When “Normal” Blood Sugar Isn’t Normal (Part 1)

on October 24, 2016 by Chris Kresser

In the next two articles we’re going to discuss the concept of “normal” blood sugar. I say concept and put normal in quotation marks because what passes for normal in mainstream medicine turns out to be anything but normal if optimal health and function are what you’re interested in.

Here’s the thing. We’ve confused normal with common. Just because something is common, doesn’t mean it’s normal. It’s now becoming common for kids to be overweight and diabetic because they eat nothing but refined flour, high-fructose corn syrup and industrial seed oils. Yet I don’t think anyone (even the ADA) would argue that being fat and metabolically deranged is even remotely close to normal for kids. Or adults, for that matter.

In the same way, the guidelines the so-called authorities like the ADA have set for normal blood sugar may be common, but they’re certainly not normal. Unless you think it’s normal for people to develop diabetic complications like neuropathy, retinopathy and cardiovascular disease as they age, and spend the last several years of their lives in hospitals or assisted living facilities. Common, but not normal.

In this article I’m going to introduce the three markers we use to measure blood sugar, and tell you what the conventional model thinks is normal for those markers. In the next article, I’m going to show you what the research says is normal for healthy people. And I’m also going to show you that so-called normal blood sugar, as dictated by the ADA, can double your risk of heart disease and lead to all kinds of complications down the road.

The 3 ways blood sugar is measured

Fasting blood glucose

This is still the most common marker used in clinical settings, and is often the only one that gets tested. The fasting blood glucose (FBG) test measures the concentration of glucose in the blood after an 8-12 hour fast. It only tells us how blood sugar behaves in a fasting state. It tells us very little about how your blood sugar responds to the food you eat.

Up until 1998, the ADA defined FBG levels above 140 mg/dL as diabetic. In 1998, in a temporary moment of near-sanity, they lowered it to 126 mg/dL. (Forgive me for being skeptical about their motivations; normally when these targets are lowered, it’s to sell more drugs – not make people healthier.) They also set the upward limit of normal blood sugar at 99 mg/dL. Anything above that – but below 126 mg/dL – is considered “pre-diabetic”, or “impaired glucose tolerance” (IGT).

Oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT)

The OGTT measures first and second stage insulin response to glucose. Here’s how it works. You fast and then you’re given 75 grams of glucose dissolved in water. Then they test your blood sugar one and two hours after. If your blood sugar is >140 mg/dL two hours later, you have pre-diabetes. If it’s >199 mg/dL two hours later, you’ve got full-blown diabetes.

Keep in mind these are completely arbitrary numbers. If your result is 139 mg/dL – just one point below the pre-diabetic cut-off – you’ll be considered “normal”. Of course this is perfectly absurd. Diabetes isn’t like catching a cold. You don’t just wake up one day and say, “I’m not feeling so well. I think I got a bad case of diabetes yesterday.” Diabetes, like all disease, is a process. It goes something like this:

malfunction > disease process > symptoms

Before your blood sugar was 139, it was 135. Before it was 135, it was 130. Etcetera. Would you agree that it’s wise to intervene as early as possible in that progression toward diabetic blood sugar levels, in order to prevent it from happening in the first place? Well, the ADA does not agree. They prefer to wait until you’re almost beyond the point of no return to suggest there’s any problem whatsoever.

[End rant]

The other problem with the OGTT is that it’s completely artificial. I don’t know anyone who drinks a pure solution of 75 grams of glucose. A 32-oz Big Gulp from 7-11 has 96 grams of sugar, but 55% of that is fructose, which produces a different effect on blood sugar. The OGTT can be a brutal test for someone with impaired glucose tolerance, producing intense blood sugar swings far greater than what one would experience from eating carbohydrates.

Hemoglobin A1c

Hemoglobin A1c, or A1c for short, has become more popular amongst practitioners in the past decade. It’s used to measure blood glucose in large population-based studies because it’s significantly cheaper than the OGTT test.

A1c measures how much glucose becomes permanently bonded (glycated) to hemoglobin in red blood cells. In layperson’s terms, this test is a rough measure of average blood sugar over the previous three months. The higher your blood sugar has been over the past three months, the more likely it is that glucose (sugar) is permanently bonded to hemoglobin.

The problem with the A1c test is that any condition that changes hemoglobin levels will skew the results. Anemia is one such condition, and sub-clinical anemia is incredibly common. I’d say 30-40% of my patients have borderline low hemoglobin levels. If hemoglobin is low, then there’s less of it around to become bonded to glucose. This will cause an artificially low A1c level and won’t be an accurate representation of your average blood sugar over the past three months.

Likewise, dehydration can increase hemoglobin levels and create falsely high A1c results.

The “normal” range for A1c for most labs is between 4% and 6%. (A1c is expressed in percentage terms because it’s measuring the percentage of hemoglobin that is bonded to sugar.) Most often I see 5.7% as the cutoff used.

In the next article we’ll put these “normal” levels under the microscope and see how they hold up.

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  1. Hey Chris!

    These articles are really thorough and I appreciate the work you put into writing them. However, I jumped on here seeking some articles I could send to a friend to inform her of ways that she can relate blood-sugar regulation to everyday life and gain a greater understanding of how the baked goodies she’s eating are impacting her. Everyone knows that eating baked goods usually leaves them feeling bad later and that they should “limit” them….. but they usually don’t really know the underlying mechanisms of why.

    These articles are pretty scientific and clinical and don’t necessarily tell someone how to relate to blood-sugar on a day-to-day basis without any labs or gadgets hooked up to them.

    Can you recommend any other articles or reading that I could also send someone who wants to have a less abstract relationship with what blood-sugar is, how it works in relations to what we consume and how we live, and what we can do in modern times to make sure it’s in the normal range each day?

    I’d love for these important biological mechanism which underly so much illness to be made more normal and commonplace in society. I’m convinced most folks in this culture have blood-sugar issues and they need to understand what this means in order to make necessary changes.

    Thanks so much!

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