During my formal nutrition studies at Bauman, the importance of maintaining proper blood sugar balance throughout the day was emphasized over and over again. My instructors made it very clear that this had to be a top priority for each of my clients. Failure to balance blood sugar is detrimental to brain health, hormonal health, and emotional wellbeing. This is so basic and so simple, and yet I have met only a handful of people who do actually maintain balanced blood sugar levels throughout their day. After spending even a short amount of time observing the general population in Boulder County, many people note the large number of fit-looking, athletically shaped persons and conclude the health level of the majority must be quite high. My experience, however, has shown otherwise. Hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia, both of which can have long-term adverse effects on the body, are very prevalent. Unregulated blood sugar levels can lead to a multitude of everyday problems, and one of the most common of them is fatigue. Crashing into that mid-afternoon “no energy” wall and needing a nap can frequently be the result of poor food choices playing havoc with blood sugar.
Symptoms of low (hypoglycemia) or high (hyperglycemia) blood sugar are many and varied. They can be associated with a variety of other health problems as well. Blood sugar imbalance may be responsible for the following: waking up not hungry; waking up in the middle of the night; night sweats; daily napping; being hungry between meals; feeling nauseated during the day (especially in the morning); and generally lacking energy. Blood sugar is the first step I take before any others.
- A few symptoms of hypoglycemia may include:
- Pale skin
- Feeling shaky
- Poor concentration
- Numbness in mouth and tongue
- Passing out
- Nightmares or bad dreams
- Pounding heart; racing pulse
- Poor coordination
- Specific symptoms of hyperglycemia may include:
- Increased thirst and urination
- Sweet odor to the breath
- Agitation and confusion
- High levels of ketones in the urine
- Weight gain
Your fundamental goal is to avoid large swings in your blood sugar level. Certain types of meals and common eating patterns have well documented negative effects on blood sugar. Mother did know best when she insisted you eat breakfast every morning. Skipping breakfast (or postponing it until an hour after waking) is an invitation to hypoglycemia. Unfortunately, Mom may not have encouraged healthy eating if she fed you one of the popular, traditional Standard American Diet (SAD) breakfasts such as waffles and syrup, pancakes and syrup, processed cereals, oatmeal, or yogurt with fruit. Meals such as these are far too high in sugar and quickly send your blood sugar into the hyperglycemic range.
Here’s what happens. When the body detects a surge in blood sugar, the pancreas releases insulin to convert the sugar into glucose, the form in which the body can actually use the sugar to produce energy. The insulin does its job very well, and the blood sugar level drops into the low range. Your body senses this and sends signals to your brain to raise your blood sugar. These signals generate what you feel as cravings for more sugar! Once initiated, this rollercoaster cycle is very difficult to stop. You must be sensitive to how you feel before and after meals. Sugar cravings before a meal tell you that you have a low blood sugar level. If you are tired after a meal, it’s likely you had too many carbs and not enough fat and protein in that meal. If you have finished a meal but still crave a sweet dessert, you probably are experiencing continued blood sugar imbalance. Once I understood the importance of a steady blood sugar level and began eating in a way to maintain that level throughout the day, I found that almost all of my persistent junk food cravings disappeared.
A recent trend, promoted as a healthy one, is the use of “smoothies” as a breakfast food or meal replacement. This is not something I recommend for my clients. Even if you include in your smoothies the freshest vegetables, the healthiest nuts and other foods that seem to be highly nutritious, you will still cause your blood sugar to spike because the smoothie lets your body digest the food too quickly due to the “processing” you did in your blender. It’s almost like injecting sugar directly into your bloodstream! Furthermore, chewing is an important bodily process which, among other things, sends dietary signals to your brain and releases important enzymes into your body. Eliminating this process, which is what smoothies do, in not ideal for good health. Regular use of smoothies (or their dietary cousin, juicing) must be carefully evaluated. Juicing and smoothies may have their time and place as part of a healthy dietary plan, but I do not believe that juicing or smoothies are useful as meal substitutes.
The principal effects of any breakfast (or other meal) which pushes your blood sugar level too high are leaving you craving even more sugar and feeling hungry far too soon. A better approach is to turn your meal planning upside down. By that I mean start thinking about dinner for breakfast! Step away from a SAD breakfast. There is no nutritional reason to avoid the meats, fish and vegetables we typically associate with an evening meal. Many of us have placed too much emphasis on convenience and speed when it comes to breakfast. As a single, working mother, I certainly understand the apparent importance of these factors, but I have made a commitment to health for myself and my son, and I know you can do the same thing. I prefer the crockpot as a terrific time-saving tool! I will add some of my favorite breakfast Crockpot recipe’s soon.
If you do skip breakfast for any reason (diet, lack of time, forgetfulness), try to eat as soon as you can. Don’t compound the blood sugar problem by waiting until lunch or even dinner to have your first meal of the day. Doing so is a signal to your adrenal glands to release adrenaline in an effort to maintain a functioning energy level. This is a very stressful way to tap your body’s resources and doing so on a regular or frequent basis cannot be sustained without injury to your health. From an evolutionary perspective, the body used adrenaline to produce substantial short-term energy to power the fight-or-flight response when you encountered a life-or-death situation. If you ask your body to respond in this fashion every day all day by making it think it’s starving, something has to give. Eventually you will develop adrenal fatigue and these glands will no longer work as they should. Without normal adrenal function, you will feel extremely tired all the time and you will be susceptible to a cascade of other hormonal issues.
Finally, to keep your blood sugar balanced, be sure any meal you eat (including snacks) contains a balance of fats, protein and carbohydrates. Don’t try to obtain the complete daily requirement of one or the other of these categories in a single meal or concentrated snack. Regardless of the portion size, each plate of food should be made up of: 25% fats; 25% protein; and 50% carbohydrates (vegetable sources, not grains). Of course, as much of the food as possible should be from the healthiest sources you can find, e.g., grass-fed meats, wild-caught fish, legumes, nuts and seeds, organic and, seasonal.