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How Blood Sugar and Insulin Impact Your Hormones

You may have heard the terms blood sugar, blood sugar balance, insulin, or insulin resistance lately, but what do they even mean? These words are thrown around a lot, but today we’re diving into exactly what they are, and how they impact your hormones. Because yes, blood sugar and insulin issues lead straight to hormonal imbalances (who knew!?). And since it's estimated that about 88% of the US population is metabolically unhealthy, most of us could benefit from some help balancing our blood sugar. 

What are blood sugar and insulin? 

Any carbohydrates that you eat are broken down into glucose (aka sugar) in the bloodstream, which then transports that sugar to your cells. In order to get into the cells, where the glucose can be used for energy, the pancreas needs to release insulin. Think of insulin, a hormone, as the key that helps your cells open up to glucose so that it can be utilized. Insulin is crucial to making sure that there aren’t high levels of sugar in your blood on a continual basis; it seeks to maintain blood sugar balance and avoid prolonged highs and lows. 


But, when your blood sugar is chronically high, your body slowly becomes less sensitive to insulin. Over time, this means it will take more and more insulin to help get circulating glucose into your cells, which means prolonged high blood sugars. This leads to chronic conditions like diabetes, but elevated insulin also contributes to a host of hormonal imbalances. 


Carbs aren’t the only thing that raises blood sugar. Poor sleep, chronic stress, medications, and even acute illness can all cause elevated sugar levels. 

What are blood sugar and insulin? 

Any carbohydrates that you eat are broken down into glucose (aka sugar) in the bloodstream, which then transports that sugar to your cells. In order to get into the cells, where the glucose can be used for energy, the pancreas needs to release insulin. Think of insulin, a hormone, as the key that helps your cells open up to glucose so that it can be utilized. Insulin is crucial to making sure that there aren’t high levels of sugar in your blood on a continual basis; it seeks to maintain blood sugar balance and avoid prolonged highs and lows. 


But, when your blood sugar is chronically high, your body slowly becomes less sensitive to insulin. Over time, this means it will take more and more insulin to help get circulating glucose into your cells, which means prolonged high blood sugars. This leads to chronic conditions like diabetes, but elevated insulin also contributes to a host of hormonal imbalances. 


Carbs aren’t the only thing that raises blood sugar. Poor sleep, chronic stress, medications, and even acute illness can all cause elevated sugar levels. 




How do you know if your blood sugar is too high?

While insulin can only be measured using a blood test, blood sugar can be measured in your own home on a daily basis, and there are also certain symptoms that accompany imbalanced blood sugar. 


When it comes to fasting insulin results, ideally they are less than 10, and some functional medicine doctors even say that they should be less than 5. 


For measuring blood sugar, two of the best tools are a blood glucose meter or a continuous glucose meter (CGM). A blood glucose meter involves pricking your finger to get your blood sugar level in that moment, while the CGM involves inserting a sensor under the skin (it’s easy and almost entirely painless) that you wear for two weeks. The CGM produces a more full picture, since you can see what your blood sugar looks like for 24 hours a day during the time that you’re wearing it. 

Aside from blood tests or CGMs, there are some symptoms you can look for to assess whether you’re dealing with chronically elevated blood sugar/insulin. 


-Fatigue, particularly after meals

-Inconsistent energy 

-Regular, strong sugar cravings

-Feeling anxious in between meals

-Trouble losing weight

-Frequent hunger

-Issues falling (or staying!) asleep



By contrast, when your blood sugar is balanced, you’ll feel consistent energy throughout the day, minimal cravings, better sleep, energy in the mornings, a stable mood, and less PMS. 

How does insulin impact your hormones? 
By this point, you understand that elevated blood sugar means elevated insulin, which in turn has a big impact on your hormones, including cortisol, progesterone, testosterone, and sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). 

First, elevated insulin levels stress the body and cause a spike in cortisol (even low blood sugar causes this), and then this spike has a ripple effect on other hormones. 
Since progesterone and testosterone compete for the same receptor sites, high cortisol (which always wins the competition) causes low progesterone. This leads to symptoms like heavy periods, migraines, anxiety, acne, PMS, estrogen dominance, endometriosis, and more. Your ovaries also have insulin receptors, meaning that elevated insulin can cause the ovaries to produce more testosterone, which ultimately impacts or entirely stops ovulation and causes issues like PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) and irregular periods. Elevated insulin also lowers SHBG, which contributes to both high estrogen and testosterone, causing symptoms like tender breasts, heavy periods, and uterine fibroids. 




Tips for lowering insulin and blood sugar 
But don’t worry - all is not lost! While elevated insulin causes a lot of issues, there are a lot of things you can do to get it (and your blood sugar!) under control. 

  • Keep your plate balanced, with plenty of protein and healthy fat. Since protein and fat don’t cause the same blood sugar spike that carbs do, they’re something you want to always have on your plate (whether it’s a meal or a snack!). They also help to nourish your body, mind, and hormones. And while sugar isn’t forever off-limits, it is best to eat a lot less of it, especially if you suspect you have issues with high blood sugar. 
  • Get enough quality sleep, since poor sleep causes cortisol and blood sugar to rise. You may benefit from an adaptogenic supplement before bed, and it might be worth revisiting your bedtime routine to make sure that you’re choosing options that wind you down (like reading!) vs those that can interfere with sleep (like scrolling your phone). 
  • Manage your stress. Are you tired of hearing this one, yet? It’s the advice that accompanies almost any health issue, but it’s for good reason. Chronic stress causes blood sugar to increase. 
  • Strength training - not only is exercise, including strength training, great for your overall health and for your hormones, but it helps balance blood sugar, too. 
  • Certain supplements, like cinnamon and turmeric, may help decrease inflammation and balance blood sugar.