By Susan Bernstein

Want to get an extra boost from your meds? Make some healthy changes in your life, and the drugs you take will do a better job of bringing your type 2 diabetes under control. You might even be able to cut back on how much medicine you take — or stop it altogether.

Many people might be able to control their diabetes with lifestyle changes alone, says Richard Siegel, MD, co-director of the Diabetes Center at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

Some things you can do include:

  • Get regular exercise.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Get enough sleep at night.
  • Lower your stress as much as you can.
  • Don’t smoke or drink too much alcohol.
  • Track your blood sugar levels.

Diabetes drugs help your body balance insulin (which helps control blood sugar) and your levels of that sugar, also called glucose. But you have to eat right and exercise to make them work properly, says Scott Isaacs, MD, an endocrinologist in Atlanta. Meds “are not a substitute” for those good habits, he says.

It’s never too late to work with your doctor to create an overall treatment and lifestyle plan to help you manage your blood sugar and weight.

Eat Well, Drop Pounds

If you lose extra weight, your doctor may let you cut back on medicine, Isaacs says.

“Just to be able to limit the amount of diabetes medications you take is a good thing,” he says. “Losing only 5% of your body weight is enough to make a difference, and create a good chance that you can lower your medication dosage.”

Set up a meal plan that’s got plenty of low-fat foods that are high in fiber.

“A healthy diet is well-balanced and includes lean proteins from both animal and vegetarian sources, fruits, vegetables, and nuts,” Siegel says. Carbohydrates are the part of the diet that have the biggest effect on your blood sugar. So limit or avoid added sugars and refined flours, because that can help keep your glucose controlled without cutting out healthier carbs like beans and whole grains, he says.

Eat about 25 to 35 grams of fiber each day to help keep your blood sugar levels steady, Isaacs says. It can help you feel full longer, so you might not get hungry soon after eating. Eat fiber from natural foods like beans or whole grains rather than supplements, he says.

Stay Active

Exercise is just as important as drugs to help you manage your diabetes, Siegel says. When you move and rev up your heart rate, it will help you burn extra fat and lose weight.

Your routine should include:

  • Activity each day that gets your heart pumping, such as walking or swimming
  • Two to three sessions a week of strength training, with stretch bands, free weights, or workout machines (on non-consecutive days)
  • To stay flexible, stretch or do an activity like yoga every day.

Regular exercise will build stronger muscles, burn extra fat, and help your diabetes drugs work better, Isaacs says.

“Muscle is important. Having more lean muscle mass will improve how well your body processes blood sugar,” he says. He recommends weight training for a total of 1 hour (or more) every week to help you build more muscle.

More Sleep, Less Stress

Get more shut-eye, since it might help you keep your blood sugar levels in check. Poor Zzz’s can also make you want to eat more during the day to boost your energy.

“Seven to 8 hours of good-quality sleep may also help to reduce your blood sugars and cardiovascular [heart] risk by lowering some of the body’s hormones,” Siegel says.

Stress can make it hard to rest at night, and that might affect your diabetes, too. If you’re feeling anxious from family problems or work, for example, your body might make too many stress hormones, like cortisol. That one tells your body to store more blood sugar and fat. When you feel less tense, the drop in cortisol might help your glucose levels, Siegel says.

Stress can also cause your body to block how much insulin it makes, so it’s harder for your medicine to work well.

Find ways to relax. Exercise is one way to ease tension and sleep better. You can also try relaxation techniques like meditation.

Don’t Give Up

Follow your treatment plan. Take your diabetes drugs the way your doctor tells you to, manage your diet and weight, exercise regularly, and get your stress under control, Siegel says. Your meds will work better.

Your doctor might add drugs to your treatment plan when changes aren’t enough to keep your blood sugar levels at your personal goal, he says. Even when that happens, keep up your healthy habits, because that can help limit the amount of medication you need.