Blood sugar levels explained
The goal of diabetes treatment is to keep your blood sugar level (also called blood glucose level) in your bloodstream as close as possible to normal. The closer you get to reaching this, the better you will feel, especially in the long term. Your blood sugar level allows you and your doctor to know how well your diabetes is managed. In time, as you check your levels, you will get to know which foods increase your blood sugar levels and how your medication and exercise affect your levels day to day. Keeping a log of your symptoms, the food you have eaten, activity, and stress levels will help manage your blood sugar levels. This information is valuable as it lets you know what works for you and what changes you need to make.
What are normal blood sugar levels?
According to the American Diabetes Association, the normal blood sugar levels for a person without diabetes are:
- Fasting blood sugar – under 100mg/dL (in the morning before eating)
- 1 hour after eating 90-130mg/dL
- 2 hours after eating 90-110mg/dL
- 5 or more hours after eating 70-90mg/dL
Blood sugar level charts for people with diabetes
The American Diabetes Association suggests the following targets for most non-pregnant adults with diabetes:
|Type of patient (adult)||Fasting||A1c (measured over a 3-month period)||Oral glucose test (2 hour)|
|Prediabetes||100mg/dL - 125mg/dL||5.7%-6.4%||140mg-199mg/dL|
|Diabetes||126mg/dL or higher||6.5% or higher||200mg/dL|
Children, teens, and adolescents with diabetes should aim to keep within these ranges:
|Age||Fasting||Before meal||Before exercise||Bedtime||A1c (measured over 3-month period)|
|6-12 years old||8-180mg/dL||90-180mg/dL||at least 150mg/dL||100-180mg/dL||8.0%|
|13-19 years old||70-150mg/dL||90-130mg/dL||at least 150mg/dL||90-150mg/dL||7.5%|
The A1c (the glucose-hemoglobin part of the red blood cell) test looks at how good your blood glucose control has been over a period of 3 months. These values are a guide. Your doctor will provide you with a personal management plan.
Symptoms of low blood sugar levels
Low blood sugar is also as known as hypoglycemia. The brain works entirely on glucose for normal functioning. If levels drop too low, it starts to work less well and produces the following symptoms;
- Sweating, or cold and clammy
- Blurred vision
- Looking pale
- Irritable, upset, or angry
- Tingling lips
- Fast heart rate
These symptoms cause you to lose the ability to think clearly and you may appear as behaving oddly. The low blood sugar symptoms you get and how severe they are vary from person to person.
What causes low blood sugar?
Low blood sugar can be caused by many different reasons:
- Irregular eating habits – eating later than you expected or planned or skipping meals
- Drinking alcohol – alcohol can block your liver’s ability to release glucose
- Exercise – we hope you do exercise! Keep in mind exercise lowers blood sugar levels. Insulin dose or food intake adjustments are needed to match your physical activity
- Insulin and sulphonylureas – these medications carry a much higher risk of low blood sugar than all the others
What to do if your blood sugar gets too low
If your blood sugar level drops lower than 70 mg/dL, do one of the following; chew 4 glucose tablets, drink 4 ounces of fruit juice or regular soda (not diet), or chew 4 pieces of hard candy. Wait 15 minutes after taking one of these treatments. Measure your blood sugar again. Repeat the process until your blood sugar level reaches 70 mg/dL or above, then eat a snack if your next meal is 1 hour or more away.
You must remember that wherever you are, you always carry a readily available carbohydrate such as hard candy or a biscuit with you. This is most important if you are a driver or exercise regularly.
Symptoms of high blood sugar levels
High blood sugar is also known as hyperglycemia. Generally, there are two reasons for this happening. Either the body does not have enough insulin or it cannot use insulin properly. The following symptoms occur:
- Blurred vision
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination
- Weight loss
- Fruity smell to your breath
- Thrush and bladder infections
Frequent and prolonged high blood sugar levels can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis. As the name suggests, your blood becomes acidic due to the presence of ketones. The smell of acetone on the breath is one of the classic ways your doctor can make a diagnosis.
Symptoms of ketoacidosis:
- Extreme tiredness and drowsiness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid breathing
Diabetic ketoacidosis is a medical emergency that needs to be treated immediately.
What causes high blood sugar?
High blood sugar can happen for many different reasons, including being unwell, eating more than planned, not producing enough insulin in your body, unplanned physical activity, and stress.
What to do if your blood sugar gets too high?
Check your blood sugar level. Is it above 180mg/dL or your own individual target level? If the answer is yes, drink a large glass of water and take a brisk walk. Serious complications can happen if your blood levels are high e.g. more than 3 times in 2 weeks. Always inform your healthcare team of high sugar levels.
Monitoring your blood sugar levels
As a diabetic, monitoring your blood sugar level is unquestionably the best way to know what is going on inside you. Keeping your blood glucose under tight control undoubtedly reduces the chance of developing complications.
Individual blood glucose tests are great for knowing immediately how your diabetes is controlled. It is equally important to know how you are doing over weeks and months. The A1c test gives us this information as it looks at how good your blood glucose control has been over a period of 3 months. An A1c value of 7% is the general goal for diabetic adults but can differ depending on age and other factors. If treatment is working this A1c test should show improvement.
The A1c test is a great test for a diabetic woman who wants to get pregnant. You can find out if your blood glucose has been well controlled before conceiving. If it has not, you can wait until you have good control. In this way, you reduce the possibilities of complications with your baby.
When to check your blood sugar levels
Type 1 diabetes, adult: Check at least twice daily, up to 10 times a day. You should perform tests before breakfast, at fasting, before meals, sometimes 2 hours after meals, before and after physical activity, and at bedtime.
Type 1 diabetes, child: Check at least four times daily. You should perform tests before meals and at bedtime. Tests may also be required 1–2 hours after meals, before and after exercise, and overnight.
Type 2 diabetes, people using insulin or other management medications: The recommended frequency of testing varies depending on insulin dosage and the use of any additional medications.
Managing your blood sugar
- Improve your diet
- Increase exercise
- Keep a healthy weight
- Drink alcohol moderately
- Keep a logbook of blood sugar levels
- Take your diabetes medication regularly
- Becoming totally aware of your own symptoms for low/high blood glucose
Blood sugar levels FAQs
How to reduce blood sugar levels immediately?
If it is an emergency and you need to reduce blood sugar levels immediately, use insulin. An extra dose of insulin can be taken if you have either type 1 or type 2 diabetes. The amount depends on the situation and your doctor’s recommendation. It is important you know when to seek medical attention in an emergency.
What is the average blood sugar level?
The average blood sugar level differs based on age, how long you have had diabetes, medication taken and other medical illnesses you may have. The tables shown earlier in this blog give you an idea of the ideal levels, but your doctor will advise you on your ideal levels.
What medications can raise blood sugar levels?
Many prescription medications and some OTC (over-the-counter) medications raise blood sugar levels, but this does not mean they can not be taken if they are needed. You must work with your doctor on the correct way to use them. Some prescription medicines that increase blood sugar levels are steroids, birth control pills, statins, drugs that treat mental health issues, medication for acne, and high doses of asthma medicines. Some OTC medicines that increase blood sugar levels include decongestants and cough syrups.
Can stress cause high blood sugar levels in non-diabetics?
When you are stressed the hormone cortisol is released and blocks the effects of insulin in your body. This means sugar is not moved from the blood into the cells and can cause high blood sugar levels in non-diabetics. If cortisol is released too often or lasts too long it raises insulin levels and can result in insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
How to reduce blood sugar levels during pregnancy?
Maintaining blood glucose levels during pregnancy can be tricky. The goal is to keep blood glucose levels stable whether you have diabetes before pregnancy or have gestational diabetes as a result of pregnancy. You need to watch your blood sugar levels more closely during pregnancy because if your levels get too high they can affect your baby. If your levels get too low you will experience lightheadedness, confusion, and fainting. This is why it is so important for you to be in the best possible shape before you even try to conceive.
The five main ways to reduce your blood sugar levels during pregnancy are:
- Eat a healthy balanced diet
- Regular exercise (moderate)
- Keep your weight down
- Test your blood glucose levels regularly
- Take your medication
You also need to work more closely with your doctor during this time.