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What everyone should know about glucose levels

Updated November 15, 2023 - 7:52 pm

Glucose is the sugar present in your blood. It comes from food and eventually turns into the energy your body uses most throughout the day. As such, measuring the amount of it in your blood is crucial for maintaining optimal health, as high glucose levels can increase your risk of myriad complications such as hyperglycemia, vision problems and infections.

This is especially true for anyone diagnosed with diabetes. But when monitoring your blood, it’s important to know what level to look for. So what’s the optimal range for glucose?

“Your blood sugar level can be affected by diet, medications, illness, sleep and other factors,” says Dr. Naheed Ali, a contributor to USA Rx. “If you want to optimize your glucose levels, you need to keep track of your blood glucose levels. This will help you identify when they are too high or too low.”

Keeping track of your glucose levels? We consulted Ali and other doctors regarding the optimal range — plus, how to lower your levels and when to consult a doctor.

How do glucose levels affect your body?

Since your body converts glucose into energy, it’s really important that these levels don’t get too high or too low. According to Dr. Jeff Gladd, integrative medicine physician and chief medical officer at Fullscript, glucose that isn’t turned into energy is stored as fat.

“When you consume carbohydrate-containing foods — such as fruit or grains — your body breaks down those carbohydrates into the energy unit glucose,” he says. “Glucose then enters the bloodstream, where it travels to different parts of the body to be used for energy or stored for later use. The storage is typically in the form of fat.”

Anyone with diabetes is at an increased risk of obesity, high blood pressure and kidney disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

“This is why ideally the focus is on utilizing this carbohydrate energy to support daily body processes and exercise while keeping intake moderate to prevent additional body fat storage,” Gladd explains.

What’s the optimal range?

As Ali mentioned, glucose levels are affected by various factors: Everything from the medications you take to the food you eat and how much you sleep can cause them to fluctuate.

According to Ali, “Normal blood sugar levels range between 100 and 70 mg/dL after fasting for eight hours.”

Of course, illness is another contributing factor that can cause levels to go up or down. People with diabetes specifically struggle with their glucose levels because of a lack of insulin, the hormone that regulates glucose by transporting it into the blood. Therefore, the glucose range in someone with diabetes may vary.

“If you have diabetes, your blood sugar level is too high when it’s above 126 mg/dL and too low when it’s below 100 mg/dL,” Ali says. “If you’re healthy and consume a normal diet, you can expect your blood sugar level to be between 100 and 130 mg/dL after eating.”

To get a second opinion, we consulted Dr. Priyanka Hennis, who specifically works with patients with autoimmune diseases, diabetes and ADHD.

“In normal individuals, fasting glucose levels are from 80-100mg/dl, right after a meal 170-200mg/dl, and 120-140mg/dl three hours after a meal,” Hennis says. “Anything outside this range is considered abnormal, ranging from labile blood sugars to full-blown diabetes.”

Hennis warns that falling out of the normal range can have serious health ramifications, so it’s important to monitor frequently.

“Abnormal blood glucose can affect your mood, cause palpitations when it’s low, and even vomiting when it’s too high. You should get checked if you are getting sugar cravings throughout the day. If you are having severe symptoms of nausea/vomiting/palpitations, you should go in (to get checked) sooner.”

To get your glucose levels checked, ask your primary doctor for a test. Your doctor may decide to screen for prediabetes or diabetes, especially if you are at an increased risk for developing diabetes. Your doctor may also order a hemoglobin A1C test. “This test is often more insightful to help understand the big picture as it pertains to blood sugar levels,” Gladd says.

Symptoms of abnormal levels

If you check your glucose level and it falls into the category of what’s abnormal, you’ll first want to check for signs of other symptoms.

“Other symptoms to look out for are signs and symptoms of dehydration,” Hennis explains. “Lack of adequate water will make you feel worse when having blood sugar symptoms. The glycemic index of foods affects your blood sugar, so eating more moderate/low glycemic index foods rather than high glycemic index foods improves the symptoms you feel if your sugar is out of balance.”

But dehydration isn’t the only symptom to watch out for.

“Common signs and symptoms of low blood sugar include fast heart rate, anxiety, shaking, dizziness, sweating, hunger, and/or dizziness,” Gladd adds.

How to lower your glucose

According to Gladd, a fasting level between 100 to 125 mg/dL indicates impaired fasting glucose (prediabetes), which increases one’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, whereas a fasting glucose level greater than or equal to 126 mg/dL is considered high (hyperglycemia) and is typically indicative of type 2 diabetes.

While glucose levels that are too low are also a concern (it’s called hypoglycemia and particularly presents in people with Type 1 diabetes), high glucose can be particularly tricky to lower.

“It’s tempting to add salt to your food because it’s in almost everything, but it can also increase blood glucose levels,” Ali says. “Alcohol raises blood glucose levels, so it’s best to limit your intake. Getting your daily dose of exercise can help to increase insulin production and lower your glucose levels.”

Ali also recommends eating five to six small meals per day rather than three large ones.

“This helps to keep your glucose levels from spiking,” Ali explains.

To balance your glucose levels in general, take special note of your diet.

“Many foods and beverages can positively or negatively affect glucose levels,” Gladd says. “For example, fiber-rich foods, such as vegetables and beans, slow sugar absorption and help keep blood sugar levels more balanced. In contrast, processed flours and sugary foods and beverages lack fiber and can cause rapid spikes and dips in blood sugar, which often lead to additional fat storage and elevated blood sugar levels.”

When to see a doctor

You should visit your primary health care provider annually, Gladd says, especially if you have factors that put you at a greater risk of developing diabetes, such as history of abnormal glucose levels; history of gestational diabetes; family history of Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes; history of cardiovascular disease; high blood pressure; unhealthy cholesterol levels; limited physical activity.

If your glucose levels fall out of the normal range, you may be wondering if you should consult a doctor.

Hennis says, “If you have very high blood glucose levels and also experience frequent urination and keep drinking liquids even when you aren’t thirsty, you should go get checked as soon as you can as these are possible signs of Type 2 diabetes.”

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