Five Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Blood Sugar

Diabetes management is a struggle for many people, and often wrought with frustration. Being a diabetes educator[1], I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say, “I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do, but my blood sugars are still too high/low.” Not being able to rein in your readings can leave you feeling powerless over your diabetes, and that’s not a good feeling to have. In many instances, the issue is your diabetes medicine. But in others, it could be due to some things in your day-to-day routine that you’re doing (or not doing) that wreak havoc with your blood sugar levels. You might unintentionally be actually sabotaging your efforts to improve your diabetes control. Here’s how.

1. Skimping on sleep

Living in a world that never sleeps, it’s all too easy to be on the go, whether it’s working at your job, going to school, or taking care of a family. The price you may be paying for all of this is a lack of shut-eye. Busy people jokingly say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” not realizing that not sleeping is a sure-fire way to poor health. Not getting enough sleep doesn’t help your diabetes any, either. Sleep-skimpers are more likely to have:

• A higher A1C level[2]
• A higher BMI (body-mass index)[3] due to weight gain
• A higher risk of heart disease[4]
• Sleep apnea[5]
• Restless legs syndrome

Uncontrolled blood sugars, in turn, can affect your sleep, causing you to wake up during the night to use the bathroom or to treat a low blood sugar. You may have neuropathy[6], which can cause pain in your feet or legs, and that can keep you up at night. Having diabetes also makes it more likely that you’ll develop sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome.

What you can do

First, do your best to get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep[7] every night. Think about what changes are needed in your schedule to make this happen. Then, set your room up for peaceful slumber — pull down the shades, lower the thermostat, and turn off electronic devices two hours before you go to sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, talk with your doctor about other changes you can make, and possibly getting a sleep study done.

2. Dubious dental hygiene

Periodontal (gum) disease is an often-overlooked complication of diabetes. Yet, it’s the most common form of dental disease among people with diabetes, and, left untreated, it can lead to worsening of diabetes control, tooth loss, and a higher risk of other diabetes complications[8], such as eye and kidney disease. Symptoms of periodontal disease include:

• Red or purplish gums
• Swollen, tender gums
• Bleeding gums
• Gums that have pulled away from the teeth
• Larger spaces between the teeth
• Loose teeth
• Bad breath
• A change in your bite

Other factors can raise the risk of periodontal disease, including smoking, substance abuse, hormonal changes, certain medications, and conditions such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis[9], and HIV/AIDS. Periodontal disease is treated in a number of ways, depending on the severity: deep cleaning (scaling and root planing), medication, and even surgery may be used.

What you can do

Take the time to practice good oral hygiene[10] – this will go a long way in preventing problems down the road. Brush your teeth at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush (keep a toothbrush and toothpaste at work, if necessary). If you wear dentures, clean them daily. Floss daily. Have dental checkups and cleanings at least twice a year. And don’t smoke.

3. Cruising on caffeine

For many people, caffeine is a must-have to jump start the day. Others rely on coffee, tea, colas, and caffeinated energy drinks throughout the day (and night) to keep them alert and awake. While studies show that coffee and caffeine may actually help to lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes[11], overdoing the caffeine can lead to:

• Insomnia
• Rapid heartbeat
• Nervousness
• Anxiety
• Stomachaches
• Headache
• Diarrhea

As if these symptoms weren’t enough, too much caffeine has been linked with insulin resistance[12] and higher blood sugars, although for some people, blood sugars may level off over time.

What you can do

If you’re having a hard time pinpointing the cause of high blood sugars, try cutting back on caffeine and see if that makes a difference. Also, if sleep is something that eludes you, ease off on the coffee or diet cola, especially later in the day or in the evening. Don’t go cold turkey, however, as that may bring on headaches and fatigue. Start swapping some of your caffeinated drinks for decaf versions. And a cup of chamomile tea at bedtime may help you feel calm and sleep better, too.

4. Smoking like a chimney

Most people probably agree that smoking isn’t a healthy habit. Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 17 percent of U.S. adults smoke. Thankfully, that’s down from about 21 percent in 2005. Why do people smoke? Nicotine is an addictive drug that, initially, gives you a buzz of pleasure and energy. Over time, you build up a tolerance to nicotine that leads you to smoke more and more. But, smoking is bad news, all around. Besides being a major contributor to lung cancer, heart disease and stroke, smoking can:

• Raise blood sugars
• Increase the risk of getting pneumonia
• Contribute to diabetic retinopathy[13], cataracts, and glaucoma
• Increase the risk of kidney disease
• Affect blood flow in the legs and feet, raising the risk of infections, ulcers, and amputation

Smokers are also 30 to 40 percent more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than nonsmokers.

What you can do

If you smoke, stopping[14] is a number one priority. Not only will your blood sugars (and your health) improve, you’ll feel better, look better…and smell better, too. Talk with your doctor about options for helping you quit.

5. Filling up on fatty foods

Fat’s bad rap has eased up over the years. Gone (thankfully) are the days of having to eat fat-free foods. While some fat is necessary for overall health, the motto of “everything in moderation” is still important to keep in mind. And when it comes to managing diabetes, keeping an eye on your saturated fat intake is a wise step to take. Saturated fat, found in red meat, whole-milk dairy foods, and many processed foods, can increase insulin resistance, and may possibly impair insulin secretion. End result? Higher blood sugars.

What you can do

Focus on choosing plant-based, heart-healthy fats whenever possible, including olive, peanut, and canola oils; avocado; nuts; and seeds. Try to avoid foods that contain trans fats, as well, which can spell trouble for your heart health. Look for “0 grams” of trans fat on Nutrition Facts labels.

Want to learn more about managing blood sugar? Read “What Is a Normal Blood Sugar Level?”[15] and “Managing Your Blood Glucose Ups and Downs,”[16] then see our blood sugar chart[17].

  1. diabetes educator:
  2. A1C level:
  3. BMI (body-mass index):
  4. heart disease:
  5. Sleep apnea:
  6. neuropathy:
  7. get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep:
  8. diabetes complications:
  9. rheumatoid arthritis:
  10. good oral hygiene:
  11. lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes:
  12. insulin resistance:
  13. diabetic retinopathy:
  14. smoke, stopping:
  15. “What Is a Normal Blood Sugar Level?”:
  16. “Managing Your Blood Glucose Ups and Downs,”:
  17. blood sugar chart:

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

Disclaimer of Medical Advice: Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information, which comes from qualified medical writers, does not constitute medical advice or recommendation of any kind, and you should not rely on any information contained in such posts or comments to replace consultations with your qualified health care professionals to meet your individual needs.