What Are Blood Sugar Levels—And How Can You Keep Yours in a Healthy Range?

<p>hsyncoban / Getty Images</p>

hsyncoban / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Kelly Wood, MD

Blood sugar is the primary sugar in your blood that your body processes to use for energy. When you eat carbohydrates, like bread or sweets, they break down into blood sugar in your bloodstream to be converted into energy. Your blood sugar level naturally fluctuates during the day, depending on many factors, such as when you last ate, how much physical activity you’ve done, and what medications you take.

Managing your blood sugar level is one of the most important things you can do if you are living with diabetes, prediabetes, or insulin resistance. Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels can help keep you from experiencing complications from these conditions later in life.

There are several methods you can use to check your levels. It is also helpful to work with your healthcare provider to create a blood sugar management plan.

What Is Blood Sugar?

Blood sugar, also called blood glucose, comes mostly from the carbohydrates you eat. Your blood carries glucose to your body cells and they use it for quick energy.

Both simple and complex carbs break down into glucose in your body. Simple carbs are broken down faster in your body. They are found in simple sugars and starches such as table sugar, syrups, white bread, and white rice. Complex carbs take longer for your body to break down. They include oats, whole grains, fruits, and legumes, among others.

Several hormones work together to keep your blood sugar in a healthy range, particularly insulin and glucagon. They’re both produced in the pancreas, an organ in your abdomen that helps convert food into energy. Insulin acts as a key, unlocking cell doors to allow glucose to enter and be burned for energy, thus keeping your blood sugar from getting too high (hyperglycemia). Glucagon does the opposite job—it works to keep your blood sugar levels from dropping too low (hypoglycemia).

What Do Blood Sugar Levels Mean?

If you’re otherwise healthy, your pancreas keeps tight control of your blood sugar levels. But if you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, prediabetes, or insulin resistance, your blood sugar may get too high. You can measure your blood sugar level with a simple finger prick blood test done at home, at your healthcare provider’s office, or at a local pharmacy.

What is a normal blood sugar level?

Your blood sugar level will vary depending on the last time you ate. A normal fasting blood sugar level, checked after an overnight fast or at least eight hours after a meal, should be between 70-99 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Postprandial blood sugar is what your level is after you’ve eaten. It’s usually checked two hours after a meal, and a normal reading will be less than 140 mg/dL.

What does it mean to have high blood sugar levels?

Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, is 100 mg/dL or higher when fasting or 140 mg/dL after a meal. Hyperglycemia occurs when your pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin or when your body’s cells have become resistant to insulin.

Hyperglycemia doesn’t always present with symptoms. If you have diabetes, a period of hyperglycemia may cause you to feel tired and thirsty, as well as cause blurry vision and the persistent urge to urinate. Long-term, untreated hyperglycemia can lead to complications like heart disease, blindness, and kidney disease.

What does it mean to have low blood sugar levels?

Hypoglycemia is the opposite of hyperglycemia—it means your blood sugar level has dropped too low. Hypoglycemia happens when your blood glucose falls below 70 mg/dL, though you may not feel any symptoms until it reaches 55 mg/dL or less.

Hypoglycemia is rare unless you have diabetes, when it’s usually caused by drinking alcohol, taking too much medication, or not eating enough. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include sweating, shaking, dizziness, irritability, and an abnormally fast heartbeat. Low blood sugar is dangerous for someone with diabetes and requires immediate intervention.

How to Monitor Your Blood Sugar Levels

There are three ways to check your blood sugar levels. These include:

  • Blood glucose meter: This is a small handheld device that tells you what your blood sugar is at one point in time. It requires you to prick your finger and will give you results in seconds. Wash your hands before the test, both for safety and to help ensure an accurate reading.

  • Continuous glucose monitor (CGM): If you have diabetes, your healthcare provider may recommend a CGM. This is a small sensor that’s inserted under your skin, which measures your blood sugar every few minutes and sends the results to a device like a cell phone. CGMs allow you to see your levels at any time and identify trends.

  • A1C test: This is a blood test that your healthcare provider can do in their office. It gives you an idea of what your average blood sugar level has been over the past three months, providing a more holistic view of your blood sugar health.

Maintenance and Treatment

Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is possible, even if you have diabetes. A combination of a healthy diet and exercise is the basis for healthy blood glucose levels.

How to Maintain Normal Blood Sugar Levels

To maintain a steady, stable blood sugar level, it’s important to avoid things that cause blood sugar spikes or crashes. Monitoring your blood sugar, eating regularly, limiting your carbohydrate intake, and eating enough protein and fat with your meals can help you keep your blood sugar stable. It’s also important to have regular check-ups with your healthcare provider.

Working with a diabetes educator or a dietitian who specializes in diabetes care can help you develop an affordable and manageable diet plan. Many health insurance plans cover these services, but you can find out by calling your insurance company, discussing your options, and asking them to recommend any dietitians in your area.

Treatments for High Blood Sugar

Exercise—especially aerobic exercise, like walking—is a great way to lower high blood sugar. For long-term management of high blood sugar, it’s important to avoid eating carbohydrates by themselves. Eating protein and fat at the same times as carbs will help keep the carbs from spiking your blood sugar.

Treatments for Low Blood Sugar

If you are living with diabetes, hypoglycemia can become an emergency. If you feel the symptoms of dropping blood sugar, test yourself with a blood glucose monitor and eat or drink a sugary snack to stabilize your blood sugar. It is recommended that people with low blood sugar follow the 15-15 rule, which involves having 15 grams of carbohydrates and waiting 15 minutes to reassess your blood sugar levels.

For long-term management of low blood sugar, work with your healthcare provider to implement appropriate lifestyle changes.

A Quick Review

Your body uses blood sugar to convert it into energy. Everyone’s blood sugar fluctuates during the day and night, but blood sugar that is too high or too low can cause a range of health concerns, especially if you have a condition that affects your ability to process sugars. But healthy lifestyle choices, like exercising, eating fewer carbs, and always pairing carbs with fat and protein, can help you keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range.

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