Imagine walking up a single flight of stairs, each step harder than the last, perspiration dripping down your face, not being able to catch your breath. In that situation, it would be hard to ignore the fact that something was wrong with your health. Similarly, what if every time you ate a meal, your blood sugar surged and stayed elevated for hours? Would you be equally concerned?
The answer is that you most definitely should be concerned!
Blood Glucose Overview
When you eat, your digestive system converts most of the carbohydrates (sugars, breads, pastas, cereals, fruits, etc.) into glucose, a fuel that can easily be used to power your daily energy needs. Your body attempts to maintain two or three days of energy reserves in the form of modified glucose or glycogen in the muscles and liver. Think of the muscles and liver storing glycogen as your primary fuel tank, albeit a small tank. If your primary tank is full (two or three days worth of glycogen), the excess glucose gets converted into fat and stored in your body tissues (a secondary fuel tank).
Prior to eating, normal blood glucose levels are somewhere between 70-90 mg/dl. If your body responds appropriately after eating, glucose levels tick up to about 120-130 mg/dl, and with the help of insulin released by your pancreas, glucose levels drop back nearly to the pre-meal level within two hours. Insulin acts as an orchestra conductor, telling your cells that they need to store the energy and nutrients currently available in the bloodstream (i.e., move them into the fuel tank).
If you eat significant amounts of carbohydrates your blood glucose levels can go very high, causing your body to pump more insulin into the bloodstream. By continuing to eat this way, the cells in your body become “insulin resistant,” that is they require more and more insulin to bring down blood sugar levels. This cycle of insulin resistance causes the pancreas to become overburdened. If this goes on for too long, the body may lose its ability to produce insulin and regulate blood sugar, which is the disease type II diabetes.
Before you ever get to a diagnosis of type II diabetes, a lot of damage can be done by having blood glucose that either spikes too high or stays elevated for an extended period of time. Examples of problems from elevated blood glucose levels include heart disease, autoimmune disorders including arthritis, some forms of cancer, celiac disease, and obesity.
Here are several research study summaries that help with the question, how do you get diabetes.
During a recent checkup, I had an HbA1c test, which is a test that measures average blood glucose levels for the prior three months. This HbA1c test came back a good bit higher than I expected (a level of 5.5%), but not pre-diabetic.
Based on a combination of curiosity and concern, I purchased an inexpensive blood glucose meter called the ACCU-CHEK Aviva from CVS . For approximately $15 I was now able to measure the effects various foods were having on my blood glucose levels (test strips are sold separately and cost about 50 cents per strip). For the next two weeks, I tested my levels about 20 times, typically about 1.5 hours after completing a meal.
While I thought I was eating a fairly low carbohydrate diet, it turns out I was not. After eating a typical meal, my blood glucose level would measure above 140 mg/dl and would remain elevated for over two hours.
Here are a few examples of blood glucose readings from the month of November 2010:
- Oatmeal with butter, honey, coconut, and cashew butter: 141 mg/dl
- Cheese quesadillas and a glass of milk: 131 mg/dl
- Turkey, sweet potatoes, and broccoli: 129 mg/dl
- Blackened tuna and French fries: 174 mg/dl
Keep in mind that the peak levels may have been even higher. By 1.5 hours after completing my meal, my numbers should have been closer to 90-100 mg/dl. Based on what I had read, it was clear that I would benefit from having these levels come down. But how could I do that?
My plan was to make two changes. First, I reduced my intake of all carbohydrates, especially the simple, refined ones. I eliminated all sweets, breads, pastas, and crackers, and cut down on other carbohydrates like potatoes. The second thing I did was to begin a basic strength training program.
By adopting these two changes, I had hoped that my primary fuel tank (muscles and liver) would be somewhat depleted of glycogen. With this fuel tank now having some extra capacity, any glucose I produced would have a quick path out of my bloodstream. And remember, leaving excess glucose in the bloodstream too long can cause serious health problems, and requiring the pancreas to produce ever-increasing amounts of insulin can eventually lead to diabetes.
Later this week in part two, I will detail how things have worked out.