How Continuous Glucose Monitoring Can Improve Health and Longevity
Carbs are delicious, and most of us have a weakness for certain carbohydrate-based foods like potatoes, ice cream, and bread. Anything sweet or starchy is a carb, and the thing they all have in common is that they are broken down into sugar (glucose) that winds up in your blood, circulating around your body. Ideally, the amount of sugar in your blood is matched by your level of activity, which translates to your cells taking up that sugar and burning it for fuel. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were pretty good at this balance because they didn’t have much of a choice: foods were lower in sugar, even the fruits that they foraged, though honey was a prized (and rare) treat. They were pretty active as well, walking for large parts of the day.
Fast forward to today, and modern food hybridization and processing has brought us condensed sources of sugar in the form of sweeter fruits, candies, pastries, cereals, desserts, side dishes, and so on, which give us enormous amounts of fuel that we don’t burn while sitting at our desks. On top of that, some people process blood sugar more efficiently, while others may not produce enough insulin, or their cells stop responding to the insulin signal to open up and bring the sugar inside to burn, leaving individual responses to carb loads to vary widely among individuals.
Knowing how your food choices affect your blood sugar can have massive benefits, since chronically elevated blood sugar can have consequences like tissue inflammation, metabolic dysregulation, and damage to the endothelial lining of your blood vessels. And nobody wants that. We fight fear and aging with good data, and these days you can get good data about your blood sugar with a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). In years past, these wearable devices were reserved only for those who required constant glucose monitoring to avoid the most catastrophic of consequences. Today, more and more healthy people are sticking them on the backs of their arms to gain valuable insight into how their bodies react to their food choices (and other lifestyle factors) so they can make better decisions for their health and longevity going forward. Let’s get into it.
The Impact of Blood Sugar on Health and Longevity
Carbohydrates, whether simple (sugars) or complex (starches, like grains or potatoes), undergo metabolic conversions after we eat them. During digestion, enzymes break down these carbohydrates into their simplest form: glucose. The absorption of glucose into the bloodstream is the next step of carbohydrate metabolism and the immediate source of energy for cellular functions.
Under normal conditions, the body burns through glucose effectively. This process begins when the pancreas, in response to increased blood glucose, secretes insulin. Insulin, a peptide hormone, facilitates the uptake of glucose into cells, where it undergoes oxidative phosphorylation to produce ATP, the energy currency of the cell. This series of events ensures the body has sufficient energy to perform its many functions and maintain blood glucose within a healthy range.
The challenge arises with modern diets, often laden with processed foods high in refined sugars and starches. The rapid influx of glucose from these foods often outpaces the body's insulin response, leading to an elevation in blood glucose levels. While this isn’t something to be too concerned with if you have an occasional slice of birthday cake, it becomes more of a problem when you have the glucose-containing equivalent of birthday cake multiple times a day in the form of cereal, bagels, granola, rice, bread, chips, and ice cream. Constantly spiking blood glucose can imbalance your insulin response, and make cells resistant to the signal from insulin to burn more glucose, leading to a state called insulin resistance.
The potential negative impacts of chronic elevated glucose are manifold. Sustained high blood sugar can incite systemic inflammation, a pathological condition where the body's own cells can come under attack from an overactive immune response. Chronic blood sugar spikes can disrupt the body's metabolic balance, leading to an energy surplus which can be stored as fat, altering body composition over time. Lastly, persistently elevated blood glucose levels can inflict damage to the inner lining of blood vessels, also known as the endothelial lining. This damage can lead to the hardening and narrowing of the vessels, impairing their function, and potentially leading to long-term cardiovascular problems.
Considering these potential consequences, maintaining balanced blood glucose levels is an important aspect of health and longevity, particularly in older adults. As we age, our bodies become less efficient at managing sudden spikes in blood sugar, making us more susceptible to the negative impacts of chronic elevated blood sugar. It is important, therefore, to understand the role that blood sugar plays in our health, and take steps to maintain its balance in our bodies. This balance is attainable through informed dietary choices and physical activity, both of which can contribute to overall well-being and longevity.
Maintaining Balanced Blood Sugar
Managing blood glucose within a specific range, particularly avoiding spikes and persistent elevations, is one of the best ways to improve your health in the short and long term. Lower blood sugar levels, within physiological norms, can contribute to a more optimal state of health and promote the regenerative processes that allow for a longer life. Well-managed blood sugar can also help to regulate appetite, so if you typically experience that “hangry” feeling around 3pm, that irritable low energy feeling will fade quickly as you get your blood sugar under control.
Lower blood glucose levels are associated with better overall health. In terms of slowing aging, managed blood sugar helps to limit the extent of glycation, a process where excess glucose in the blood binds to proteins and lipids, leading to the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs have been linked to tissue damage, premature aging, and the onset of a variety of health complications due to their pro-inflammatory and oxidative stress-inducing properties. Nowhere is this more evident than in our skin: you can see the effects of AGEs through the loss of collagen, showing up as thin, wrinkled skin, as well as the darker spots on skin’s surface.
When you maintain lower blood sugar levels, it eases the burden of the hormone insulin, which manages the amount of circulating glucose. Insulin is like a key that opens the doors of our cells to let glucose in. However, when blood sugar levels remain consistently high, the body ends up producing more insulin to try and move that extra glucose into cells.
The pancreas is like a factory for insulin, and the workers in that factory are the beta cells. When the workers are constantly having to make more insulin, over time they may become exhausted. This can lead to a drop in production levels—in other words, the beta cells in the pancreas might start producing less insulin. At the same time, when cells in the body are constantly exposed to high levels of insulin due to persistently high blood sugar, they may start to respond less effectively to insulin. This is what is known as insulin resistance.
When considering long-term benefits, lower blood sugar levels contribute to reducing the risk of conditions associated with chronic inflammation and metabolic dysregulation. Elevated blood sugar levels can trigger inflammatory processes, compromise cellular function, and negatively affect various bodily systems, thereby promoting the onset of multiple health challenges over time. High blood sugar can impair heart health and cognition especially, so maintaining blood sugar control will help ensure that you have healthy heart and brain function into later life.
By avoiding chronic blood sugar elevation, you’re less likely to experience the harmful effects of inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which are common denominators in numerous health issues. This, in turn, enhances the integrity of bodily systems and supports their efficient function, leading to improved healthspan and potentially contributing to increased longevity.
Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs)
Continuous Glucose Monitors, abbreviated as CGMs, are remarkable inventions in biomedical technology. Initially, these devices were introduced for managing blood glucose in those with a predisposition to extreme blood sugar imbalances. This application was due to the necessity for patients to monitor their glucose levels closely, often multiple times per day, to adjust insulin dosages or food intake accordingly.
The use of CGMs was a substantial advancement from the traditional fingerstick method of glucose monitoring, offering more frequent measurements and the ability to track glucose trends in real-time. In addition, CGMs allowed for an unprecedented level of control over blood sugar, minimizing the risk of sudden, unpredictable glucose fluctuations.
A CGM operates by using a tiny sensor inserted under the skin (usually on the arm or abdomen) to measure glucose levels in the interstitial fluid—the fluid between cells. These readings are taken multiple times per hour for some models, and every few seconds for others, and are transmitted to a receiver or smartphone. CGMs thus provide a continuous stream of data, including current glucose levels, trends over time, and even predictive alerts about potentially dangerous highs or lows in blood sugar levels.
The detailed and timely information offered by CGMs provides valuable insights into how different factors such as diet, physical activity, stress, and sleep can influence blood glucose levels. This level of data granularity was previously unattainable and has opened new avenues for individuals to understand and manage their metabolic health, extending the utility of CGMs beyond just patients managing conditions to those interested in optimizing their overall health and longevity.
The Benefits of Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs)
One of the principal benefits of Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs) lies in their ability to deliver real-time, personalized information about your blood sugar responses to, well, basically everything. These include dietary intake, physical activity, sleep patterns, and stress levels, among other things like supplement use or time with your partner. Unlike isolated fasting blood glucose tests, which provide a snapshot of glucose levels at a single point in time, CGMs can track the ebb and flow of blood glucose throughout the day and night. This monitoring capacity enables users to observe patterns and fluctuations that would otherwise go unnoticed.
The data from CGMs can illuminate your response to certain foods, offering a detailed view of postprandial (after-meal) glucose responses. This information allows you to comprehend how your food choices directly influence blood glucose levels. Furthermore, by providing insights into how physical activity and sleep can affect blood glucose regulation, CGMs offer a broad view of metabolic health and provide opportunities to understand the intricate balance between various lifestyle elements.
The real-time feedback from CGMs provides a powerful tool for immediate course correction. If glucose levels rise beyond the desired range following a specific meal, for instance, you can adjust your food intake or increase physical activity to bring the levels back to normal. (Pro tip: just going for a walk or a light bike ride after a high-glucose meal can dramatically blunt a blood sugar spike.) Over time, these individual, personalized adjustments can significantly optimize metabolic health, enhancing overall health and longevity.
The use of CGMs is not restricted to those with diagnosed metabolic disorders any longer. Even if you’re generally healthy, the information provided by CGMs can offer valuable insights to fine-tune lifestyle choices. By helping you understand your unique metabolic patterns, CGMs can facilitate a more proactive and informed approach to health and well-being.
Using Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs) for Health and Longevity
Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs) enable users to adopt a more proactive approach to health by providing real-time insights into how different factors affect blood glucose levels. By capitalizing on this data, you can make nuanced adjustments to your lifestyle choices, leading to improvements in overall health, metabolic function, and, by extension, longevity.
One of the primary ways you can leverage CGM data is through the strategic modification of dietary choices. For instance, CGM data might reveal that a breakfast including a bagel and orange juice, both high in rapidly-absorbed carbohydrates, leads to a significant spike in blood glucose levels, followed by a subsequent crash. This rollercoaster of glucose can lead to transient energy dips and a persistent feeling of lethargy. Over time, such erratic glucose regulation can have adverse effects on metabolic health.
Armed with this information, you might choose to replace the bagel and orange juice with eggs and a low-sugar protein shake. Both modifications aim to decrease the intake of quickly absorbed carbohydrates, replacing them with options that have more protein, which has been shown to increase satiety, balance energy, and manage cravings through the rest of the day. The CGM would likely show less dramatic glucose spikes and dips with these choices, leading to more consistent energy levels throughout the day and potentially reducing the risk of metabolic dysregulation over time.
In terms of physical activity, CGMs can provide valuable insights into the interplay between exercise and glucose regulation. CGM data might reveal a decline in glucose levels during exercise, as muscles consume glucose for energy, followed by a period of improved glucose regulation in the post-exercise phase. By observing these trends, a user might choose to incorporate regular physical activity into their routine to help regulate their blood glucose levels and boost their metabolic health, especially on days where birthday cake makes an appearance.
In the larger context of health and longevity, these adjustments contribute to better metabolic regulation, which can have profound implications for healthspan. A smoother glucose curve, facilitated by thoughtful dietary modifications and consistent physical activity, can decrease the risk of chronic systemic inflammation and endothelial damage, both of which are linked to a number of age-associated health concerns.
Ultimately, the use of CGMs allows for a shift from a reactive to a proactive approach to health. Rather than waiting for noticeable symptoms or health challenges to manifest, CGMs provide a means to identify and address potential health concerns in their early stages, avoiding many of the conditions common in aging today. This proactive stance empowers you to actively shape your health trajectory, enhancing your potential for improved healthspan and longevity. As a tool, CGMs are not merely about monitoring health—they're about improving it, one personalized data point at a time.
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