Diabetes is a disease that causes blood glucose to reach dangerously high levels. If a person does not control these levels, complications can develop. People with diabetes need to monitor their blood sugar levels carefully to avoid any spikes.

Glucose comes from food. It is a simple sugar that serves as the main source of energy for the body.

The pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin that makes cells more sensitive to glucose. The cells then draw glucose from the blood, reducing the impact of spikes in blood sugar.

In a person with diabetes, either the pancreas does not produce insulin or the cells develop a resistance to insulin. As a result, the glucose remains in the blood, keeping blood sugar levels consistently high.

Persistent high blood glucose levels can lead to complications of diabetes, including nerve damage, vision loss, kidney damage, kidney problems, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

In this article, we talk about what causes blood sugar spikes, how to prevent them, and their symptoms and complications.

People with diabetes have to be especially careful about keeping their blood sugar levels under control and avoiding spikes in blood sugar.

Several factors contribute to these spikes. For example:

Diet

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Blood sugar spikes might occur due to diet, smoking, or a lack of physical activity.

Foods high in sugar or carbohydrates are more likely to raise blood sugar levels.

One way to track how a particular food will affect blood glucose is by looking at its glycemic index (GI) ranking.

The GI ranking indicates the extent to which carbohydrates in a given food will affect blood sugar levels.

Foods with a high GI, or a ranking greater than 70, include bagels, popcorn, and crackers, for example. Low-GI foods, with a score under 55, include barley, bulgur, corn, and sweet potatoes.

A person with diabetes should try to have mainly low-GI carbohydrates in their diet.

A lack of physical activity

Having a sedentary lifestyle can cause spikes in blood sugar levels. On the other hand, exercise that is too difficult can lead to physical stress, which is also a trigger for blood sugar spikes.

People with diabetes need to get regular light-to-moderate exercise, as opposed to pushing too hard.

Smoking

Smoking cigarettes can make it difficult to keep blood sugar levels within a normal range.

A person who smokes should make it a priority to quit. Their doctor or local health service can provide resources.

Stress

When under a lot of stress, the body produces hormones, such as cortisol, that increase glucose and reduce the effectiveness of insulin.

As a result, more glucose stays in the bloodstream. Finding a way to keep stress levels down, such as yoga or meditation, is essential for people with diabetes.

Sleep problems

A lack of sleep can be especially bad for people with diabetes because it can also raise blood sugar levels.

Prioritizing quality sleep and good sleep hygiene are healthful for a range of reasons. For people with diabetes, a regular sleep schedule becomes an important factor in glycemic control.

Medication side effects

Some medicines can cause blood sugar levels to rise. These can include, for example, corticosteroids, diuretics, some blood pressure medications, and some antidepressants.

A person with diabetes must let their healthcare provider know if they are also taking one of these types of medications.

In addition, taking the wrong dose of insulin or missing a dose can also cause blood sugar levels to spike.

Diabetes management requires specific timings for anyone taking insulin or non-insulin medication. A range of pumps and smart pumps are available to provide continuous, timed doses of insulin. They can also monitor and respond to blood sugar spikes.

Some are automated, working like an artificial pancreas. Others provide doses of background insulin to regulate levels during fasting and sleep but require manual input around meal times.

People with any type of diabetes must regularly monitor and manage their blood glucose levels to prevent spikes.

Lifestyle

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Exercise can help bring down blood sugar.

In the early stages of type 2 diabetes, a person may be able to maintain stable blood sugar levels without needing medication.

Regular, light-to-moderate exercise uses up some of the excess blood glucose and brings down overall levels. Likewise, following a low-GI diet with strict portion sizes can help reduce the amount of incoming glucose and the accompanying risk of spikes.

People with type 1 diabetes need to take supplemental insulin on a lifelong basis.

Medication

Regular contact with a healthcare provider is important. The doctor should provide clear instructions about correct dosages, necessary changes to diet and physical activity, and self-monitoring methods. Following these instructions is essential for preventing blood sugar spikes.

If these spikes still occur, despite following a strict medication and diet regimen, a person must let their doctor know. The doctor will adjust their prescription.

Knowing when to call the doctor and when, if necessary, to seek emergency care are essential. Severe blood sugar spikes can lead to advanced health problems.

It may help to record blood sugar levels in a journal during each round of monitoring.

Look for patterns, such as blood sugar spikes occurring every morning. If this happens, it might be time to check with the doctor about adjusting the dosage of insulin. If blood sugar levels are high after meals, try going for a walk to reduce these levels through exercise.

Also, be sure to bring the journal to medical appointments. The doctor can review the results and recommend any necessary adjustments to the management plan.

Learn about the different medications for type 2 diabetes here.

Typically, hyperglycemia does not cause symptoms until blood glucose reaches an excessive or consistently high level.

Some early signs of hyperglycemia:

  • thirst
  • frequent urination
  • blurred vision
  • a headache

As blood sugar levels continue to rise unchecked, ketones may start to build up in the blood and urine. Ketones are a type of acid that can accumulate in the blood when insulin levels are too low.

High levels of ketones in the blood can be severe. Below are some of the symptoms:

  • fruity-smelling breath
  • shortness of breath
  • dry mouth
  • weakness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • confusion

Anyone experiencing these symptoms should immediately check their blood sugar levels. Contact the doctor if the reading is above the target level or 180 milligrams per deciliter.

In general, the doctor should provide information about when to call and what to do after an unusually high blood sugar reading.

Risk factors

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Emotional distress can cause a blood sugar spike.

Several issues can increase the risk of a blood sugar spike, including the following:

  • regular cigarette smoking
  • improper dosage or timing of diabetes medication
  • having a sedentary lifestyle
  • illness or infection
  • injury or trauma
  • recent surgery
  • the use of certain medications
  • having significant emotional stress

A person with one or more of these risk factors should contact their doctor to discuss the impact on blood glucose levels. The physician will make personalized recommendations on how to address and minimize risk factors.

Persistent blood sugar spikes can have severe consequences:

Diabetic ketoacidosis

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a dangerous complication of hyperglycemia.

The body compensates for a shortage of insulin by breaking down fat for energy. This produces ketones, which are toxic waste compounds. A person usually expels ketones in their urine.

If too many ketones build up in the blood, they will not leave in the urine. Without treatment, diabetic ketoacidosis can lead to coma and, in some cases, death.

Hyperglycemic hyperosmolar syndrome

Hyperglycemic hyperosmolar syndrome occurs when the body continues to produce insulin, but the hormone does not work well or at all.

In this situation, glucose still builds up in the blood. However, the body cannot use it or burn fat for energy. The extra blood sugar leaves the body through the urine, causing extreme dehydration, coma, and even death.

High blood sugar can have other long-term health complications, including:

  • heart disease
  • nerve damage
  • kidney damage or failure
  • blindness
  • damage to the feet leading to amputation
  • infections of the skin
  • problems with the teeth and gums

Keeping blood sugar levels under control and preventing spikes is essential to staying healthy. Speak with a doctor about any concerns or recurrent spikes.

Q:

Are all exercises safe for reversing prediabetes?

A:

There is no additional risk to exercise because of prediabetes. However, with or without prediabetes or diabetes, you should talk to your doctor about any health concerns before beginning a new exercise regimen.

Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.