Many health conditions are multifactorial, meaning that there’s usually more than one cause, and diabetes is no exception.
Most people with type 2 diabetes know how important regulating their carbohydrate intake and getting enough exercise is for managing their diabetes. Recent research has found that other lifestyle modifications can also have a positive influence on blood glucose levels. These modifications involve:
- Exercise intensity
- Exercise timing
- Cold exposure
- Gut bacteria
What’s more, the impacts of these lifestyle hacks are not limited to glucose control. They will benefit many aspects of your life. If you are curious, read on. You will discover how you can incorporate them into your daily routine.
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Exercise intensity: Work a little harder, sometimes
You hopefully have a regular exercise routine. If you don’t, you may have the same reason as most non-exercisers: lack of time. But recent research shows that you can get a lot of benefits from short training sessions. The secret? Work a little harder, in intervals.
In studies, increasing the intensity of exercise has resulted in similar or better metabolic improvements than longer, less-intense routines for people with type 2 diabetes, all in a fraction of the time. Part of the reason is that higher intensities use more muscle fibers, which in turn use more glucose.
In fact, your muscles are responsible for clearing the majority of the glucose from your blood. To make them more sensitive to insulin, you just need to reduce their glucose stores. Because higher-intensity exercise requires more muscle fibers to be used, this reduces the glucose stores in more fibers.
A review article published in 2015 reported that interval walking (alternating intervals of fast- and slow-paced walking) better improves glycemic control in people with type 2 diabetes than consistently paced walking that uses a similar amount of energy. This indicates that how many calories you burn matters less than how you burn them. If more of those calories come from glucose, it will have a bigger effect on blood glucose control.
How to up your intensity
Evidence shows that interval training is generally safe and has metabolic benefits for those with type 2 diabetes. After getting the go-ahead from your doctor, it is important to progress gradually and ease into higher-intensity intervals. As you get better, you can go a little harder. Just give your body a chance to adapt. If you exercise a few times a week, only try higher-intensity intervals twice a week to start. It’s not necessary to incorporate them into every exercise session.
The intensity of your intervals will depend on your level of fitness and tolerance. If you are a beginner, walking faster for 30 to 60 seconds during a stroll may be a good place to start. This is equivalent to what fitness expert Covert Bailey called wind sprints: small modifications in intensity that will challenge your wind.
One word of caution: Before your exercise session, check your blood glucose. If it is over 240 mg/dl, check your urine for ketones. If you have ketones, do not exercise, as this could make your glucose go even higher.
Exercise timing: When you exercise
Now that we have established that it matters how hard you exercise, the question is: Does it matter when you exercise to improve your glucose control and/or insulin sensitivity?
Studies have shown that the peak in blood glucose happens around 90 minutes after the start of a meal. Making storage space for glucose in your muscles by being physically active is the best way to reduce that peak, and exercising within 30 minutes of a meal is the best way to maximize the effects of your training session. That goes for any type of exercise. Also, it has been reported that exercising after meals is more effective than exercising once a day for blood glucose control in people with type 2 diabetes.
How to time exercise
Glucose from a meal starts to trickle into your blood roughly 15 minutes after you start to eat. Exercise will open up space in your muscle fibers, making them more responsive to the effects of insulin. If you can change the timing of your exercise sessions, give it a try. Here’s my rule of thumb: Try to exercise 30 minutes before or after a meal. If your preference is shorter, higher-intensity workouts, I would suggest you exercise before your meal. High-intensity activities after eating may disturb your digestion. But there’s nothing wrong with a brisk walk after a meal.
Sleep on it
Researchers are learning more about the effects of not getting enough restful sleep. And that’s a good thing: Sleep is one aspect of wellness that doesn’t get its fair share of attention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) call insufficient sleep a public health epidemic. Experts generally recommend that healthy adults sleep seven to nine hours a night, but about 35% of Americans report typically sleeping less than seven.
Sleep deprivation has been linked to a variety of metabolic dysfunctions, including reduced insulin sensitivity. Even one night of four hours sleep can decrease insulin sensitivity. Six nights at this rate will drop your insulin sensitivity by 24%. And don’t think that you can compensate for it on the weekend: Running a sleep deficit during the week and sleeping in on the weekend will not readjust your insulin sensitivity.
Do you find it hard to resist your cravings? Your willpower may not be to blame. Sleep deprivation will also disturb certain appetite hormones, which will make you hungrier. How’s that for a double whammy?
How to get more sleep
When it comes to the influence of sleep on blood glucose control, recent evidence suggests that lifestyle modifications are better than relying on medication in order to regulate appetite and glucose metabolism. Get into a sleep routine: Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Also be aware that light sends the message that is it time to get up. Dim the lights and stay away from screens at least 30 minutes before bed, and use light-blocking shades to make your room as dark as possible so you don’t get woken early by the sunrise.
Here’s an extra trick — you can boost melatonin naturally by practicing deep breathing. Researchers reported a reduction in stress hormones and an increase in melatonin from deep diaphragmatic breathing. Doing this before bed will help improve the quality of your sleep.
Try this: Lie down on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, below the ribs. Take a deep breath and make the hand on your belly move up. The one on your chest should stay stable. Take 3 to 4 seconds to breathe in and 6 to 8 seconds to breathe out. You want to feel your lower ribs expand. That rib expansion is from the contraction of your diaphragm. Practice this until it becomes a smooth flow in and out.
Cold exposure: Turn on your furnace
Your body always aims for a state of homeostasis, or balance. That includes maintaining a certain body temperature. When the environmental temperature drops, your body has mechanisms in place to maintain its own temperature. One of those is activating a type of fat that is known as brown adipose tissue (BAT). This tissue is like a mini furnace, using energy to create heat. In people who are used to living in temperature-controlled environments, it gets activated less, just like an unused muscle.
Research shows that by exposing your body to a colder environment, you will get BAT to take up glucose and fatty acids to crank up the heat. A review article published in 2016 concluded that mild cold exposure is a good strategy for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes.
How to master cold exposure
One word of caution: Cold exposure is like exercise for your blood vessels. It makes them contract. Check with your doctor before trying this, particularly if you have a heart condition. Also, if you are a beginner, don’t push too hard. Your body is adaptable, but it needs time to make adaptations, so go at it easily.
If you live in a part of the world that gets cold winters, you can drop the thermostat a few degrees. You can also slowly get used to taking a shower with colder water. Start your shower as usual. After washing yourself, gradually lower the temperature of the water. Get used to colder water every week, just for one to two minutes. You will eventually “train” your BAT to become more active.
Gut bacteria: Trust your gut
This is fairly new knowledge, and we don’t know all the details, but the evidence is too strong to ignore. The gut is often referred to as the second brain. Its nervous system is very complex, and it secretes certain substances that have influences on other body tissues. The data in humans is still scarce, but an article published in 2019 reported that certain bacteria that populate your gut can influence insulin resistance.
In fact, the link between the two appeared very strong, and it was shown that people with type 2 diabetes have a lower count of certain gut bacteria. Is this just a link, or does one cause the other? That remains to be determined.
How to adjust your gut
Fortunately, there’s no need to wait for the answer. A healthy gut is important to your overall health. It has been shown that certain pesticides can reduce your good gut bacteria, and the use of antibiotics can ravage your intestinal flora. To rebuild it, eating foods rich in prebiotics (food for your gut’s healthy bacteria) — such as onions, garlic and leeks — and probiotics (health-promoting bacteria and yeasts) — such as yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut — can be helpful.
Also be sure to eat a variety of fresh foods, favor high-fiber vegetables and fruits, and eat organic when you can. And as much as possible, stay away from processed products. (Does this advice sound familiar? Healthy eating habits have many benefits.)
Take the first step
As Albert Einstein wisely said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” That applies to your social circle, your family life, your financial position, and your health. If you want to see a change, you need to change your habits.
In most cases, lifestyle modifications work well. They are not always easy because they involve changes to the way you live, and they tend to not work as quickly as medications. But they are always the right thing to do. Give your body what it needs, and you will see results.
Want to learn more about blood glucose management? See our “Blood Sugar Chart,” then read “Blood Sugar Monitoring: When to Check and Why” and “Strike the Spike II: How to Manage High Blood Glucose After Meals.”