Supplements for Healthy Blood Sugar Balance
Supplements for Healthy Blood Sugar Balance
Written By: Nicole Crane, B.S., NTP
Hundreds of years ago, most individuals ate as little as 21 teaspoons of sugar per year. Today, our food supply is completely over-saturated with refined carbs, and the average American consumes between 150 and 180 pounds of sugar each year! Sugar comes in many forms and it’s hidden in packaged foods of all types. There are many foods that even turn into sugar in the body, and the damage they can do is nearly equal to sugar itself. Sugar damages our bones, joints, skin, eyes and nearly every other part of the body. Even worse, sugar damages our brain, affects our mood, reduces the quality of our sleep and can even accelerate the rate at which we age. We all want to feel our best and live well far into old age, and one of the best thing you can do to achieve vitality and a longer lifespan and healthspan is to cut sugar from your diet permanently.
There are some nutrients, herbs and proteins that help keep blood sugar levels in balance and kick sugar cravings for good. The right foods and supplements can help us burn fat, achieve an optimal weight, boost energy and vitality, avoid cravings and contribute to optimal brain function. Whether you are storing fat and gaining weight or burning fat and maintaining an optimal weight is largely dependent on your blood glucose and insulin levels. Foods we eat directly affect how we feel hours, days, weeks and years later. When we habitually eat refined, high-carbohydrate and processed foods, we create a cycle of weight gain, fatigue, food cravings, stress, irritability and brain fog. On the other hand, when we eat whole foods and a diet rich in protein, vegetables and healthy fats, we burn fat for energy, leave food cravings in the dust, and experience optimal brain function and positive moods.
The key to whether you burn or gain fat depends greatly on your glucose, or blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels rise gently, we feel great. But when blood sugar levels spike and crash, our body and our brain are likely feel just as tumultuous. This leads to poor decisions about the food we eat at the next meal or snack, perpetuating a cycle that leaves wellness just out of reach.
Dietary Approached to Healthy Blood Sugar Levels
We need glucose for energy and optimal brain function. Carbohydrates are the best source of glucose, but different carbohydrates will have dramatically different effects in the body. Glucose obtained from fruits and vegetables is bound to fiber, vitamins and minerals. The body has to break through the fiber to access the energy contained within. This takes time, and these complex carbohydrates are digested and absorbed much slower.
Fruits and vegetables are also by far the most nutrient dense source of carbohydrates, rich in vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants and other health promoting compounds. Fruits and vegetables also help to keep blood sugar in balance. Grain-based carbs, especially in their refined forms like bread, pasta, cereal and white rice, are quickly digested and the sugar within is rapidly absorbed. Sugar and sweets like soda and other sweetened beverages, cookies, cake and candy drive blood sugar levels even higher. Fruit juice and low fat dairy products also can spike blood sugar levels and lead to weight gain. This spike in blood sugar induces a spike in a hormone called insulin. The higher our blood sugar, the more insulin we need to bring blood sugar levels back to normal fasting levels. High insulin levels send out control signals all through the body. Insulin directs the process by which ingested carbohydrates are broken down and turned into fatty acids where they are stored as body fat. This may be confusing, as we are led to believe that over consuming dietary fat is how people gain weight and body fat. This is a whole new way to look at eating and dieting. Insulin also prevents stored fat from being used as energy until levels are restored to normal. This occurs because insulin prevents the release of another hormone called glucagon. Just as insulin tells cells to store fat for use as energy at a later time, it is the role of glycogen to tell cells to burn that fat to get energy now. The insulin/glucagon cycle, where as much fat is stored as is burned, can only occur when blood sugar levels stay within the normal range. i
Hormones that Regulate Blood Sugar
These two main hormones that control our blood sugar balance and weight, insulin and glucagon, work homeostatically with each cell to regulate the balance of energy around the body. Insulin is a hormone released by the pancreas following a meal in order to restore circulating blood sugar levels back to normal, or fasting levels. As you might know, blood sugar and insulin are tied together, but the role of insulin in the body effects much more than blood sugar.
Insulin is the key that allows our cells to absorb glucose and use it for energy. Its first task is making sure you store enough energy (as temporary body fat stores) to get your cells through until your next meal. Insulin tells the liver to convert most of the carbs you eat, which become glucose within the liver, to be converted to fat and stored for future energy. Insulin also orders cells currently burning fat for energy to stop and absorb the new glucose just introduced. Any excess carbohydrates eaten will be sent to fat cells, where insulin directs those fat cells to grow. About 50 to 70% of your daily energy needs should be coming from your fat stores, but when insulin levels are consistently high, the process of burning stored fat cannot occur. Insulin’s second task is to prioritize the use of calories from your last meal for your brain, liver, heart and other high energy demand organs. The body’s main priority is to remove excess glucose from the bloodstream, and it cannot burn fat again until all of the glucose is absorbed into the cells. Using these two steps, insulin keeps blood sugar levels under control. Any carbohydrates not used for energy are stored, and will ideally be burned in between the meal you just ate and the next, while you are fasting. If insulin levels are consistently high, glucagon is never released and fat stores continue to grow. ii
When someone is consistently eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates, the body cannot keep up with the demand for more and more insulin. Over time, blood sugar that constantly spikes and crashes damages the body enough to cause improper insulin function. Think of insulin as the “key”, which must bind to an insulin receptor, which is the lock. The lock and key must fit together to open the door to the cells so sugar can enter. There also must be enough “locks” for the keys to open the door. This is why insulin resistance causes such problems. The cells that produce insulin as well as the insulin receptors on each cell begin to decrease in function. Healthy people have about 200,000 insulin receptors on their cells. Diabetics not only produce less insulin, but have about 2,000 insulin receptors (1% of what healthy people have). This means that sugar has no way to enter the cell and help the body make energy. This also means that sugar is stuck on the outside of the cell, keeping blood glucose levels constantly elevated. By reducing the amount of sugar in the blood, the body can better survive with missing locks and lost keys, and the cells have an easier time making energy. iii
Steps Towards Healthy Blood Sugar Levels
Step 1: Reassess Your Diet
The first step is to transition from a diet high in bread, pasta, cereal and sweets to a diet based in whole foods. Carbohydrates should be coming mainly from organic fresh fruits and vegetables. Every meal should also contain foods from all three macronutrient groups. Aim for a portion of protein, like fish, chicken, steak or beans that are the size and thickness of your palm. Fats are also a valuable part of every meal. Fats carry flavor and also send satiety signals to the brain, helping you feel fuller and eat less. Proteins, fats and fiber slow the release of carbohydrates into the intestine, acting like a gate. Many people who have tried multiple diets are afraid to eat fat, but the right fats are a necessary part of weight management and overall health. Focus on eggs, Greek yogurt (high protein, low sugar) or a protein shake for breakfast. Eat a portion of vegetables that is twice the size of your protein, focusing on colorful veggies and limiting starchy root vegetables like potatoes. Choose apples, pears, citrus, peaches, plum, berries and cherries instead of tropical fruits like bananas, mangos and even melons. Cook with healthy fats like butter (yes, a little bit of butter is healthy!) coconut oil and olive oil, or include a garnish of avocado, nuts or seeds. A handful of nuts or seeds paired with a piece of fruit also make great snacks. If you focus on whole foods and well-balanced meals, blood sugar stability will be much easier to reach.
Step 2: Include additional vitamins, minerals and herbs
While there is no replacement for a nourishing diet rich in whole, unprocessed and unrefined foods, there are wonderful supplements that support healthy blood sugar balance, aid in normal insulin production and work to reduce insulin resistance, a state where cells are unable to absorb sugar from the bloodstream efficiently. Insulin resistance and poor insulin production keep blood sugar levels high and have widespread negative effects. When blood glucose levels are stable, we maintain healthy brain function and mood, balanced energy, lower cravings for sugar and starch, healthy stress maintenance and sleep patterns, and a much easier time achieving a healthy body weight.
People who struggle to maintain a normal fasting blood sugar level (between 65-99 mg/dl) are usually deficient in several key nutrients that aid in the production of sufficient amounts of insulin. Poor blood sugar control often stems from the body’s lack of ability to create sufficient insulin, the hormone that carries glucose (sugar) out of the blood and into each cell. Insulin resistance, a state where the cells are essentially ignoring the commands of insulin, can also greatly affect blood sugar. Luckily, there are several natural remedies, including vitamins, minerals and herbs that can help support healthy insulin production and optimal levels of blood sugar.
• Whey protein has been shown to aid in healthy insulin production and help the body use glucose more efficiently. In one study, Diabetic subjects were given a meal consisting of white bread and donuts, designed to induce the maximum spike in blood glucose, with or without 50g of whey protein. After 3 hours, those who consumed whey protein had glucose levels 28% lower than before the meal and an improvement in early insulin release by an impressive 96%.iv
• Zinc also plays an important role in insulin metabolism, as well as extending the length of time that insulin is active after a meal.vii In fact, researchers as early as 1938 observed zinc deficiency in pancreatic tissue (where insulin is produced) leads to poor blood sugar control.
• Magnesium is also a critical nutrient that more than ¾ of the U.S. population is deficient in. In a 2013 study,viii pre-diabetic subjects with the highest levels of magnesium reduced their risk for poor blood sugar control and other metabolic complications by 71%.
• Research shows that bringing Vitamin D levels out of the deficiency range dramatically improves insulin sensitivity and can lead to loss of excess body fat.ix Correcting nutritional deficiencies is just one step in helping the “locks” (the insulin receptor) and “keys” (insulin) function to move sugar into the cell and out of the blood.
• Fish oil and krill oil can help support blood sugar balance in a unique and fundamental manner. Recent research has shown that Omega-3 fats activate a receptor known as GPR120 that is found on mature fat cells. Once fish oil activates this receptor, all inflammatory pathways become blocked and inflammation is essentially turned off. This has an ultimate effect of restoring insulin sensitivity to cells that had become insulin resistance, allowing the cell to respond much more effectively to insulin and bring blood sugar closer to healthy levels.x
• Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is a powerful antioxidant that plays a valuable role in supporting healthy blood sugar levels. Recent research shows that 600mg of ALA can improve insulin sensitivity by 25% in people with Type-2 Diabetes in as little as 4 weeks.xi ALA helps each cell absorb and use glucose as well.xii
• An impressive amino acid (a building block of protein) called L-Carnosine dramatically slows down the formation of AGEs and helps prevent our body tissues from being glycated, or damaged by sugar. When Carnosine is glycated instead of our tissues, hormones and enzymes, there is a positive impact on the rate of aging and levels of inflammation. When Carnosine is present, the body is much better protected against the damaging effects of sugar. xiii
• Gumar, or gymemna sylvestre, is an amazing herb also known as the “Sugar Destroyer” and it supports healthy blood sugar levels in two profound ways - blocking the sensation of sweetness on the tongue and decreasing the absorption of sugar from the intestine, which supports balanced energy and healthy blood sugar.xiv
• Bitter Melon has been shown to enhance the uptake of glucose, promote the release of insulin, and increase insulin sensitivity. It also increases glycogen synthesis inside cells and tissues.xv
• Fenugreek seed, also commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine, is a fiber-rich seed with many medicinal benefits. In terms of blood sugar balance, it slows the absorption of glucose following a meal and can reduce fasting blood sugar levels. Fenugreek also seems to support insulin sensitivity. xvi
• In one study of Type-2 Diabetics, those consuming just half a teaspoon of cinnamon per day had 20% lower blood sugar levels than the control group. In another study, results showed that cinnamon enhances the body’s ability to utilize glucose nearly 20-fold.xvii
• Banaba leaf, an extract of the crepe myrtle tree, is native to the Philippines and Southeast Asia. This extract imitates the function of insulin by aiding the absorption of glucose by the body. Banaba is rich in corosilic acid, which has been shown to normalize blood sugar levels within 60 minutes.xviii
• Nopal cactus, also known as prickly pear, contains several unique compounds that slow down intestinal transit and helps the cell absorb glucose more efficiently.xix It also acts as an antioxidant- and inflammation-regulator, which supports insulin production and immunity. Paired with cinnamon and banaba, nopal cactus can help restore what the body has lost due to poor diet and lifestyle.
Nature offers so many solutions to poor blood sugar balance issues that stem from a suboptimal diet and lifestyle. While a proper diet certainly must be one’s first medicine, correcting nutritional deficiencies that lead to poor insulin production and supporting your body’s natural functions through herbs and other supplements can be crucial to achieve optimal wellness. When blood sugar is balanced, we have lasting energy, positive, relaxed moods, healthy restful sleep. We can move much more comfortably, without inflammation and pain. Make sure the foods you eat and the supplements you take are communicating with your body in a positive and beneficial way. Take the steps to restore your “locks” and “keys” – this will help your body work better overall. When blood sugar is in balance, you’re set for success, vitality and health, right now and for the entire length of your life.
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