Depending on the type of diabetes you live with, testing your blood sugar may be key to managing your health. But, if you’re new to blood glucose monitoring, you might be overwhelmed by the idea of sticking your finger with a needle and analyzing data about your blood all the time. Yes, testing your own blood sugar will take some time to get used to, but ultimately, you might just find that extra insight into your health to be incredibly empowering.
What Is Blood Glucose Monitoring?
Blood glucose monitoring involves measuring your blood sugar levels and observing patterns in those levels in relation to your diet, exercise, medication, and other health and lifestyle habits.
“Per the American Diabetes Association (ADA), blood glucose monitoring is the primary tool you have to find out if your blood sugar levels are within your target range,” says One Drop coach, Lindsay Vettleson, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN), certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES), and certified personal trainer (CPT).
“Target range” refers to the scope of blood sugar levels that are generally considered safe for you, specifically, in order to reduce your risk of blood sugar-related health complications (heart disease, nerve damage, kidney issues), explains Kristian Morey, RD, a clinical dietitian with the Nutrition and Diabetes Education program at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Recommended target ranges may be slightly different depending on which guidelines you look at or what your doctor suggests; for example, for most non-pregnant adults living with diabetes, the ADA recommends a fasting blood sugar of 80-130 mg/dL, and blood sugar levels below 180 mg/dL two hours after a meal, while the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology (AACE) recommends a fasting blood sugar of less than 110 mg/dL and blood sugar levels below 140 mg/dL two hours post-meal.
However, notes Vettleson, blood glucose targets can be individualized based on several different factors, including how long you’ve lived with diabetes, your age, any other chronic conditions you may live with (such as heart disease), and your risk of diabetes or heart-related complications, among other circumstances.
Regardless of what your exact target range is, Vettleson says it’s important to aim for those numbers as often as you can. “If glucose levels get too low, we can lose the ability to think and function normally,” she explains. “If they get too high and stay high, it can cause damage or complications to the body over the course of many years. Monitoring can show how factors such as food, activity, and stress impact blood glucose levels.”
How Does Blood Glucose Monitoring Work?
First, in order to measure your own glucose levels, you need a sample of your blood and a device that will analyze that sample and give you the information you need.
A blood sugar meter is typically part of a kit that includes not just the meter, but also lancets, a lancet device and holder, and test strips. To measure your blood sugar, you use the lancet to stick your finger, place the drop of blood on a test strip, then insert the test strip into your blood sugar meter to get your reading, which you’ll be able to access on your phone through the meter’s accompanying app. (Here’s how to set up and sync your One Drop glucose meter with the One Drop app on your phone.)
A CGM, on the other hand, consists of a wearable sensor (typically on the stomach or arm) and a monitor (or a smartphone monitoring app) that can give you continuous, ongoing blood sugar data throughout the day.
“Think of blood sugar meters as showing snapshots of time, while CGMs are more of a movie,” showing you a well-rounded perspective of where your blood sugar has been, where it is currently, and where it’s headed in the future, says Vettleson.
Keep in mind that, while CGMs and blood sugar meters are both accurate, reliable ways to monitor blood glucose, not everyone living with diabetes is able to access these medical devices—particularly CGMs. In most cases, only people living with type 1 diabetes who use insulin and test their blood sugar a certain number of times per day can be prescribed CGMs and receive health insurance coverage for the device, while blood sugar meters don’t require a prescription. Some experts have called the qualification requirements for CGMs “restrictive” and “unjustified,” while others argue that there’s a lack of data to support broader CGM access.
If you do happen to have access to both devices, know that the measurements on CGMs and blood sugar meters won’t match up exactly since they measure blood sugar in different parts of the body, explains Vettleson. If you use a CGM, try double-checking the data with a glucose meter to get a more complete picture of your health.
Outside of diabetes, blood sugar meters may be recommended in other instances, such as for those who experience hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) but aren’t diagnosed with diabetes, or those who’ve been diagnosed with prediabetes. However, in these cases, says Vettleson, most insurance companies won’t cover the cost of these medical devices or testing supplies.
That said, One Drop coach, Lisa Graham, a CDCES and registered nurse (RN), notes that she’s worked with many people who live with prediabetes and have found “the same value” in blood glucose monitoring as those who are living with diabetes, who are willing to take on the expense of “occasional monitoring” to manage their health.
If you’re not sure about your own access to blood glucose monitoring supplies, be sure to talk to your doctor and health insurance provider about your options.
In terms of how often you should check your blood sugar, that will depend on several factors, including the individual health goals and target blood glucose range you’ve established with your doctor, the type of diabetes you live with, and any medications you might take as part of your blood sugar management.
Generally speaking, someone living with type 1 diabetes may need to check their blood sugar four to 10 times per day, says Vettleson, including before and after meals, before driving, before and after exercise, before bedtime, and whenever symptoms of hypoglycemia pop up.
For those living with type 2 or gestational diabetes, you likely won’t be testing your blood sugar nearly as often, but the exact cadence will heavily depend on whether you’re taking medication (such as insulin, or oral medication like metformin) and what your doctor recommends for your specific health needs.
Tips for Healthy Blood Glucose Monitoring
When you live with diabetes, you typically have a team of healthcare professionals—your primary care doctor, a diabetes educator, a registered dietitian or nutritionist, perhaps even an endocrinologist—to help you figure out the basics of practices like blood glucose monitoring. But it might take time to get used to this new healthy habit, especially if you’re a little squeamish about blood, or if it hurts to use testing supplies like lancets.
With that in mind, give yourself permission to acknowledge what’s not so great about blood glucose monitoring (like the “blood” part of it all). At the same time, though, remind yourself why you’re doing it: to take care of yourself and to gain a better understanding of your health.
“I often tell people that blood glucose monitoring is the number one way for you to know if your self-care is working,” explains Graham. In other words, is that new meal plan affecting your blood sugar levels in the way you intended? How about your workout routine, or any medication you’ve been prescribed? Checking your blood sugar levels consistently is your best bet for getting some answers to those questions.
Need a few extra pointers as you’re getting accustomed to blood glucose monitoring? Here are some expert-approved tips:
- Keep it clean. Whether you’re using a blood sugar meter or a CGM, make sure you thoroughly clean the area you’re testing on, says Morey, as it will make for a more accurate reading and, for those using a CGM, the sensor will be more likely to stay on as long as it should.
- Alternate fingers (and locations on fingers) when using a blood sugar meter. If you usually stick the same finger in the same spot each time you measure your blood glucose, you might start to notice some tenderness in that spot after a while. Graham recommends alternating fingers as much as you can, noting that it’s best to avoid using the same finger all the time. “You can also test on the side of your finger to decrease discomfort,” she adds. “Additionally, try using the lowest setting on your lancing device to see if you can still get a good sample with less discomfort.”
- Experiment with paired testing. “‘Paired testing’ is a way to learn how different foods and portions of foods impact blood glucose,” explains Vettleson. It works like this: You check your blood sugar before eating, then again two hours after eating. “If your blood sugar doesn’t rise more than 30-50 points, that’s a reasonable amount,” she says. If you notice a steeper spike, reach out to your One Drop health coach to help figure out ways to make your reading lower next time.
- Remember: Your blood sugar reading doesn’t define you or your efforts toward better health. Yes, you have long-term goals for your blood sugar management and a target range to aim for each time you measure. But don’t forget that these numbers are not an indicator of all-or-nothing “success” or “failure,” nor are they inherently “good” or “bad,” says Vettleson. “They’re just one of many measurements that can provide feedback about your health,” she explains. Sometimes you won’t be able to avoid getting a reading that’s outside of your target range—and that’s okay. Use the information at hand to make the best possible decision you can at that moment, says Vettleson, and take it one step at a time.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations and program design at One Drop.