When you have diabetes, perhaps the most important thing you need to know is the level of your blood glucose, also known as your blood sugar. Since many factors can raise or lower your blood glucose, you may have to check it several times a day. But once you obtain a blood glucose reading, what exactly does it mean?
Know Your Target
When you test a drop of your blood with a glucose meter, the big number that pops onto the screen refers to the number of milligrams (mg) of glucose per deciliter (dl) of your blood. So what numbers should you be looking for? That depends on a number of factors, including your age, how long you’ve had diabetes, and whether you have any related conditions like heart disease. Your doctor should advise you on what numbers are healthy for you. As a general guideline, the American Diabetes Association recommends a reading of 80–130 mg/dl before a meal and a reading of less than 180 mg/dl one to two hours after the beginning of a meal. Besides food, other factors that can cause your blood sugar to go up or down include exercise, illness, medications and stress.
Your blood glucose readings are hands-down the best way to monitor whether or not your diabetes is generally well managed. “They really help the physicians and educators if we’re trying to look at whether you need to have your medication, insulin or mealtime adjusted,” says certified diabetes educator Tabitha Palmer.
Don’t Let Blood Sugar Numbers Get to You
It’s normal to feel frustrated, puzzled, or even down in the dumps once you read the number on that screen. But remember, the reading is there to help you adjust your lifestyle, meals, medication, or insulin. It’s not a mark of failure if you don’t see the number you’re hoping for.
Get Lab Tests
About every three months you should get an A1C test. This laboratory test checks how much glucose has become “stuck” to your red blood cells over their three-month lifetime. It’s a way for you and your doctor to get a bigger-picture view of how your blood glucose levels are doing overall.
The A1C can be more helpful than averaging all of your blood glucose readings for the same period, says Palmer. “The average could look really healthy, but it could actually be taken from a combination of very, very high and very, very low readings.” The A1C will show evidence of those blood sugar spikes.
Deal with Blood Glucose Highs and Lows
What if your glucose readings are high? This can happen when your diabetes medicine is insufficient. It can also happen when you eat too much, don’t exercise enough, or are sick or stressed. You may not know your sugar is high. But since that’s what can cause health complications over time, the glucose reading is an important guide.
On the other hand, your glucose readings can be low if you’re taking more diabetes medicine than you need. They can also be low if you’re eating off-schedule or less than normal, or if you drink alcohol.
Your glucose readings are more likely to be low when your diabetes is well managed. Keep up the good work, but do treat low readings right away by having 10 to 15 grams of carbohydrate, like fruit juice or glucose tablets. Over time, you may be tempted to take fewer blood glucose readings. But remember, these readings are the only way to know for sure how your blood glucose is doing. “Your sugars can be high and you can feel just fine. And if you have repeated lows, over time you can lose sensitivity to them,” Palmer says. “So if there’s no testing, your sugars can be out of whack.”
Web exclusive June 2011 Best Health magazine