The Delicate Balance of Blood Glucose Levels
I never cease to be amazed by the ways our bodies maintain homeostasis. Even when I feel like I’m completely still, which hardly ever happens, my body is constantly abuzz with electric impulses, cellular mitosis, and hormonal fluctuations. I have often underappreciated the internal regulation necessary for daily activities. The maintenance of healthy blood glucose levels is probably one of the most delicate balances that our bodies navigate. Changes in blood glucose concentrations are a natural part of the day-to-day processing of nutrients and are not a problem themselves. Things only become complicated and potentially dangerous when the blood glucose levels fluctuate too high or too low. Both extremes have adverse effects on nutrient absorption, and by extension, general bodily function. Though we usually only think about it within the context of diabetes, we all need to be more aware of how blood glucose levels, also known as blood sugar levels, impact our overall health and wellness at-large. To put it briefly, to make sure your blood sugar levels are balanced, you have to make sure their inevitable changes are within the right ranges. Doing so requires different degrees of intentionality for different people. For individuals without diabetes, the target ranges for blood sugar levels are less than 100 mg/dL before meals and less than 140 mg/dL for 1-2 hours after a meal. For people with diabetes, the ranges are 80-130 mg/dL before meals and less than 180 mg/dL 1-2 after a meal.
Let’s get one thing absolutely straight first: blood sugar is not the enemy. In many ways, I feel like I’ve been socially conditioned to believe that all kinds of sugars are either bad or associated with guilty pleasures like dessert. Of course, that’s a very reductive way of looking at it. In truth, our bodies need different kinds of sugar (i.e. glucose, sucrose, fructose, etc.) in order to have fuel to function. More specifically, glucose is a fundamental component in the crucial process of cellular respiration. For my fellow biology fans out there, we had the detailed minutiae of this process ingrained into us during our intro level classes. I still have flashbacks to all the flashcards I made to remember all the steps. But in essence, since the definition of “respiration” is basically “breathing,” cells need glucose in order to breathe. And yes, that is as serious as it sounds. Following this logic, it makes sense that having low blood sugar levels, also known as hypoglycemia, is far from ideal, and potentially dangerous. Because your cells don’t have access to the glucose they need to breath, you’re more susceptible to symptoms like shaking, sweating, anxiety, faintness, irritability, and hunger. As a general rule of thumb, blood sugar levels are considered low when they are less than 70 mg/dL.
Though we have rightfully established that blood glucose is beneficial overall, too much of a good thing isn’t such a good thing. On the other side of the spectrum from hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia is also dangerous. If there is too much glucose in your blood, your pancreas won’t be able to generate the amount of the insulin necessary to facilitate the absorption of the glucose from the bloodstream into other tissues. Overall, hyperglycemia symptoms take longer to appear than hypoglycemia symptoms. With that being said, you should still consider reaching out to your doctor if you notice having extreme fatigue, being very thirsty, having blurry vision, or needing to urinate more frequently over a couple of days as these may be signs of insufficient glucose absorption. The lack of glucose absorption makes you more susceptible to symptoms like nerve problems, vision loss, joint deformities, and cardiovascular risk. If hyperglycemia is left untreated for an extended period of time, this allows latent glucose to become toxic acids called ketones that build up in your blood and urine, resulting in a condition called ketoacidosis. And if further unaddressed, ketoacidosis can lead to life-threatening comas. Needless to say, having high blood sugar has high stakes. To sustainably lower blood glucose levels, experts recommend drinking water and having scheduled, monitored, and portioned meals.
In essence, blood glucose levels play an important role in our bodies’ internal regulation. When the concentrations fall within the correct ranges, our cells can get the fuel they need to breathe and function more generally. Maintaining healthy diets and exercise routines are great ways to establish a firm foundation for glucose regulation, but further methods may be necessary to accommodate an individual’s distinct needs. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about questions or concerns you may have surrounding your blood sugar levels. Navigating a healthy balance isn’t an easy feat to take for granted. The conversation can never happen too soon. Here are some further resources on blood sugar regulation: