19 surprising things that can spike your blood sugar besides food


by Baylor Scott & White Health

Jan 3, 2022

A lot of attention is given to a healthy diet—and for good reason—when you have diabetes or prediabetes. A few basic dietary principles, like the ones below, can make a big difference in managing blood sugar levels.

But it surprises many to hear it’s not just food that can increase your blood sugar levels. Each of our Texas seasons, in fact, brings non-food-related challenges to keeping blood sugars under control. Consequently, it can be useful to think about your diabetes self-care as seasonal.

Winter cold: Weatherproof your diabetes.

Did you know more people are reportedly diagnosed with diabetes during the months of December to February? Colder weather is also known to reduce blood flow through the body, increase blood sugar levels and even magnify risks of complications for people with diabetes. In particular:

1. Extreme cold. This applies to both your own body (especially hands and feet) as well as your diabetes supplies. Like extreme heat, extreme cold can adversely affect (even freeze) your insulin or other medications and cause your blood glucose monitor or insulin delivery devices to stop working properly. Not washing your hands in warm water and drying before testing can also produce incorrect blood sugar readings.

2. Direct exposure to inside heaters, fireplaces or electric blankets. One 10-year study of diabetes admissions at a US healthcare facility found that “the majority of lower extremity burns result from intentional exposure,” as it can be more difficult with diabetes to accurately assess how hot heat sources are, which can result in skin burns and, thus, higher blood sugars.

3. Winter viruses and colds. The CDC regularly points out that flu is much more dangerous for people with diabetes, making it harder to fight off infections or control blood sugar. It’s why an annual flu vaccine is on its list of recommended vaccines for people with diabetes. Even common colds add extra stress on the body, raising glucose levels from the extra hormones being produced by the body to fight the infection.

What can you do? Stay on top of your checkups, including an annual flu vaccine, to stay healthy during the winter months.

Spring allergies: Nip them in the bud.

Did you know that the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimates that some 50 million Americans suffer from allergies? While pollen, weeds, mold and grasses associated with this season do not directly affect blood sugar levels, various treatments and allergy-related triggers can.

4. Some eyedrops used to reduce itching and keep eyes moist and some nose sprays to clear breathing pathways can contain steroids that spike blood sugars.

5. Antihistamines for sneezing can lead to drowsiness or napping, then missing a meal or meal time, and waking to low blood sugars.

6. Smoking not only exacerbates allergy symptoms but also, on its own, blood sugar levels. Over time, the nicotine changes your body’s cells so that they no longer respond properly to insulin, further increasing blood sugar levels.

Summer sun: Beat the heat.

Did you know that the elderly population is 20-30% more prone to experience dehydration due to immobility? What common outdoor summer culprits should be on your watch list that could elevate blood sugars?

7. Dehydration. One study showed that adult men with type 2 diabetes going only three days with subpar water intake (17-34 ounces per day) had impaired glucose response.

8. Sunburn. Pain is a known stressor and stress, a known trigger for higher blood sugar levels. You’ll find this one on the CDC’s top 10 Surprising Things That Can Spike Your Blood Sugar list.

9. Blisters or infections from improper footwear for outside activity. Make sure your footwear wicks away moisture. People with diabetes are already at higher risk for foot problems, so when they happen, the body releases hormones to help fight the infection and at the same time causes blood sugar to uptick.

Check out these summertime blood sugar control tips to help combat summer stressors.

Autumn blues: Fall back, not down.

Whether from suddenly jam-packed schedules, approaching holidays or even changes in daylight, many say they experience what’s called autumn anxiety. As the name indicates, it’s that unsettling feeling that manifests as a somber mood or low energy more prevalent during fall months.

Did you know that people with diabetes are 2 to 3 times more likely to have clinical depression? Or that in any 18-month period, up to 50% of people with diabetes have diabetes distress, a different but equally debilitating emotional response to the responsibilities of living with diabetes and the daily self-care necessary to manage it?

When you’re under pressure, your body burns its stored energy sources like glucose and fat to combat what it sees as a health threat. When you have diabetes, insulin can’t get through the cells to break down this glucose, so your blood sugar levels head north. There’s also recent research showing a connection between the stress hormone cortisol and elevated blood sugar levels in those with type 2 diabetes. What this means is that it’s a good idea to monitor and reduce your stress.

Some of the most common stressors for people with diabetes include:

10. Lack of quality shut-eye. One University of Chicago sleep study found that the bodies of healthy adults asked to sleep just four hours a night (instead of the recommended eight hours) for six days broke down glucose on average 40% less after meals and, thus, had higher blood sugars for longer. A good night’s sleep is your diabetes secret weapon—here’s how.

11. Too little exercise. There’s a host of major studies showing improved mood and blood sugars with physical activity—and the reverse, higher blood sugars with extended non-activity. Get more activity in your day by sitting less and moving more.

12. Having no crisis plan or stress release strategy. Blood sugar-raising physical, as well as emotional, stress can come anytime and from anywhere: family conflict, workplace challenges or emergency situations like severe winter storms or other natural disasters. Make sure you put an emergency diabetes plan in place so you can have peace of mind.

For every blood sugar spike, there is a season or a reason.

As everyone with diabetes learns, it’s really a year-round condition. There are unique challenges to staying healthy that come with each season but also splendid opportunities to enjoy everything each season has to offer. It simply entails you stay on top of your blood sugars and be aware that, person-to-person, there are many other potential why’s for blood sugar highs that are not specifically tied to what foods you’re eating or when. This includes things like:

13. Certain medications to treat high blood pressure (beta-blockers), cholesterol or triglycerides for heart health (niacin or vitamin B3), depression (antidepressants), inflammation (corticosteroids) or infection (antibiotics).

14. Hormonal fluctuations from a woman’s menstruation cycle.

15. Dawn phenomenon, a commonly occurring, early-morning increase in blood sugar usually between 2 and 8 a.m. in people with diabetes.

16. Being or living at high altitude.

17. Skipping breakfast. If you do, data even point to a likelihood of significantly higher blood sugar levels after lunch.

18. Incorrect insulin regime. You’re not taking enough, it’s not lasting as long as you think, or it’s expired.

19. Gingivitis. It’s a two-way street: diabetes makes your saliva have more harmful sugars in it and be more prone to gum disease; gum disease, like any infection, worsens blood sugars.

One last blood sugar spike surprise: it’s not just for those with diabetes.

A recent study out of Stanford in which blood sugar levels were continuously monitored showed that even people without diabetes who think they’re healthy are spiking more than they know. Even if you don’t have diabetes, it can be helpful to know what causes blood sugar spikes so you can help prevent diabetes and recognize the signs quickly.

Next steps

Don’t keep guessing at what’s behind your blood sugar spikes. Be mindful of these potential blood sugar stressors so you can stay healthy all year long. Need help conquering your own blood sugar stressors? Find diabetes education and support near you.

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