The terms blood sugar and insulin are often thrown about as if they were interchangeable. While they’re not synonymous, they are intertwined. What’s more is that understanding these two terms is essential to overall health, but especially when discussing diabetes and pre-diabetes.
So, what exactly do they mean and how do they cooperate—or not—with each other?
Blood sugar is simply the main type of sugar found in your blood. There is a term that is identical to blood sugar, and that’s glucose, sometimes referred to as blood glucose. Blood sugar, or glucose, are your body’s primary source of energy.
Insulin, on the other hand, is a hormone produced in your pancreas that is responsible for regulating the amount of glucose in your blood. Think of insulin as the train that moves glucose from your blood into your cells, allowing your body to turn that sugar into energy.
When your body lacks insulin, or your insulin isn’t properly doing its job, your blood sugar levels can rise too high, creating a host of health issues that you’ll want to address sooner rather than later.
In today’s blog, we’ll explore the delicate balance between blood sugar and insulin and the importance of grasping how they work together and what happens when they don’t. Understanding this dynamic relationship will enable you to make informed choices about your diet and lifestyle to help prevent, manage and possibly reverse a host of unwanted medical-related conditions.
Blood Sugar Levels
There are different considerations involved in how often you should test your blood sugar levels, including whether you have diabetes (and what type) or prediabetes, or are predisposed to those conditions (e.g., family history), are pregnant, or have reasons to be concerned that your blood sugar may be out of the normal range.
There are also different recommended tests, also related to your personal situation, and these can include any one (or a combination) of the following: glucose test (fasting or non-fasting), an A1C (sometimes known as an HbA1c) glucose test, a glucose tolerance test or daily glucose monitoring.
So, let’s talk about what’s considered normal results, starting with a fasting blood glucose test, one where your doctor has asked you to not eat (including drinks other than water, or possibly black coffee—ask your doc about the coffee if you truly need it to wake up) for a minimum of eight hours before your test.
If you’ve tested at a level between 70 and 100 mg/dL you’re considered to be in a normal range, meaning your blood sugar level is not too high (and not too low). If your test results place you in a range of 100 to 125 mg/dL you have pre-diabetes. A result of 126 mg/dL or above means you have diabetes, but your doctor will most likely want to repeat this test or order an A1C test to confirm.
The random (aka non-fasting) blood glucose test is the same as the fasting blood glucose test, except, you don’t need to fast before-hand. In fact, you should eat what you normally eat to get a better idea as to how your body’s insulin responds to your regular diet. In this case, understandably, normal results would be higher than with a fasting glucose test. With a random glucose test, a normal result would be 140 mg/dL or below. Prediabetes would be indicated at 140 to 199 mg/dL and 200 mg/dL or above would point to diabetes.
Both of these glucose tests, fasting or random, are basically a snapshot of where your blood levels are at the time of testing. A more accurate reading for diagnosing diabetes and for understanding how your body handles blood sugar on a regular basis is the A1C/HbA1c test, which is not dependent on what you eat (or don’t eat) before the test, but instead looks at a broader timeframe of about the past three months.
With these tests, your results are provided in percentages, with a normal result landing below 5.7%. The range of 5.7 to 6.4% demonstrates prediabetes, while 6.5% or above means diabetes.
You can find a nice infographic laying out these tests and what their results mean here.
Types of Diabetes
There are three main types of diabetes and your insulin issues are slightly different, depending on the type.
Type 1 Diabetes
Usually discovered at an early age (but adults are not immune to this type), your body’s soldiers responsible for your immune system unfortunately mistakenly identify the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas as the enemy, annihilating them. Whether it’s a short timeframe (a few weeks) or a longer one (a few years), the ultimate result is that your body stops making insulin, leaving you with the need for insulin shots and a lifetime of managing diabetes.
Type 2 Diabetes
In this case, your body doesn’t quite know what to do with the insulin it produces, a condition known as insulin resistance. Just as it sounds, it means that your body is resistant to making the insulin do its job.
As we explained earlier, insulin transports the glucose from the blood to cells, those in the muscles, liver and fat, where they are turned into energy. When you are insulin resistant, the insulin doesn’t properly transport the glucose out of your blood, instead allowing too much sugar to build up in your blood.
Interestingly, not everyone with type 2 diabetes has insulin resistance, and not everyone who is insulin resistant will end up with diabetes. But in no way is having excess blood sugar over time a good thing. The relationship between insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes is not completely understood; however, insulin resistance is associated with other conditions that are also associated with type 2 diabetes, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome and more. Read more here.
There’s a third type of diabetes, one that impacts pregnant women. Known as gestational diabetes, the extra demands on your pregnant body can lead to this condition whereby you can’t properly produce and use your body’s insulin during pregnancy. The result is that when you have gestational diabetes your blood glucose levels may be consistently too high.
Not only is gestational diabetes a concern for the pregnant woman, but it also leads to problems for the fetus. For example, there may be complications during labor, and once born, your baby may experience breathing problems, low blood sugar, and a high birth weight if your gestational diabetes is not properly managed during the pregnancy. In addition, having gestational diabetes may increase the risk of your child developing diabetes. This is one to watch and to test for. Read more here.
Fortunately, for most women, gestational diabetes is a temporary condition, subsiding after you give birth. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of all women who experience gestational diabetes develop type2 diabetes at some point in their lives.
Risk Factors for Insulin Resistance
Insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome are often discussed in the same breath. That’s because both conditions raise your risk for serious health concerns such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. The National Institutes of Health says that metabolic syndrome is also called insulin resistance syndrome.
Here are five of the risk factors for developing insulin resistance:
- Obesity, especially the blubbery tire around your waist, is quite possibly the top risk factor; however, insulin resistance is one tricky situation because you don’t have to be overweight to become insulin resistant.
- Living the life of a couch potato is another risk factor. Surprised? Not us! Get moving to decrease your risk of insulin resistance.
- Eating too many (simple) carbohydrates—(white bread, white rice, white pasta)—which can increase your blood glucose and your weight. Switch over to complex carbs
- A family history of diabetes.
- Ethnicity can also play a role. For instance, if your ancestry is African, Latino or Native American, you’re potentially at higher risk for insulin resistance.
Read more about risk factors here.
While your body may give you hints that your blood sugar is too high, getting tested is really the only way to know for sure. Once you know your numbers, you’ll have a better chance at reducing your risk for these conditions.
High blood sugar, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes and heart disease—they all travel along the same path. Trust us, it’s not a path you want to be on.