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Diabetes: 5 Habits that Increase Your Risk

A white bowl filled with sugar with a spoon inside sitting next to a glucose monitor. Monitor reads 84.

Environmental factors play the biggest role in our risk for developing diabetes. Here are 5 habits we can target to reduce our risk.

#1 – Skipping Breakfast

When we sleep, our body uses 3 resources to sustain our blood sugars.

Liver Glycogen Stores

The liver stores strings of sugar in the form of glycogen. In between meals/snacks and while we sleep, the liver breaks down glycogen into sugar. This then gets released into the bloodstream to ensure our body has enough and easy access to the energy it needs to function, even while sleeping! Yes, even while it’s sleeping.

Fat Released from Fat Stores

The next resource the body taps into is our fat stores. The body releases adrenaline, which promotes the breakdown of our fat stores into free fatty acids (FFAs) and a compound called glycerol. Glycerol gets converted to sugar in the liver and then released back into the bloodstream to sustain blood sugar levels. The rest of the FFA are directly used to make energy.

Protein From Protein Stores, Organs, and Muscle Tissue

After adrenaline comes cortisol, another stress hormone. Cortisol breaks down protein stores, muscle, and organ tissues. This protein then get converted to sugar in the liver and released back into the bloodstream to sustain blood sugar levels.

Breakfast Takes Over the Job of Stress Hormones

Your stress hormone levels are high when you first wake up. They continue to stay high if you don’t eat breakfast. The ultimate purpose of the stress hormones is to sustain your blood sugar. Why? Because sugar is the energy you need to do everything. It needs to be easily accessible to all cells. That’s why the body fights hard to keep a certain level of sugar in the blood.

Eating a balanced, healthy breakfast can decrease our reliance on stress hormones to sustain blood sugar and further help reduce our risk for chronic diseases.

We also replenish depleted glycogen stores by starting the day off by nourishing ourselves. This helps our body sustain itself until our next meal, without using stress hormones.

Skipping breakfast on a regular basis means relying on stress hormones to sustain you until the next meal. This leads to a chronically stressed body. Which leads us to the next habit that increases our risk for pre-diabetes or diabetes: poor stress management.  

#2 – Poor Stress Management

If you often feel chaotic and out of control, it might be time to have a heart-to-heart with yourself!

Stress increases your risk for diabetes, heart attacks and heart disease, obesity, and other chronic diseases.

When we hear the word “stress” – we often think about work, relationships, finances, or health. It’s important to understand that it doesn’t matter what the external source of stress is. The body deals with it in the same way on a physical level.


Any form of stress increases the demands on our body for resources. This resource is essentially sugar. When we encounter a situation at work that makes us mentally stressed – our body responds by releasing stress hormones. This then leads to an increase in blood sugar (mechanisms discussed above).

Coping with Stress

When we don’t take actions to improve our ability to cope with stress, these stress hormones stay turned on for a long time. This leads to reduced insulin sensitivity and thus, increased risk for diabetes.

Individuals who are stressed generally don’t take good care of themselves. They may skip meals, make poor food choices, skip exercise, or use harmful methods of coping (alcohol, drugs, etc.)

There are many reasons why someone may not be able to cope with stress properly. Many people have experienced significant traumas that they have yet to process. Others lack self-esteem or confidence in themselves. Yet others are over-burdened as caretakers and sole breadwinners.

I could list many ways to help you get started on your stress management journey. But the first step is to come to the conclusion that you do, indeed, have control over your life. Once you have come to terms with this, then healing is possible.

Tips for Better Stress Management

  1. Seek out a therapist or social worker. Check out 5 Reasons Why You Should See a Therapist to get some insight on why anyone can benefit from working with a therapist.
  2. Carve out time for meditation, prayer, or quiet time combined with deep breathing. This takes your body out of fight-or-flight mode. This habit will also teach you how to breathe during stressful situations.
  3. Work on blood sugar regulation, which is key for stress resiliency. More on this below and in my previous blog post Why Blood Sugar Regulation is Key to Stress Resiliency.

#3 – Poor Blood Sugar Regulation  

Blood sugar regulation is a way of eating to support stable blood sugar. It helps avoid lows and highs throughout the day. It also means preventing your body from dipping into a stress response.

What Happens When You Eat

#1 Your digestive system breaks down the carbohydrates, protein, and fats in your food.

Large carbohydrates are broken into smaller components called glucose, fructose, and lactose. Protein becomes amino acids. Fats become fatty acids. These get absorbed into your bloodstream.

#2 Insulin helps your cells take up extra glucose from the blood.

Insulin, a hormone, is released from your pancreas to handle the glucose. Insulin knocks on the door of each of your cells to tell them, “hey there’s extra glucose in the blood, please take some.” Cells absorb the excess glucose. Your cells are heavily dependent on insulin to take up glucose.

What is Insulin Sensitivity?

Insulin sensitivity is essentially how well your cells can detect insulin knocking at the door. Insulin resistance occurs when our cells’ ability to hear the knock on the door  is lowered. If your cells cannot hear the knock, then they cannot open the door to let glucose in. This leaves excess glucose in the blood. This becomes problematic because the cells are not getting the sugar they need, which signals to the body that they need more sugar. In an effort to increase the amount of sugar available to cells, the body uses stress hormones. But this only raises blood sugar even more, since the problem is not a deficiency in glucose, but rather insulin resistance.

One of the best ways to prevent insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, or diabetes, is to regulate your blood sugar. This essentially means preventing highs and lows in blood sugar. Using diet to regulate blood sugars prevents your body from relying on a stress response to do this job. Blood sugar regulation is not just for individuals who are already diagnosed with pre-diabetes or diabetes. It should be one of the first, if not the first, tool to use for getting your health on track.

Balancing Meals & Snacks

The balance and consistency of your meals or snacks directly impacts your blood sugar.

If you consume a liquid, such as juice, milk, smoothie, shakes, or soda, the sugar in these forms will hit your bloodstream faster. This will increase your blood sugars very quickly and trigger high insulin production. Relying on solid foods, which are rich in fiber and take longer to breakdown will ensure steady influx of carbs into your bloodstream and steady release of insulin.

Balancing the protein, carbs, and fat in your meals/snacks also helps. Consuming carbs with a protein and fat slows down how quickly the carbs are absorbed into your bloodstream. This helps prevent high blood sugar.

The #1 habit on this list, breakfast, is also an important part of regulating blood sugar in addition to eating every 4-5 hours.

#4 – Too Little Movement

Exercise can help reduce your risk for pretty much any chronic disease. However, it’s important to remember that exercise is a form of acute stress–essentially a short or quick exposure to stress for the body. Acute stresses can help us get healthier and build resiliency. However, if we don’t support the exercises we’re doing with appropriate amounts of rest and nutrients, this acute stress can quickly become chronic stress. This is something we want to avoid. Too much or the wrong type of exercise can increase your risk for poor thyroid health.  

Why Does Exercise Reduce Risk for Diabetes?

The underlying mechanisms for this benefit are due to a glucose transporter called GLUT4. Imagine GLUT4 transporters as people who will open the door when insulin knocks. When we exercise, our cells increase the amount of GLUT4 transporters they produce. GLUT4 transporters can be insulin independent or dependent.

According to this review in the Journal of Sports Medicine, glucose uptake in muscle cells independent of insulin is increased for up to two hours after exercise. This means that exercise increases your cells’ ability to open the door and take in more glucose without insulin knocking. This can make significant differences for individuals who are already struggling with prediabetes/diabetes. It can also prevent insulin resistance in individuals who do not carry these diagnoses.

The same review also states that a single episode of exercise can increase insulin sensitivity for a minimum of 16 hours after exercising. The theory is that exercise also increases GLUT4 transporters that are stimulated by insulin.

Type of Exercise & How Much  

The type of exercise doesn’t matter as much, although I’m a bigger fan weight/strength training than cardio or aerobic exercises.

I find a “go big or go home” attitude towards exercise is common. However, it’s important to remember that habits take time to build and making smaller, incremental changes help us achieve bigger changes. The key is consistency and the goal is to do something rather than nothing.

Committing to 20-30 minutes daily is the best place to start. If incorporating exercise in your life is difficult, try some of these tips that might help you become more active:

  1. Cut down the time commitment to 10-15 minutes per session. This could mean 10 solid minutes of strength training + a 10-15 minute walk outdoors.
  1. Find an accountability partner. Someone who will check in to see if you’ve done your exercise for the day. Or even someone who might be able to exercise with you.
  1. Break down your big goal to smaller goals. For example, instead of “I want to be fit in 2019,” try “I want to commit to 20 minutes of exercise daily.”
  1. Track your progress. Create a weekly or monthly system on paper and check-off each day you accomplish your goal of movement. It makes a big difference when you physically see your commitment becoming a reality.
  1. Compete. With yourself. This is fun way to stay motivated – being able to lift more, do more squats, or use the next level of resistance bands is exciting! It’s proof of your increasing strength. Who doesn’t want to build endurance, feel stronger or be more flexible?  

#5 – Poor Sleep Hygiene

In the United States, the average person gets only about 6.8 hours of sleep, compared to about 9 hours a century ago. Forty-percent of our population gets 6 or less hours of sleep a night.

Changes in Metabolism, Insulin Resistance & Glucose Intolerance

Poor sleep quality and quantity are linked to reduced insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance and changes in metabolism. As a reminder, insulin sensitivity is how well your cells respond to insulin knocking. Glucose tolerance is how quickly your body is able to respond to extra glucose in the blood. This is usually tested by conducting a glucose tolerance test.

Essentially this means that poor sleep can lead to decreased ability of our cells to hear insulin knocking on the door and our body’s ability to clear extra glucose from the blood. Multiple and chronic episodes of sleep deprivation over time increase our risk for pre-diabetes or diabetes.

3 Tips for Better Sleep

#1 – Get daylight or sunlight exposure in the morning.

For at least 30 minutes to 1 hour. Getting outside and feeling the sun on your skin is ideal. But even visual exposure has benefits. Our body’s ability to sense when to be alert and when to sleep is directly influenced by our exposure to sunlight.

#2 – Reduce exposure to blue light after sunset.

Blue light is given off by electronics and energy-efficient bulbs. Blue wavelengths are fine to use during the day because they make us alert. However, too much exposure to it at night interrupts our body’s ability to unwind and get into sleep mode.

Consider using apps that block blue light on your computer (F.lux) and your phone (Twilight – Android users). For iPhone users, make your screen “warmer” under Night Shift (Settings → Display & Brightness). Other options are to avoid watching TV and using electronic devices at least 2-3 hours before bed.

#3 – Eat enough food and ditch the low-carb diet.

When we don’t eat enough food or are excluding a major macronutrient from our diet, we’re not giving our body the nutrients it needs to survive or thrive. Essentially, we are creating a starvation scenario, which means our bodies are stressed out. Getting good quality and enough sleep is all dependent on our ability to move out of stress and into rest mode.

Drop me a comment and let me know how you’re incorporating these habits in your daily schedule. I’d love to hear from you!

If you’re struggling with blood sugar regulation or poor sleep – schedule a FREE Discovery Call here. We will talk about what’s going with your health and how I can help. Talk to you soon!

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