Technology designed to help people with diabetes manage their blood sugar has joined the wearables trend of watches, bracelets and rings that collect personal health data.

But researchers say the devices might provide minimal benefit to healthy people using them to get minute-by-minute readings on their glucose levels.

Continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) are being marketed by manufacturers to non-diabetics, including elite athletes who are wearing them in training with an idea of optimizing how they fuel their body. The devices need to be replaced every two weeks, so cost to use them full-time can run about $3,500 a year. 

The devices are toonie-sized disks that typically pierce the skin at the back of the upper arm. A sensor measures glucose — a sugar from food — in the space around our cells. 

Body metrics have become commonplace, with a variety of fitness trackers that measure steps, heart rate and sleep trends. The topic of wearable health technology is regularly featured on Joe Rogan Experience, one of most popular talk shows in the U.S., where some guests promote anti-aging products and advocate a data-driven personalized approach to wellness.

‘Quantifying our lives’

Timothy Caulfield, an expert in health law and policy and professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, calls those types of measurements the “science-y wellness” part of the longevity movement. 

“One of the things I find fascinating about this current obsession with quantifying our lives is there is no evidence it is making us any healthier, right?” said Caulfield.

Continuous glucose monitors or CGM with sensor and screen displaying graph of levels.
A Continuous Glucose Monitor or CGM with sensor and screen displaying a graph of sugar levels. (Pond5)

People with diabetes walk a tightrope to keep their blood sugar levels in the correct range.

CGMs can be lifesaving for people who experience low glucose at night  and risk not waking up in the morning, according to Diabetes Canada.

When blood glucose levels run too low, brain activity slows and people can lose consciousness or have accidents, seizures and even die, said Dr. Peter Senior, director of the Alberta Diabetes Institute.

Conversely, blood sugar levels that are too high can cause wear and tear on the body.

Diabetics use CGM readings to guide their decisions on when to take insulin, eat or change their physical activity level. 

Stable sugar level myth

The question is, what’s the benefit of continuous glucose monitoring for everyone else — if, in fact, there is one.

“Many people assume that their blood sugars should be completely stable all the time,” Senior said. “But the reality is that many healthy people, if they eat certain foods, will see a rise in blood sugar, which comes down again.” 

Senior said while it’s understood what diabetes looks like, there’s not a lot of data to tell us what normal is.

He also suggested that healthy people could check their glucose levels from time to time instead of continuously.

“Whether or not people need the continuous feedback all of the time if they don’t have diabetes is not clear to me,” he said. 

Woman with black blazer standing.
Dietitian Abby Langer said when healthy people obsess about glucose levels, it an create anxiety and fear around eating certain foods unnecessarily. (CBC)

Dietitian Abby Langer of Toronto said people should question the clinical relevance of all these metrics.

“It can create anxiety and fear around eating certain foods where that anxiety and fear is unnecessary,” Langer said.

If the goal of owning a glucose monitor is to stave off diabetes, Langer said there are more direct ways to achieve that.

“I think that if you are eating a balanced diet, a varied diet, if you are moving your body, you are sleeping, you’re finding joy in life, I don’t think you need a glucose monitor.”

WATCH | Are health tracking apps just making us more anxious? 

Health tracking gadgets may be more stressful than helpful, experts say

The ever increasing number of health-monitoring devices and apps provide an unprecedented amount of personal health data — but experts say isn’t necessarily improving our health and instead could just be stressing us out.

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