Glucose is a high-ranking buzzword these days in the health and wellness realm, with new research and technology being funneled into gaining a closer understanding of what controls glucose (blood sugar) levels in the body and how these levels impact health. New devices have come onto the consumer healthcare scene promising an inside look at the body’s glucose response based on lifestyle factors, most notably nutrition. For some, tracking glucose closely may be the ticket to better health, but for others, it could be unnecessary and expensive.
The body sources energy from food by breaking down macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) into useful molecules to power cellular activity. At the microscopic level, the body uses different processes to convert macronutrients into energy. While it prefers digesting carbohydrates into glucose for immediate energy, it can metabolize proteins and fats into useable glucose if glucose levels drop too low. The liver oversees the storage and metabolism of energy, and when functioning healthily, helps keep a steady stream of glucose in the blood stream for muscles to use for energy. The hormones insulin and glucagon, released by the pancreas, signal when glucose should be stored or released depending on the body’s need for glucose.
When the body ingests carbohydrates, these molecules are broken down into glucose and are released in the blood stream, which signals the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin communicates with cells to absorb glucose for energy. Any excess glucose is stored in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. Fats and proteins also serve as energy stores within the liver and muscles and can be broken down into usable glycogen as well. When blood glucose gets too low in the absence of food, the pancreas produces glucagon which signals the liver and muscles to convert stored glycogen into glucose. Together, insulin and glucagon work to keep blood glucose levels within a healthy range.
What affects blood glucose levels?
There are several factors that can affect blood glucose levels, most obvious being the ingestion of carbohydrates. However, blood glucose levels can rise and fall depending on the time of day, and be affected by sleep quality, stress, inflammation, physical activity, hydration levels, and even caffeine intake. When blood glucose levels remain chronically high over time, the body can develop an insensitivity to insulin, or “insulin resistance.” Long-term insulin resistance can lead to chronic hyperglycemia (high blood glucose), and eventually type 2 diabetes, a condition where the body can no longer respond to insulin, making it difficult to direct glucose from the bloodstream into cells.
Developing healthy lifestyle habits can help prevent chronic hyperglycemia, including avoiding the consumption of simple sugars, eating well-balanced and well-spaced meals, movement or exercise, stress reduction techniques, and good sleep. While these practices can benefit the regulation of blood glucose levels, it’s important to note that everyone is different. For instance, one meal can affect one person’s blood sugar differently than another’s. This, among with other benefits, may be good reason to consider monitoring your own blood glucose levels to ensure your lifestyle and nutritional habits are preventing downstream disease and supporting optimal health.
The benefits of tracking blood glucose
Understanding and monitoring how your body regulates blood glucose levels can not only help prevent disease development as you age, but also guide lifestyle behaviors that provide optimal glucose control. So how does one track glucose? Your medical provider can provide a simple blood test periodically that measure fasting glucose levels, which may be sufficient for most healthy individuals. However, for those interested in real-time data, are at risk for type 2 diabetes, or are generally curious how to optimize their lifestyle around glucose response, a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) may be appropriate.
What is a CGM and do you need one?
A CGM is a device that tracks blood glucose levels continuously, typically through the use of a small, implanted transmitter needle that sits underneath the skin. These devices have evolved over time and have caused a splash in the consumer-facing medical technology industry, promising to deliver data on blood glucose levels in short intervals throughout the day, typically delivered to an app or web-based platform for individual – or physician – monitoring. Most CGMs will provide a full report of daily glucose levels which can help an individual track how their lifestyle affects their blood glucose throughout the day, from what they eat and when, to the impact of sleep or stress. Over time, trends can be depicted that can help guide healthy behaviors towards optimal glucose control.
The influx of CGMs may make it seem like these should be used by every individual, however some people may not benefit as much from the technology. Experts agree CGMs can benefit those with type 1 diabetes and those who may be at risk for developing chronic hyperglycemia or type 2 diabetes. For healthy individuals, prevention, health optimization and general curiously may be the only reasons to invest in a CGM. (“Invest” being a key word here: CGMs can be very expensive!)
There are other signs and symptoms that may indicate high or low blood sugar, which could be enough for an individual in-tune with their bodily signals. For instance, high blood sugar can display symptoms including headaches, thirst, dry mouth, bloating and frequent urination. These feelings may be a sufficient way to loosely “track” blood sugar tendencies, though occasional testing with a provider to ensure blood sugar levels are normal may still be helpful and bring peace of mind.
It’s also important to note that there is a risk of inaccuracy with any technology, especially emerging technologies. Data that over or underestimates glucose response can be dangerous if relied on solely. If you are not sure whether a CGM might be appropriate for you, ask your healthcare provider.
Glucose powers our every day. We need our cells to receive energy from the food we eat and for our hormonal pathways to be functioning correctly to support energy metabolism. For many, the best way to support healthy glucose levels is to build and maintain a healthy lifestyle: eat a well-balanced, whole foods diet, strength train regularly, get good sleep and reduce stress when possible. For others, it may not be this easy. This is when expert interventions and technologies can help. Monitoring glucose closely is one way to gain a closer understanding of your own body’s physiology, but is by no means the only data point in which to associate good health. Connect with a functional medicine provider to receive a comprehensive, accurate overview of your health markers to know what support you may need to live in optimal health.
Disclaimer: The information above is not intended to be medical advice and may only related to individuals without type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Always consult with your healthcare provider before opting to use a medical technology.