Learning how to manage your condition is critical when you have diabetes. One of the most important ways to keep tabs on your health is to check your blood sugar regularly throughout the day.
More than 1 in every 10 people have diabetes in the United States. Diabetes is a chronic disease that causes the glucose, or sugar, levels in the blood to become too high. Glucose is our main source of energy and comes from the food we eat. Usually, the body can regulate the level of sugar in the blood using a hormone called insulin. But with diabetes, the body is unable to use insulin the way it should.
“Checking your blood sugar helps you see if your diabetes care plan is working,” says Leslie Killeen, MS, RD, CDCES, Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist at Summit Health. “If your levels are not in the target range — for example, if they spike too high or dip very low — you can adjust your meal plan, snacks, and activity level. Testing also helps your doctor determine if medication can help you or if your current prescription needs to be changed.”
There are two main ways to test your blood sugar. You can prick your finger and test a drop of blood on an electronic device called a blood glucose meter. Another newer option called continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) uses a tiny sensor, which is placed under the skin, to track your levels constantly throughout the day.
Helpful times to check blood sugar include upon waking, at bedtime, before meals and two hours after eating. Frequency and timing of testing should be determined based on the individual case and provider evaluation.
“If you only check twice a day, rotate so you test after a different meal each day. Sometimes your doctor will advise getting a fasting blood sugar level in the morning and at bedtime,” she adds.
The goal for anyone with diabetes is to maintain a target blood sugar level, Ms. Killeen explains. Someone who does not have diabetes typically has a blood sugar below 100 mg/dL when fasting and less than 120 mg/dL two hours after eating. An individual with diabetes should aim for between 80 and 130 mg/dL if they are fasting, less than 160 mg/dL two hours after mealtime, and around 110 to 150 mg/dL at bedtime.
Diabetes can lead to serious complications when it is left unchecked. “Over time, high blood sugar levels can lead to problems throughout your body, including kidney, heart, and nerve damage. It can affect your vision and feet as well,” says Ms. Killeen.
Sometimes your blood sugar will be either too high or too low. If you have diabetes, it is important to understand why this happens so you can make adjustments that get your levels in a healthy range. If your readings are frequently abnormal, contact your doctor. It is possible your medication may need to be adjusted.
High blood sugar can result from overeating, having too many carbohydrates during a meal, missing doses of medication, or even stress. Remember to wait at least two hours after you eat to test your blood sugar.
Tip to Lower Your Blood Sugar: “Drinking water and taking a walk can help bring your levels closer to target,” says Ms. Killeen. “If your blood sugar is higher than your target range, it is important to troubleshoot what happened beforehand that may have caused it to be high. Did you forget your medication or eat large portions?”
Low blood sugar levels can result from taking too much of your diabetes medication, skipping a meal, or not eating enough carbohydrates. Extra activity can also cause your blood sugar to drop. Test your levels before you exercise or go for that daily walk. Eat a small, healthy snack if your blood sugar is not over 100 mg/dL.
Tip to Raise Your Blood Sugar: “If your blood sugar is below 70 mg/dL, take 15 grams of a quick-acting carbohydrate, such as four ounces of juice or glucose tablets. Then re-check in 15 minutes to make sure your level is above 70 mg/dL,” says Ms. Killeen.
The highs and lows of blood sugar can be controlled. Individuals with diabetes who use a combination of daily exercise, a diabetes meal plan, and medication usually receive the best results. Here is Ms. Killeen’s advice to help keep your levels in check.
- Regular testing. Monitor your glucose levels according to your provider's recommendations. Make adjustments when you see that the levels are not in the target ranges.
- Stay fit. Reach and maintain a healthy body weight. This will help keep your diabetes controlled.
- Schedule your meals. Keep breakfast, lunch, and dinner at consistent times each day. Regular mealtimes will avoid dips or spikes in blood sugar.
- Eat right. Healthy meals include a variety of nutritious foods such as veggies, fruits, lean and plant-based proteins, and whole grains. The diabetes plate method is an easy guide to follow.
- Portion carbs. Choose high-fiber grains such as bean-based or whole grain pastas, brown rice, and whole grain breads. And limit portions to prevent large swings in your blood sugar.
- Get moving. Physical activity helps lower your levels and shed extra pounds. Try walking for 30 minutes every day.
- Use medication. Remember to take the right dose of your prescriptions at the right time each day. Ask your doctor how long you should wait to eat after each dose.
- Reduce stress. Make time each day for relaxation activities such as yoga, journaling, or meditation. Incorporate coping strategies if you feel anxious. Apps like Calm or Breethe will guide you through breathing exercises or meditation.
The Diabetes Educators at Summit Health help patients and their family members learn how to manage their condition. Ms. Killeen and her colleagues teach individuals with diabetes of all ages how to control their blood sugar levels through proper diet, exercise, and medication. They offer guidance on weight loss, self-glucose monitoring, medication management, and ways to prevent complications. Together, you can achieve your goals and lead a healthy life with diabetes.