Every time you eat any type of carbohydrate — be it blueberries or a bagel — the starch breaks down into sugar as glucose, the type of sugar in your blood. In response, your body produces insulin, a hormone responsible for bringing this sugar into your cells, where it is used as energy.
For the 96 million people in the United States with prediabetes and an additional 37.3 million with type 2 diabetes, this system malfunctions, causing a buildup of glucose – sugar – in the blood. Ultimately, this excess sugar can damage your blood vessels and nerves and increase your risk of health complications, including heart and kidney disease.
If you already have prediabetes, managing your blood sugar is crucial to preventing or delaying type 2 diabetes. And if you have type 2 diabetes, lowering your blood sugar has the potential to reverse the condition enough to make the drugs useless.
Sure, your diet plays a role, but there are other ways to improve insulin sensitivity and support healthier blood sugar levels. Here are five top strategies to help lower your blood sugar.
Eat your breakfast – and eat it earlier
Skipping breakfast can make it harder to control your blood sugar. In research presented to the Endocrine Society in 2021, scientists looked at more than 10,500 participants’ eating windows — the time of day when food was consumed.
The researchers found that insulin resistance — when your body becomes less responsive to insulin — was higher in people who ate 10 hours or less a day. This is relevant for intermittent fasters who limit eating windows to less than 10 hours per day. However, even those who restricted their eating period were less likely to be insulin resistant when their first meal was before 8:30 a.m. And in the study, early eaters also had lower blood sugar.
Other recent research also supports the idea that eating breakfast can help control blood sugar. In a separate study, skipping breakfast worsened the insulin response after lunch and caused blood sugar levels to rise compared to when both breakfast and the same lunch were eaten. So try to eat a balanced breakfast like fruit with plain Greek yogurt and nuts or scrambled eggs with vegetables served with sliced avocado.
Have an early dinner
A small study in healthy people found that eating dinner earlier — at 6 p.m. — had a positive impact on blood sugar fluctuations throughout the night compared to eating dinner at 8 p.m. Although the study was small, its results were illuminating.
The people who took part followed two protocols – they ate early dinners on some days and late dinners on others. The meals consumed on each occasion contained the same proportion of protein, carbohydrates and fat. Since the composition of the meals was the same, it is likely that the differences in blood glucose levels were due to meal times.
Although an early dinner is beneficial, it is not always practical. You can make it more doable by meal prepping or having basic ingredients on hand – think simple proteins and versatile whole grains. If you’re still working from home, try eating dinner earlier on days when you have easier access to your kitchen.
Take a 2 minute walk
According to a review of seven studies, even just two minutes of walking after a meal can help lower blood sugar levels. That’s good news if you’ve ever wondered how to fit exercise into your busy life! Even a small amount of activity activates your muscles, allowing them to use some of the sugar in your blood for energy, reducing the impact of the meal you just ate on your blood sugar.
To get into the habit of moving after meals, try walking to the end of your driveway and back or down the hallway of your home or office. You can also try other forms of movement. For example, go up and down the stairs several times, do the dishes, or take a few minutes to stretch after meals and periodically throughout the day.
Of course, it’s still a good idea to aim for the CDC’s recommendation of 20-25 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity most days, as being more active helps improve insulin sensitivity. However, it’s good to know that you don’t always have to sweat or even exercise for very long to get certain benefits. Meanwhile, standing also helps, but not as much as movement.
When you’re stressed, like a fight with your partner or a tough week at work, your body releases cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can be beneficial as they help redistribute and conserve energy, giving you a boost to get you through a crisis. Unfortunately, one of the things that happens is by changing your insulin sensitivity. At the same time, more sugar is released from your liver, again, to provide energy.
While this hormonal balancing act is helpful during short-term crises, typical stressors tend to be more prolonged. This means that these biological responses can go out of whack for an extended period, leading to higher blood sugar levels. This is where yoga and meditation come in.
A 2022 review of 28 studies found that mindfulness-based practices led to better blood sugar control and improved blood sugar levels over the course of three months. In fact, the results were not far off the blood sugar improvements you would get with a typical blood sugar lowering drug. This doesn’t mean you should give up on your medications, but rather try to add these measures to your routine. You can find free mindfulness-based yoga and meditation practices on YouTube and many apps, many with free trials. If you’re new to exercise, see your doctor to get the green light to start.
Rethink your drinks
If you drink diet sodas or rely on zero-carb, zero-calorie sweetener packets to sweeten your drinks, you might want to reconsider. While it theoretically makes sense that these sweeteners could help you manage your blood sugar, research suggests otherwise. Evidence suggests that your body may mistake these non-carb sweeteners for sugar, so it releases insulin without the need to lower blood sugar. Over time, this pattern can lead to defective insulin receptors and a higher risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
If you are a soda drinker or regularly consume other sugary drinks, swapping them for other sugary drinks may be an appropriate short-term strategy. But a better long-term approach is to limit your intake of artificial sweeteners and choose naturally flavored coffee, tea, plain water, or seltzer water instead.
This article originally appeared on TODAY.com