Ask a Doctor
I've just been diagnosed with diabetes and there's so much information, my mind is reeling. I know insulin levels and blood sugar levels are important to monitor, but I know little about the process. For example, what is the normal range for blood sugar?
One important goal of diabetes treatment is to keep the blood glucose levels near the normal range of 70 to 120 mg/dl before meals and under 140 mg/dl at two hours after eating.
Home blood sugar (glucose) testing is an important part of controlling blood sugar. Blood glucose levels are usually tested before and after meals, and at bedtime. The blood sugar level is typically determined by pricking a fingertip with a lancing device and applying the blood to a glucose meter, which reads the value. There are many meters on the market, for example, Accu-Check Advantage, One Touch Ultra, Sure Step and Freestyle. Each meter has its own advantages and disadvantages (some use less blood, some have a larger digital readout, some take a shorter time to give you results, etc.). The test results are then used to help patients make adjustments in medications, diets, and physical activities.
There are some interesting developments in blood glucose monitoring including continuous glucose sensors. The new continuous glucose sensor systems involve an implantable cannula placed just under the skin in the abdomen or in the arm. This cannula allows for frequent sampling of blood glucose levels. Attached to this is a transmitter that sends the data to a pager-like device. This device has a visual screen that allows the wearer to see, not only the current glucose reading, but also the graphic trends. In some devices, the rate of change of blood sugar is also shown. There are alarms for low and high sugar levels. Certain models will alarm if the rate of change indicates the wearer is at risk for dropping or rising blood glucose too rapidly. One version is specifically designed to interface with their insulin pumps. In most cases the patient still must manually approve any insulin dose (the pump cannot blindly respond to the glucose information it receives, it can only give a calculated suggestion as to whether the wearer should give insulin, and if so, how much). However, in 2013 the US FDA approved the first artificial pancreas type device, meaning an implanted sensor and pump combination that stops insulin delivery when glucose levels reach a certain low point. All of these devices need to be correlated to fingersticks measurements for a few hours before they can function independently. The devices can then provide readings for 3 to 5 days.
Diabetes experts feel that these blood glucose monitoring devices give patients a significant amount of independence to manage their disease process; and they are a great tool for education as well. It is also important to remember that these devices can be used intermittently with fingerstick measurements. For example, a well-controlled patient with diabetes can rely on fingerstick glucose checks a few times a day and do well. If they become ill, if they decide to embark on a new exercise regimen, if they change their diet and so on, they can use the sensor to supplement their fingerstick regimen, providing more information on how they are responding to new lifestyle changes or stressors. This kind of system takes us one step closer to closing the loop, and to the development of an artificial pancreas that senses insulin requirements based on glucose levels and the body's needs and releases insulin accordingly - the ultimate goal.
Hemoglobin A1c (HBA1c)
To explain what hemoglobin A1c is, think in simple terms. Sugar sticks, and when it's around for a long time, it's harder to get it off. In the body, sugar sticks too, particularly to proteins. The red blood cells that circulate in the body live for about three months before they die off. When sugar sticks to these hemoglobin proteins in these cells, it is known as glycosylated hemoglobin or hemoglobin A1c (HBA1c). Measurement of HBA1c gives us an idea of how much sugar is present in the bloodstream for the preceding three months. In most labs, the normal range is 4%-5.9 %. In poorly controlled diabetes, its 8.0% or above, and in well controlled patients it's less than 7.0% (optimal is <6.5%). The benefits of measuring A1c is that is gives a more reasonable and stable view of what's happening over the course of time (three months), and the value does not vary as much as finger stick blood sugar measurements. There is a direct correlation between A1c levels and average blood sugar levels as follows.
While there are no guidelines to use A1c as a screening tool, it gives a physician a good idea that someone is diabetic if the value is elevated. Right now, it is used as a standard tool to determine blood sugar control in patients known to have diabetes.
|HBA1c(%)||Mean blood sugar (mg/dl)|
The American Diabetes Association currently recommends an A1c goal of less than 7.0% with A1C goal for selected individuals of as close to normal as possible (<6%) without significant hypoglycemia. Other Groups such as the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists feel that an A1c of <6.5% should be the goal.
Of interest, studies have shown that there is about a 35% decrease in relative risk for microvascular disease for every 1% reduction in A1c. The closer to normal the A1c, the lower the absolute risk for microvascular complications.
It should be mentioned here that there are a number of conditions in which an A1c value may not be accurate. For example, with significant anemia, the red blood cell count is low, and thus the A1c is altered. This may also be the case in sickle cell disease and other hemoglobinopathies.
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CDC.gov. Diabetes Public Health Resource.
CDC.gov. "2014 National Diabetes Statistics Report. 2012.
Khardori, R., MD. "Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus." Medscape. Oct 08, 2015.