Home / Resources / Featured Writers / What You Can Do to Stop the Blood Sugar Rollercoaster

What You Can Do to Stop the Blood Sugar Rollercoaster

Feb 22, 2012

Author: Sheri R. Colberg, PhD, FACSM

If you find that your blood sugars often fluctuate from too high to too low (and vice versa), you’re on the blood sugar rollercoaster. To learn how to eliminate the extremes, you’ll have to do a little sleuthing on your own. Get out your blood glucose meter, and for a week try testing before and after a variety of meals, activities, and destressors to figure out what’s making it go up and down to stop it for good!

Your blood sugars are affected by a large number of things, including what you ate (especially refined “white” carbohydrates), how long ago you ate, your starting blood glucose level, physical activity, mental stress, illness, sleep patterns, and more. If you take insulin and use it to treat highs, you can easily end up overcompensating and developing low blood sugars. If you develop a low, it’s easy to overeat and end up high again. Large fluctuations in blood sugars may make you feel cruddy and are bad for your long-term health, so it’s time to learn how to stop the rollercoaster!


Physical Activity Effects:

During this week, your goal is to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity on three days at varying times of day, and check and record your blood glucose levels before and after the activity.

Physical Activity Trial #1: For this first activity, pick one that you normally do (like walking or cycling) and try to do it at your usual time of day. Check and record your blood sugar immediately before starting and within an hour of completing the 30 minutes of activity.

You will find that your body responds differently to varying types of physical activities, particularly when the time of day varies as well. If you exercise first thing in the morning (before breakfast and medications), it is not unusual to experience a modest increase in blood sugars, while the same bout of exercise later in the day may lower them.

Physical Activity Trial #2: This time, experiment with another time of day or another activity today to test the effect. Check and record your blood sugars before and after again.

Exercise can also be tricky because it can cause rapid fluctuations in blood sugars in some cases and help flatten out the extremes in others. The trick is to learn your body’s unique responses to any activities you do — at different times of day and under varying conditions — and you can only do that by using your blood glucose meter. The usual response to moderate aerobic activity is a reduction in blood sugar levels, but intense exercise can cause a temporary rise instead.

Physical Activity Trial #3: This final time, either do at least 30 minutes of a different physical activity or change up your exercise intensity to see how the effect on your blood sugar levels may vary. Measure and record your blood sugar before and after the activity.

Refined Carbs Effects:

When you developed diabetes, you may have been told that you can eat anything (within reason) and still manage your diabetes. While that is mostly true, you probably have not fully realized the profound effect that rapidly-absorbed carbohydrates have on your blood sugars. Anything refined (including foods or drinks made with white sugar, white flour, white rice, white potatoes, etc.) causes big spikes in your blood sugars and can contribute to the blood sugar rollercoaster. They are best avoided or eaten in very limited quantities. If you’re going to stop the rollercoaster, you have to take a closer look at what you’re eating and drinking that may have a significant impact on your blood sugars.

Refined Carb Trial #1: For starters, simply eat a carb-based food that you normally do (and know you probably shouldn’t) to test its effect, and measure and record your blood sugar responses an hour afterwards. If it causes your blood sugar to spike more than 100 mg/dl by an hour afterward, you probably should either eat less or it or replace it with something that does not cause such fluctuations.

Refined Carb Trial #2: On a second day, cut back on your refined carbohydrate intake at a meal and substitute in a food higher in healthy proteins (like replacing some white rice with baked chicken breast). Measure and record your blood sugar before and 1-2 hours afterwards to see if the substitution had a positive effect.

Refined Carb Trial #3: This time, at least one time that you eat some carbs (even if they are not that refined) for a meal or snack, try cutting back a little on the total carbs you eat and replacing them with more protein or fat (such as eating peanuts instead of pretzels) to see how that impacts your blood sugars. Sometimes, even too much of a healthy carb as a snack (like a large apple or whole grain bar) can send you on the blood sugar rollercoaster. Measure before and after to see the effect.

De-Stressing Effects:

Mental or physical stress can cause your body to release glucose-raising hormones like adrenaline. Being mentally stressed, angry, or upset also causes more cortisol to circulate in your blood stream, which makes your muscles insulin resistant. Physical stressors like illness or infection can cause similar rises in blood sugar. Try to learn the effect of stress on your body and ways to help lower the stress!

De-Stressing Trial #1: Try doing a de-stressing activity (like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or stretching) for 15 minutes. Anything with a calming effect helps reduce your body’s release of glucose-raising hormones and may help stop the rollercoaster. Check your blood sugar before you start and within one hour of finishing this activity.

De-Stressing Trial #2: For your second de-stressing activity, try a different one for 15 minutes to see if it has the same impact or a unique effect compared to the first. Whichever one lowers your blood sugars most successfully may be the one you want to do on a more regular basis (even if it’s just deep breathing). Measure and record your blood sugar before you start and an hour later to see its effects.

Overtreating Low Blood Sugars

One final note: If you have diabetes (and especially if you use insulin or certain oral medications), you are very likely to experience a low blood sugar reaction (hypoglycemia) on occasion. The trick to avoiding the blood sugar rollercoaster is to treat your lows effectively without overtreating them. Admittedly, it’s hard to control your eating when you’re low, so plan ahead and have set amounts of carbs (like glucose tablets or regular soda) that you use to treat it. Overtreating frequent lows, in addition to sending your blood sugars on a rebound high, can cause you to gain weight.

Reflections on the Blood Sugar Rollercoaster

On the last day of your week of rollercoaster reduction, take a minute or two to review your blood sugars responses to various foods, activities, and destressors over the week. While your responses to any given situation can vary from day to day, it’s good to have a general idea of what affects your blood sugars the most and how to get a handle on it. If you have cut out even one high or one low blood sugar this week with any of these changes, then you have succeeded!

Sign up for the Diabetes “Fit Brain, Fit Body!” fitness/lifestyle programs or for 5 free Healthy Living Reports at www.lifelongexercise.com, and access more articles and information at www.shericolberg.com. If you need tips for getting safely started on an exercise program, check out The 7 Step Diabetes Fitness Plan. For people with any type of diabetes who are already more active, consult the Diabetic Athlete’s Handbook.