Diabetes management comes down to one primary goal; keep your blood sugar levels in check. When blood sugar rises, it not only aggravates existing diabetes but can also increase risk factors for several other complications.
So, how do you avoid a blood sugar spike and maintain a healthy glucose response? In this article, you'll learn why blood sugar spikes happen, the common causes, and how to avoid chronically high blood sugar.
What Is A Blood Sugar Spike?
A blood sugar spike happens when the amount of glucose you take in from your diet outpaces your body's ability to manage it. This is primarily due to an intake of foods that are exceptionally high in carbohydrates or a condition like diabetes, where your cells are unable to manage a normal glucose load.
Both diabetics and non-diabetics can experience blood sugar spikes (also known as hyperglycemia); it just takes a higher glucose load to spike the blood sugar of someone who doesn't have diabetes.
For instance, someone without diabetes may notice blood glucose levels rising after consuming a bunch of sugar-laden candy. While their cells are well equipped to handle a normal glucose load, the sheer amount of glucose (AKA sugar) coming in at one time is overwhelming. As a result, their body will need to pump out a larger than normal insulin dose, eventually leading to the sugar being shuttled into their cells for energy metabolism or fat storage.
On the other hand, someone with type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, or prediabetes may experience a blood sugar spike simply by consuming a piece of bread. Of course, this depends on the severity of diabetes and whether or not they are on medication to modulate their insulin response.
When someone has uncontrolled diabetes, a relatively small glucose load can turn into a glucose spike because their cells cannot respond to insulin, which means that glucose can rapidly build up in the blood because it has nowhere else to go. Excess glucose in the blood can cause various issues, which we'll cover in more detail later in this article.
Causes of Blood Sugar Spikes
There are several potential reasons you may experience a blood sugar spike. As mentioned, in non-diabetics, this can happen simply by overloading yourself with sugar. However, there are other less obvious causes as well. For example:
- Certain medications can interfere with normal blood sugar regulation and may even induce diabetes. These medications include glucocorticoids, androgen blockers, cardiovascular drugs, beta-blockers, and hormonal therapy, along with others.
- Dysregulated sleep can impact how your body handles glucose.
- Stress can interfere with glucose homeostasis by encouraging the release of glucose from your cells while reducing insulin's effectiveness.
For people with diabetes, blood sugar spikes are much more common. In addition to the causes mentioned above, diabetics may also experience blood sugar spikes due to:
- Moderate levels of carbohydrates in the diet that outpace your body's insulin sensitivity
- Expired insulin
- Not taking enough insulin
- Your diabetes medication needs to be adjusted
- Illness or infection
- Lack of physical activity (exercise helps your body utilize and regulate glucose)
- Alcohol consumption
Symptoms To Watch For
The best way to get ahead of a blood sugar spike is to check your blood sugar levels periodically to ensure that your diet and (or) medication are aligned for optimal blood sugar.
Some people may not be aware that their blood sugar is spiking, so if you don't have a monitor or aren't checking frequently, some tell-tale signs that your blood sugar is dysregulated include:
- Frequent urination
- Fatigue or weakness
- Increased thirst
- Blurred vision
- Dry mouth
- Shortness of breath
If you start to notice these symptoms become more severe, or they are accompanied by nausea, confusion, or abdominal pain, you may have entered a state known as diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), and you should call 911 immediately.
Complications of High Blood Sugar
When your blood is saturated with glucose for extended periods, it can result in a range of complications. As you might imagine, all of that glucose has to go somewhere, and if it isn't allowed into your cells, then it can cause damage to your organs.
Almost every system in your body is vulnerable to the toxic effects of high glucose, but below are the most common complications of diabetes:
One of the most common comorbidities of diabetes is heart disease. This is due not only to the impact that high blood sugar levels have on your heart and blood vessels but also because these two conditions are often the result of similar lifestyle factors such as poor diet and lack of exercise.
Kidney Disease (diabetic nephropathy)
Diabetic nephropathy is a condition that happens when high blood sugar damages the blood vessels in the kidneys. This is a progressive disease that can eventually lead to kidney failure when untreated.
Nerve Damage (neuropathy)
Diabetic neuropathy occurs when high blood glucose damages nerves over time. While it most often damages nerves in the legs and feet, it can affect nerves throughout the body. The symptoms of diabetic neuropathy typically start slow, so it's easy to catch it early when you are aware.
Several eye-related health issues can result from diabetes, including cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma.
Cataracts is a thickening and clouding of the lens of your eye, making your vision increasingly blurry.
Diabetic retinopathy affects the small blood vessels in your retina and can eventually lead to glaucoma (damage to the retina and optic nerve) and blindness when untreated.
How To Prevent A Blood Sugar Spike
For those without diabetes, preventing a blood sugar spike is as simple as watching your sugar intake and ensuring that you balance your meals with plenty of fat and protein.
If you have diabetes, however, there are more strategic steps you can take to avoid spikes in blood glucose.
#1 Hone In On Your Diet
Managing your diet is the most straightforward way to prevent a blood sugar spike. In addition to balancing your meals with protein and fat, ensure that your carbohydrate intake with each meal is within a healthy range.
This will look different for each individual, so your best bet is to use a blood glucose monitor frequently enough until you can get a sense of the glycemic load your body can handle.
Working with a health coach or dietitian can be a great first step as you learn what your body likes and dislikes.
#2 Always Read Labels
In line with #1 above, always read nutrition labels if you want to avoid a sneaky sugar spike. There will be occasions when a food item looks low-carb when it's packed with hidden sugar.
Keep an eye out for potential blood-sugar threats by checking food labels' total carbs and the ingredients list.
#3 Stay On Top of Your Activity
As mentioned, physical exercise can help sensitize your cells to glucose. Therefore, starting a regular exercise routine is one of the best ways to enhance insulin sensitivity and improve overall health and well-being.
Move in a way that feels good to you; this could include taking walks, joining an exercise class, doing yoga, dancing, or whatever else keeps you moving.
#4 Get On The Correct Medication
Some people with diabetes can manage their blood sugar with food alone. However, many people find they need to use insulin pumps or other medications to control their blood sugar adequately.
If you notice your blood sugar spikes despite being on medication, you are likely either on the wrong medication or your dose is off. Consult with your prescribing physician or healthcare provider to ensure that you're taking your medication correctly.
For people with diabetes, keeping your blood sugar within a normal range is the name of the game. Almost every diabetes complication comes from chronically high blood sugar accompanied by insulin resistance.
Therefore, if you want to avoid a blood sugar spike, you need to get your diet on track by avoiding high-carb foods and simple sugars and learning how many carbs your body can tolerate at one time.
The best way to do this is to monitor when your blood sugar rises and why. It can be incredibly helpful, especially at first, to use a glucose monitor that can give you real-time data. Furthermore, working with a coach who knows the dos and don'ts and can guide you on your journey will eliminate a great deal of guesswork.
If you're interested in learning more about coaching and glucose monitoring, check out the BioCoach program, which offers both of these tools and many other resources.
- Jain, Vandana, et al. "Drugs and hyperglycemia: A practical guide." Maturitas 104 (2017): 80-83.
- Wong, Hilda, et al. "The effects of mental stress on non-insulin-dependent diabetes: determining the relationship between catecholamine and adrenergic signals from stress, anxiety, and depression on the physiological changes in the pancreatic hormone secretion." Cureus 11.8 (2019).