Diabetes management: How lifestyle, daily routine affect blood sugar

Diabetes management requires awareness. Know what makes your blood sugar level rise and fall — and how to control these day-to-day factors. By Mayo Clinic Staff

When it comes to diabetes management, blood sugar control is often the central theme. After all, keeping your blood sugar level within your target range can help you live a long and healthy life. But do you know what makes your blood sugar level rise and fall? The list is sometimes surprising.

Food

Healthy eating is a cornerstone of any diabetes management plan. But it's not just what you eat that affects your blood sugar level. How much you eat and when you eat matters, too.

What to do:

  • Keep to a schedule. Your blood sugar level is highest an hour or two after you eat, and then begins to fall. But this predictable pattern can work to your advantage. You can help lessen the amount of change in your blood sugar levels if you eat at the same time every day, eat several small meals a day or eat healthy snacks at regular times between meals.
  • Make every meal well-balanced. As much as possible, plan for every meal to have the right mix of starches, fruits and vegetables, proteins, and fats. It's especially important to eat about the same amount of carbohydrates at each meal and snack because they have a big effect on blood sugar levels. Talk to your doctor, nurse or dietitian about the best food choices and appropriate balance.
  • Eat the right amount of foods. Learn what portion size is appropriate for each type of food. Simplify your meal planning by writing down portions for the foods you eat often. Use measuring cups or a scale to ensure proper portion size.
  • Coordinate your meals and medication. Too little food in comparison to your diabetes medications — especially insulin — may result in dangerously low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Too much food may cause your blood sugar level to climb too high (hyperglycemia). Talk to your diabetes health care team about how to best coordinate meal and medication schedules.

Exercise

Physical activity is another important part of your diabetes management plan. When you exercise, your muscles use sugar (glucose) for energy. Regular physical activity also improves your body's response to insulin. These factors work together to lower your blood sugar level. The more strenuous your workout, the longer the effect lasts. But even light activities — such as housework, gardening or being on your feet for extended periods — can lower your blood sugar level.

What to do:

  • Talk to your doctor about an exercise plan. Ask your doctor about what type of exercise is appropriate for you. If you've been inactive for a long time, your doctor may want to check the condition of your heart and feet before advising you. He or she can recommend the right balance of aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise.
  • Keep an exercise schedule. Talk to your doctor about the best time of day for you to exercise so that your workout routine is coordinated with your meal and medication schedules.
  • Know your numbers. Talk to your doctor about what blood sugar levels are appropriate for you before you begin exercise.
  • Check your blood sugar level. Check your blood sugar level before, during and after exercise, especially if you take insulin or medications that lower blood sugar. Be aware of warning signs of low blood sugar, such as feeling shaky, weak, confused, lightheaded, irritable, anxious, tired or hungry.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water while exercising because dehydration can affect blood sugar levels.
  • Be prepared. Always have a small snack or glucose pill with you during exercise in case your blood sugar drops too low. Wear a medical identification bracelet when you're exercising.
  • Adjust your diabetes treatment plan as needed. If you take insulin, you may need to adjust your insulin dose before exercising or wait a few hours to exercise after injecting insulin. Your doctor can advise you on appropriate changes in your medication. You may need to adjust treatment if you've increased your exercise routine.

Medication

Insulin and other diabetes medications are designed to lower your blood sugar level when diet and exercise alone aren't sufficient for managing diabetes. But the effectiveness of these medications depends on the timing and size of the dose. And any medications you take for conditions other than diabetes can affect your blood sugar level, too.

What to do:

  • Store insulin properly. Insulin that's improperly stored or past its expiration date may not be effective.
  • Report problems to your doctor. If your diabetes medications cause your blood sugar level to drop too low, the dosage or timing may need to be adjusted.
  • Be cautious with new medications. If you're considering an over-the-counter medication or your doctor prescribes a new drug to treat another condition — such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol — ask your doctor or pharmacist if the medication may affect your blood sugar level. Sometimes an alternate medication may be recommended.
Jun. 21, 2011 See more In-depth