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How to Flatten Blood Sugar Spikes

20 February 2023

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Unless you have diabetes or are monitoring your blood sugar for another health reason, you may be unaware of how the foods you eat can affect your blood sugar. Why does this matter? Frequent spikes and dips can put you at risk for developing diabetes and other health problems. This blog will discuss what causes your blood sugar to become elevated and how you can help limit the spikes with your diet.

What causes blood sugar to spike?

There are many variables that contribute to blood sugar spikes. Most notably, the foods you eat can lead to unnecessarily high glucose levels. Examples include simple carbohydrates, artificial sweeteners, drinking caffeine and skipping breakfast. Other factors are unrelated to food, such as poor sleep patterns, sunburn and dehydration.

Each time you eat, you can expect your blood sugar to rise to some degree. Carbohydrates, which are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and other plant-based products, contain glucose that your body uses for energy. Once ingested, glucose makes its way through the digestive tract into the small intestine where it enters the bloodstream.

The pancreas then releases insulin to help move glucose into cells. This process occurs in a matter of minutes. In other words, insulin helps process the sugars you just ate.

Too much glucose in a short amount of time via a blood sugar spike isn’t a good thing. Spikes in blood sugar are followed by crashes, which explains why eating a desert can ultimately cause fatigue once glucose levels normalize. This can initiate a vicious cycle as sugar crashes often make you hungry and more likely to grab another sugary snack.

Repeated exposures to blood sugar spikes isn’t ideal for your long-term health, either. If we think of glucose as a syrupy mixture, you can get an idea of how that can impact your blood flow – it makes it harder to move around your body. 

Glucose spikes can raise your glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c level), which is linked to heart problems, kidney problems, retinopathy, neuropathy. Plus, the more glucose in your blood, the more insulin is needed to regulate it. This can cause insulin resistance and be a precursor to diabetes.

Blood sugar spike symptoms

How can you tell when your blood sugar spikes? Mild spikes can make you thirsty, urinate more or cause increased fatigue. When high blood sugar becomes more problematic, you may experience blurred vision, dizziness, extreme thirst or extreme fatigue.

How to balance blood sugar

Of course, all carbohydrates aren’t created equal and not all foods release glucose the same way. The glycemic index (GI) was created to help contextualize the impact foods have on your blood sugar using a scale of 0 to 100.

Foods higher on the GI scale are digested quicker, resulting in quicker spikes. These tend to be more processed foods. Foods lower on the GI scale are absorbed more slowly and lead to a more even release of blood sugar. These tend to be foods higher in fat or fiber – fiber and other complex nutrients slow the digestion process down. 

Diet and exercise are the best way to flatten blood sugar spikes. Whole foods help slow the digestion process down so glucose is released over a long period of time instead of all at once.

Glycemic index vs. glycemic load

In theory, you could eat foods low on the glycemic index. But this isn’t a one-size-fits all approach because some foods with low GI scores are higher in fat and protein and don’t always carry nutritional benefits. Plus, the glycemic index doesn’t tell the entire story – the numbers are based on how your body would process a particular food on an empty stomach. However, most people don’t eat a single food on an empty stomach. For example, eating white potatoes (high on the GI scale) in a soup with carrots and beans (both lower on the GI scale) won’t have the same effect as having a bowl of mashed potatoes.

For a more accurate representation of the rate in which glucose enters the bloodstream, some medical professionals prefer using the glycemic load of foods. The glycemic load refers to the amount of a particular carb consumed multiplied by the rate in which it’s metabolized. In other words, the amount of carbohydrates in a single serving matters.

Watermelon is a classic example of a food high on the GI scale (80) but with a low glycemic load (5). That’s because it has 11 grams of carbs per serving. Compare that to white rice, which contains 28 grams of carbs per ½ cup.

Take note of when you eat

You should pay attention when you eat. Some people skip breakfast and eat two bigger meals at lunch and dinner. This can cause your blood sugar to spike. Instead, eat many balanced meals throughout the day, including a snack or two. Several smaller meals is better than loading up on one or two meals.

As an alternative, you can also break up your food into two separate meals. For example, instead of one dinner at 7 p.m., eat half your meal at 5 p.m. and the other half a few hours later.

The role of exercising

Exercising can help your body use insulin, therefore assisting with glucose management. Whatever you do, don’t sit directly on the couch after a meal. A brief walk after dinner can help avoid blood sugar spikes. Muscles require more blood flow when exercising, meaning the intestines don’t have as much of a supply to process glucose.

Foods that spike blood sugar

Many people think sugary foods are only responsible for blood sugar spikes. They can still come from foods such as white bread and potatoes. 

In general, though, processed foods, sugary beverages and refined grains will spike your blood sugar. Dextrose, a type of glucose made from starch such as corn or wheat, scores a 100 on the GI scale. It’s often found in some candy, which can jolt your blood sugar.

Here are some examples of foods that will spike your blood sugar:

  • Baked goods
  • Fried foods
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Pizza
  • Refined snack foods (chips, pretzels, crackers)
  • Soda
  • Sports drinks
  • Sugary breakfast cereals 
  • White bread

Foods that balance blood sugar

If you do decide to eat foods that spike your blood sugar, consider combining them with foods lower on the glycemic index to help slow down your digestion and balance glucose levels.

Whole foods are digested more slowly than processed foods. Take, for instance, an apple. An apple naturally contains fructose (fruit sugar) but is lower on the glycemic index because of fiber – fiber is harder to digest, thus slows down the release of glucose. Conversely, apple juice will cause a much quicker blood sugar spike because the processing of fruit juice removes some of the fiber.

Focus on foods high in fiber such as whole grains, beans and brown rice. Your body also digests solid, cold foods and under ripe foods more slowly. For example, an unripe banana won’t spike your blood sugar as much as an overripe banana.

Here are some examples of foods that will balance your blood sugar:

  • Almonds, cashews, walnuts
  • Apples
  • Black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans cannellini beans
  • Broccoli 
  • Cauliflower
  • Chickpeas
  • Dark chocolate
  • Full-fat dairy
  • Oats
  • Pears
  • Peppers
  • Strawberries

How to prevent blood sugar spikes at night

Some people experience blood sugar spikes at night, leaving you hungry in the mornings. Typically, this is due to people eating simple carbs high in sugar before bed. This causes a glucose spike followed by a crash that leads to hunger.

There are also two medical reasons for blood sugar spikes overnight – the Somogyi effect and the dawn phenomenon. 

The dawn phenomenon is a natural hormonal response that occurs between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. As your body prepares for the day, cortisol and growth hormones can instruct your body to release glucose for energy. This can be common in both people with diabetes and people without diabetes.

The Somogyi effect, however, occurs in people with diabetes who take insulin at night. Insulin can lower your blood sugar too much overnight and cause a rebound effect that leaves you lethargic when you wake up.

Adjusting your diet is the simplest way to avoid blood sugar spikes at night. Try eating foods with more protein or fat and limit carbohydrates, especially those that produce a rush of glucose – junk food, fast food or desserts.

It’s also important to stay hydrated throughout the day and get a restful night’s sleep. Hydration and sleep are two ways to help regulate glucose levels.

If you notice symptoms related to abnormal blood sugar levels (fatigue, increased thirst or increased urination), contact your doctor to check your glucose levels for the possibility of prediabetes or diabetes. Staying on top of your health can help lower your risk of developing a chronic illness.

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