associated with neuropathy. Benfotiamine also appears to inhibit the body’s production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that are involved in inflammation and diabetes-associated complications. Chronically elevated glucose accelerates the formation of AGEs.
The suggested daily dose is 300 mg.
For additional help in lowering blood sugar naturally, I recommend these nutrients:
- Cinnamon bark (200 mg). A meta-analysis found that cinnamon “is associated with a statistically significant decrease in levels of fasting plasma glucose” as well as cholesterol.
- Chromium picolinate (200 mcg) is widely known to promote optimal insulin function. In a review of 15 studies that examined chromium picolinate supplementation for diabetes, 13 reported significant improvement in at least one diabetes measurement.
- Berberine (500 mg 2-3 times a day) is a plant alkaloid that has been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Berberine targets a regulator of metabolism called activated protein kinase (AMPK). For people with diabetes, this means better glucose uptake into cells, improved insulin sensitivity, and reduced glucose production.
Keeping Blood Sugar In Check Around the Holidays
The holidays are full of joy and wonder…and sadly, overindulgence and weight gain too – managing your blood sugar a can certainly be a challenge. Here are some tips on how to survive the “blood sugar roller coaster”:
- When faced with a buffet of delectable foods, fill up at least 50% of your plate with vegetables. The rest of your plate can include small tastes and bites of the more indulgent foods.
- Limit yourself to a very small portion of the one dessert you want most. Then walk away from the sweets and make your way toward the veggie trays or bowls of raw and unsalted nuts. These are great because they help give you that sense of satiety.
- If you choose to drink, limit yourself to one. I always recommend wine or beer over mixed drinks, the mixers of which are usually sugary. Balance it with protein and fat – go for the plate of cheese or bowl of nuts, no holiday cookies.
- Slow down while eating. It will give your taste buds time to savor your food—and your brain enough time to realize when you’re full so you don’t overeat.
- Take a brisk 15-minute walk after eating. This clears glucose out of the bloodstream, which decreases post-meal blood sugar spikes.
By putting these tips into action, you can enjoy the holidays to their fullest while at the same time making sure you are lowering your blood sugar naturally and safely.
- Liu X, et al. Antidiabetic effect of Pycnogenol French maritime pine bark extract in patients with type 2 diabetes. Life Sci. 2004 Oct 8;75(21):2505-13.
- Allen RW, et al. Cinnamon use in type 2 diabetes: an updated systemic review and meta-analysis. Ann Fam Med. 2013 Sep-Oct;11(5):452-9.
- Broadhurst CL and Domenico P. Clinical studies on chromium picolinate supplementation in diabetes mellitus—a review. Diabetes Technol Ther. 2006 Dec;8(6):677-87.
- Yin J, et al. Effects and mechanisms of berberine in diabetes treatment. Acta Pharmaceutica Sinica B. 2012 Aug;2(4):327-34.
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