Would you be shocked to learn that only 12% of Americans are metabolically healthy?(1) Or maybe you’re wondering what it means to be metabolically healthy? And why does it matter? Hint: It has to do with your blood sugar being in a healthy range. And shockingly 88% of American’s have blood sugar that is too high.
Over time, high blood sugar leads to insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and even Alzheimer’s, which is now being called Type 3 Diabetes due to its direct link to high blood sugar. Yikes, those conditions are definitely not metabolically healthy… don’t want to be getting any of those, right? Even scarier, recent research in the British Lancet has shown that 94% of all COVID-19 deaths worldwide included a co-morbidity factor of at least one metabolic disorder.(2) That means only 6% of everyone who has died from COVID-19 did not have an underlying metabolic condition.
Ok, so you may be thinking, “I eat healthy, not too much sugar, I’m sure I’m fine.”… but you still might not be out of the woods when it comes to being metabolically healthy. Many people don’t realize the root causes of high blood sugar can go well beyond diet. So what else causes high blood sugar?
Root Causes of High Blood Sugar
It’s true that eating foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates definitely contribute to high blood sugar, however, they aren’t the only causes. Living a stressful lifestyle(3), and being sedentary or not getting enough exercise, along with a host of other things can also cause high blood sugar and insulin resistance.(4)
What is Insulin Resistance?
If your blood sugar is too high over time, it can lead to insulin resistance. And if you have insulin resistance, you are no longer metabolically healthy. In super simplified terms, when your food has been digested, the glucose (sugar) from your diet is transported to your cells for energy. With insulin resistance, this process breaks down.
The Glucose Train
Think of a train car loaded with glucose. It stops at each cell along its route to deliver glucose to the cell for energy. And think of insulin as a “key” that accompanies the glucose. As the train stops at each cell, the insulin unlocks the cell receptors and allows the glucose into the cells. When the cells have received as much glucose as they need, they communicate “We’re full. NO more!” But when you have high blood sugar, the insulin keeps trying to push more glucose into the cells because the train car is full of glucose and it needs to be emptied, so it can go back to the station for more… because more sugar is coming down the hatch. And the pancreas keeps pumping out more insulin to accompany that glucose.
Insulin resistance usually occurs when people eat diets high in sugar. For example, drinking just one 12 oz. Coke has enough sugar to last you for 1.5 days! And if you’re drinking a Coke, it might be a Big Gulp (30 oz or 5+ days worth of sugar)! Plus, you’re probably also eating other processed foods that quickly convert to sugar like chips and fries, and maybe other sugar-laden foods like doughnuts, candy, cake, cookies, etc.
Sadly, your body just doesn’t know what to do with that much sugar. So when it can take no more, your body cries “Uncle”. Your cells change the locks on their receptors, and the insulin “key” no longer fits to open the receptors and let more glucose into the cells. The train can’t offload any more glucose + insulin to be used as energy. So it starts to store it as fat. It might even store some of it in the liver (leading to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease). When the glucose can no longer get into the cells, that is insulin resistance and it’s not metabolically healthy.
Sympathetic Nervous System Mode and Insulin Resistance.
As mentioned above, high blood sugar can also be caused by stress. Sometimes medications or other illnesses can also lead to high blood sugar. We are meant to live in a parasympathetic nervous system mode 95% of the time.(5) Instead, we “civilized” humans live in sympathetic mode (fight-or-flight mode) about 95% of the time.(6) With the stress of alarms, phone calls, texts, traffic, our boss yelling, our spouse or kids yelling, the dog barking, the tv blaring, and on and on, this leaves very little peace, quiet, and tranquility in our fast-paced lives today.
And when we live in chronic flight-or-fight mode, our body is on always on high-alert, ready to flee or fight. This includes pumping up our blood sugar internally so that we have enough energy to fight or flee. So even if you’re eating totally clean, green, and healthy, if you’re living a stressful life you can still have high blood sugar. And over time this high blood sugar can lead to insulin resistance, leaving you not very metabolically healthy.
How Exercise Can Help Lower Blood Sugar
According to the American Diabetes Association, exercise can help lower your blood sugar in a couple of ways.(7):
- Insulin sensitivity is increased, so your muscle cells are better able to use any available insulin to take up glucose during and after activity.
- When your muscles contract during activity, your cells are able to take up glucose and use it for energy whether insulin is available or not.
So it would seem like another great reason to exercise, even if you eat healthy. Especially since we all probably have a bit more stress going on in our lives these days than we care to admit! And speaking of exercise, here’s my new FAV 4-minute workout with Dr. Zach Bush. I’ve been doing it three times a day and I’ve really noticed an increase in my energy! I’m sure you can find 4 spare minutes a few times in your day too. Are you in?
So What’s a Healthy Range for Blood Sugar?
This is somewhat open to debate. As a Functional Medicine Health Coach, I use functional medicine reference ranges when looking at my client’s labs.
Here’s something shocking I learned when I started my functional medicine training. The standard allopathic reference range, or what your labs show as the “normal” reference range, isn’t necessarily “normal” or even ideal at all. Did you know the standard allopathic “reference range” used today is based on the AVERAGE of tens of thousands of labs? But if the majority of those people had abnormal numbers (since we know that only 12% have blood sugar in a healthy range, then 88% have higher than healthy blood sugar), that unhealthy level of blood sugar could actually appear as “normal”. It skews the average to make unhealthy levels look “normal”.
Functionnal Medicine Reference Ranges
That’s one of the reasons why functional medicine reference ranges are much more conservative than allopathic reference ranges. Functional medicine doctors and scientists have seen over time that we can actually catch “dis-ease” in the body much earlier by being more conservative with reference ranges, and not waiting until something is truly broken. So we look for trends when things start to get high instead of waiting until they are already high.
For functional medicine, the reference range for fasting glucose is between 78-82 mg/dL. Whereas for allopathic medicine, the reference range for fasting glucose is 100-125 mg/dL. At those numbers, functional medicine has found that you might already be starting to show some early signs of insulin resistance. But you need to take other markers into account like insulin and Hemoglobin A1C as well. All of them combined paint a bigger picture to show if you’re metabolically healthy or not. And remember any single blood lab results are just a snapshot of that moment in time.
As we’ve seen, stress can increase blood sugar. So on the day of your fasting blood labs, if you had to get up extra early and drive in horrid traffic to the lab, then wait for a long time before you’ve even had your morning coffee, you might be a tad stressed… and that in itself can mess with your lab numbers.
How Can We Become More Metabolically Healthy?
All this to say as many as 88% of us have high blood sugar, insulin resistance, or some form of metabolic diseases. However, the good news is that we can do a lot to become metabolically healthy again.
- eat healthier (think lots of veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, and fiber)
- ditch the sugar and simple carbs that quickly convert to sugar (save them for occasional treats instead of daily indulgences)
- find ways to unwind and de-stress, set limits for screen time, meditate, get out in nature
- exercise or move your body every day, check out the 4-minute workout with Dr. Zach Bush, anyone can find 4 minutes to be healthier
Still Need Help?
Book a complimentary call with me to learn how a Health Coach can help you make simple dietary and lifestyle changes to become more metabolically healthy. After all, 85-95% of pre-diabetes, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and even Alzheimer’s are preventable or reversible with some effort on your part and a health coach cheering you along.(8)