Glucose is the simplest form of carbohydrate, meaning it is a monosaccharide. Monosaccharide is a scientific word that just means “one sugar.” Glucose in your blood is also referred to as blood sugar, or blood glucose, and is formed from digestion of the food you eat. Glucose and fat are your body’s preferred sources of fuel and are the main energy sources for your body.
How Does Glucose Work?
When you eat, your body starts working to process food into glucose and other nutrients your body needs to function. Enzymes in your stomach break down food so that it can be absorbed by your intestine. Nutrients, including glucose, are then absorbed from your intestine into your bloodstream.
Cells called beta cells in your pancreas monitor the level of glucose in your blood. When your blood glucose level rises after a meal, your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin helps get glucose into your cells, working sort of like a key unlocking your cells to use glucose for fuel. Glucose is used by most cells in your body, but did you know that glucose is the primary source of fuel for your brain?
After your body uses what it needs, leftover glucose is stored in your liver and muscles as glucagon. When you haven’t eaten for a while, your pancreas stops making insulin and switches to making glucagon. This hormone signals your liver to break down the stored supplies and turn it back into glucose. This cycle is what naturally provides fuel to your cells.
People living with diabetes have higher than normal amounts of glucose in their blood because their pancreas isn’t making enough insulin, or their body isn’t using insulin as effectively as it should. This is what leads to problems with high levels of blood glucose.
What is Normal Blood Glucose?
When glucose levels in your blood stay within recommended boundaries, you don’t even know it’s there, but when glucose levels rise or fall outside those boundaries, it can cause negative effects on your body.
Normal blood glucose is not a specific number. Because everyone is unique, “normal” can be slightly different for everyone. Instead of thinking about what is normal, it is better to think about what your specific range should be. If you are living with diabetes, your health care provider will help you establish your target range, usually based on a generally accepted range. If you do not have diabetes, you probably will never know what your normal range is (though it won’t be far from standardized blood sugar ranges).
To understand blood glucose levels a little better, it is best to understand how blood glucose is measured.
In the United States, blood glucose is measured in milligrams (mg) per deciliter (dL), and guidelines for blood glucose concentration are determined generally before and after you have had a meal. Generally, your blood glucose levels before a meal should be between 80 and 130 mg/dL. Your blood glucose level two hours after a meal (postprandial) should be less than 180 mg/dL.
There are two types of abnormal glucose levels that can occur in your body.
Hyperglycemia means you have high blood glucose. When you live with type 1 diabetes, it means there is not enough insulin to process the glucose in your blood. For type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, your body is not making enough insulin or not using the insulin you have efficiently. High blood glucose over time can damage your kidneys, eyes, nerves, and other organs.
Hypoglycemia means you have low blood glucose. Hypoglycemia happens when there is too much insulin in your body or not enough glucose. Low blood sugar can occur when people living with diabetes skip meals, for example. It also can happen when you are eating less overall or exercising a lot.
What If You Have High Blood Glucose All the Time?
Diabetes happens when your body cannot efficiently convert glucose into energy, causing a buildup of sugar (glucose) in your blood. The two most common types of diabetes are type 1 and type 2:
Type 1 diabetes occurs when an autoimmune condition destroys the beta cells in your pancreas that make insulin. This can happen over weeks, months, or years. When enough of the beta cells are no longer active, your pancreas stops making insulin. Anyone (both adults or children) can develop type 1 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when our body doesn’t produce enough insulin or doesn’t use it efficiently. Your body’s reaction is to make more insulin, but with time, your pancreas cannot keep up with insulin production. Type 2 diabetes usually happens in middle-age or older people, but also can occur in young people.
Diabetes is treated with medications and lifestyle modifications. People who live with type 1 diabetes need insulin, while people with type 2 diabetes may need insulin or other types of medicine. Type 2 diabetes can often be managed with healthy eating and exercise, but over time, even people living with type 2 diabetes need medicine. Your health care provider will help determine the right treatment for you.
Ketoacidosis, or diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), happens when your body doesn’t have enough insulin and starts making energy from fat. You may have heard of “ketosis” before, and while both involve ketones, there is a different between Ketosis vs. Ketoacidosis. Ketones are an acid created by your body when it burns fat instead of glucose for fuel. Problems arise when ketones build up to toxic amounts in your system. Untreated, ketoacidosis can be life threatening. This is one reason people living with diabetes must actively manage their blood glucose levels.
How To Reduce Blood Glucose
There are many things people with diabetes can do to manage blood glucose levels. Lifestyle strategies to help lower blood sugar do not replace insulin or other medicines, but can help people living with diabetes better manage their blood glucose levels.
Lifestyle strategies include some pretty simple tricks like drinking more water and exercising more often.
Dehydration means higher concentration of glucose in your blood. Drinking water can reduce the concentration of glucose in your blood, and can help your body flush out excess.
Exercise tells your body to turn sugar into fuel for your cells. Exercise works particularly well for people living with type 2 diabetes. If you don’t like to exercise, you can do things like walk the dog, work in your yard, park further away from stores, basically anything that gets you moving.
Managing stress can also reduce blood glucose. Stress actually causes your body to make hormones that cause your blood glucose levels to rise. This is a natural reaction that gives you a burst of energy to deal with whatever is causing the stress.
If your body doesn’t have adequate insulin to convert the glucose to energy, people with diabetes see a rise in blood glucose. Lack of sleep acts the same way as stress, telling your body to increase glucose in your blood. It’s not always easy to reduce stress, but strategies include doing things that ease your mind, Iike walking, yoga, meditating, or just taking a break.
Managing the quantity and type of food you eat is probably the most often mentioned way to reduce blood glucose. Making changes like reducing the amount of table sugar, syrup and honey in your diet can help reduce blood glucose. There are lots of other ways your diet can be slightly changed for the better including limiting carbohydrates and increasing fiber. Studies show that a diet low in carbohydrates helps reduce blood sugar levels.
Glucose is a very important energy source for your body, but it needs help to be used in your cells for fuel. Your body uses the hormone insulin to get glucose from your blood into your cells. If your body isn’t making enough insulin, or doesn’t use it effectively, chronic high blood sugar can cause damage to your kidneys, eyes, nerves, and other organs if left untreated. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to lower your blood sugar, and if you are diagnosed with diabetes, medications that can help you manage it.