Keeping your blood sugar at healthy levels for the long-term helps prevent or slow the progression of complications of diabetes. Diabetes management requires certain lifestyle changes, and in some cases, making those changes can reverse type 2 diabetes (or significantly control it) and enable you to go off your glucose-control medications.
Successful diabetes management involves making healthier choices in three major areas of your life: what you eat and drink, how much you exercise, and how much stress you have—and how you manage it. Keep in mind that many people with type 2 diabetes also have high blood pressure or high cholesterol—or both. The same lifestyle changes that can lower your blood sugar are the same ones that help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, too.
Here’s how each of those areas affects your blood sugar—and 15 tips on getting started making essential changes in those areas.
Eat a healthy, low-carb diet
If you have type 2 diabetes, you may have developed some unhealthy eating habits over the years. Eating the right food can help you lower your blood sugar, but changing your diet overnight isn’t easy—and once you start down the Google rabbit hole of the “best” diets for type 2 diabetes, you can get overwhelmed quickly by the sheer glut of information—including misinformation and contradictory information.
Eating well to help manage your blood sugar doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. If you’re just starting out making lifestyle changes to manage your diabetes, here are five simple, actionable tips that can help:
1. Ditch the sugary drinks and snacks
Regular soda, fruit juices, energy drinks, and sweetened coffee and tea beverages are packed with sugar and have very few nutrients—and the same goes for sweet snacks, like candy, cookies, and ice cream. Swap out sugary beverages for water or unsweetened tea. Add berries, cucumber, or citrus fruits to your water to add a little flavor. Choose healthy snacks, like nuts, seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables.
2. Eat mostly whole foods
Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, where you’ll find mostly whole foods—produce, meat, and dairy. The center aisles of the grocery store are where you’ll find most of the packaged foods that are high in carbs, sugar, salt, saturated fat, and calories. The less processed the food is, the healthier it is, so choose mostly foods that you can instantly recognize without having to read the ingredients label to determine what’s in it.
3. Use heart-healthy oils and fats
Cook with heart-healthy oils like olive or canola oil instead of shortening, butter, or margarine. Eat plenty of healthy fats, including nuts, seeds, and avocados.
4. Eat on a regular schedule
Eat at roughly the same time each day, and consume around the same number of carbs at each meal. Have a couple of balanced snacks each day if you’re hungry between meals.
5. Watch your portion sizes
Large portions can increase your blood sugar, even if the food is healthy. Standard portion sizes have grown over the years, and it’s not uncommon to order a 12-ounce steak at a restaurant—which is actually four servings. Here are some basic guidelines for determining how large one serving is:
- 3 ounces of meat or poultry: the palm of your hand or a deck of cards.
- 3 ounces of fish: your checkbook
- 1 ounce of cheese: a pair of dice
- One cup of raw, chopped fruits or vegetables: a baseball or a woman’s fist
- One-half cup of cooked grains: a tennis ball
- One-quarter cup of nuts: a golf ball
Exercising most days of the week helps lower your blood sugar in the short-term and the long-term. Physical activity can make your cells less resistant to insulin for up to 24 hours after a workout. After a few months of combined exercise and healthy dieting, don’t be surprised to see lower A1C numbers.
Daily exercise helps lower your blood sugar in a couple of ways. First, it increases insulin sensitivity, which means that the cells in your muscles are more likely to respond to insulin and take up glucose during and after exercise. Additionally, when you contract your muscles during strength training activities, the cells are able to take up glucose for energy—even if insulin isn’t available.
Exercise helps you lose or maintain your weight, manage your blood pressure, and lower your cholesterol. It’s foundational for a healthy heart, and it’s crucial for reducing your risk of diabetes complications like nerve damage and heart disease.
New to exercising? Here are five tips to get you started:
1. Start slow
A good starting goal for exercise if you have type 2 diabetes is to get active 30 minutes a day, five days a week, and do some sort of resistance training twice a week. Take it easy to start if you’ve been sedentary for a while. You can split your 30 minutes into two 15-minute sessions or three 10-minute sessions and get the same benefits as a solid half-hour workout, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
2. Know what counts
To get the most benefits from your exercise, work your way up to at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each day. When you’re exercising at moderate-intensity, you can hold a conversation without too much difficulty, but you can’t sing more than a few words without stopping for breath. Dancing, intense gardening, mowing the lawn, doing yoga, and taking the dogs for a walk all count, as long as it gets your heart rate up.
3. Move all day
Get extra movement throughout your day—it all counts! Park far from the door, bike to work or to the store, do sit-ups or squats during commercials, take a five-minute break every hour to walk around the block or stretch for a few minutes.
4. Set goals
Talk to your doctor before you start a new fitness routine, and discuss some fitness goals, based on your individual needs, limitations, and blood sugar targets. Make your goals realistic and specific, and put a date on them. Break them down into smaller goal posts, and whenever you reach a goal post or achieve a goal, reward yourself.
5. Use a fitness tracker
A wearable fitness tracker can help you stay motivated to exercise by showing you charts of your mileage, pace, heart rate, and progress—and awarding badges for reaching certain milestones. They monitor your heart rate and sometimes even your sleep.
Reduce your stress
Chronic, or long-term, stress has a well-studied, detrimental effect on your overall health. High levels of prolonged stress can increase your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels and put you at high risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Stress puts your brain into “fight or flight” mode. When you’re experiencing stress, the amygdala, or the part of the brain that governs fear, releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which increase your blood pressure, muscle tension, and heart rate in preparation for facing the challenge. Normally, when the danger is gone, the hormones dissipate. But with chronic stress, these hormone levels stay elevated in the blood, which can decrease the secretion of insulin and lead to high blood sugar levels.
Stress also affects blood sugar indirectly. Stress often leads to unhealthy behaviors like smoking, bingeing on food, or abusing drugs or alcohol—all of which contribute to high blood sugar, the underlying cause of diabetes.
Reducing your stress can help you quit unhealthy habits and lower your risk for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes complications. Here are five great ways to reduce your stress:
Meditation has been shown to not only help reduce stress while you’re meditating, but its effects transcend the actual practice of meditation. The Forward Guide to Meditation for Stress Management examines the scientific evidence for meditation and provides simple instructions for getting started.
2. Breathe deeply
Deep-breathing exercises help reduce stress by producing the “relaxation response,” which is the opposite of the body’s stress response. Breathing deeply increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which produces calming, feel-good hormones like GABA and serotonin. When you feel particularly stressed, or before you step into a stressful situation, try this six-second exercise:
- Close your eyes, and relax your eyes, mouth, and shoulders.
- Inhale slowly, and imagine hot air flowing through holes in the soles of your feet, moving up your legs, into your abdomen, and filling your lungs. Relax your muscles as the air passes.
- Exhale slowly, and visualize the hot air moving back down your body and out through your feet.
- Repeat as needed whenever you need to feel calm.
3. Keep a list, and check it daily
A lot of chronic stress comes from our perpetually busy lives and trying to keep track of all of the nuts and bolts that keep things together. If you feel overwhelmed by your mental to-do list—especially if you tend to “stress ignore” important tasks—write down your list on paper, in your notes app, or on a calendar. Cross the items off the list as you do them. Marking things off your to-do list feels great, inspires more action, and helps you reduce stress by staying on top of bills, doctor’s appointments, school schedules, and all of the other nitty gritty details that make life run smoothly.
4. Just say no
If you tend to agree to do things you don’t really have time for, learn to decline. Practice saying no in the mirror—prepare a script, and present it out loud to your reflection. When someone asks you to join a committee or participate in a program or take on extra responsibilities at work, you’ll have your “no” response ready to go—and the more you do it, the easier it will become. Remember: You don’t need to say “yes” for people to like you or your boss to respect you. Whatever you can do—whether it’s a lot or not much at all—is enough.
5. Talk to someone
Stress often co-occurs with anxiety or depression, or both. If you feel like your stress and negative emotions are too much to get a handle on by yourself, schedule a visit with a mental health professional. Counseling helps you sort through a variety of issues, learn how your thoughts influence your behaviors, and create strategies for reducing negative thoughts and reframing them through a more realistic and positive mindset.
What doesn’t work for lowering your blood sugar
Misinformation, misconceptions, and outright lies about type 2 diabetes abound, and recognizing these when you see them is essential for your safety and wellbeing. You may see advertisements or articles for a drink, pill, supplement, cleanse, tincture, essential oil, or other homeopathic remedy that purports to “cure” diabetes or lower your blood sugar without medication or lifestyle changes.
Don’t believe the hype! Although evidence shows that type 2 diabetes can be reversed, there is no cure for diabetes—and there is no single dietary supplement, over-the-counter medication, far-flung diet, alternative remedy, or homeopathic medicine that can reverse it.
However, some supplements and therapies may be beneficial as complementary treatments to help maximize your health, but since these may interfere with medications you’re taking or produce negative side effects, it’s important to run them by your doctor before you take them.
Take control of your type 2 diabetes with Forward
As your primary care provider, Forward approaches disease treatment, management, and prevention holistically, as a collaboration among you and your care team. Through a variety of programs, resources, and our intuitive app, Forward helps you take control of your health, from blood and genetic testing to personalized goal-setting and ongoing monitoring. Our services are open to all members—including our doctor-led Heart Health Program, which can help you manage your diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, and more to lower your risk of heart disease.