In the modern developed world, few problems are as widespread and troublesome as diabetes. This chronic affliction, which greatly hinders the body’s ability to manage its blood sugar (glucose) levels, impacts an estimated 347 million people worldwide. To put it another way, consider that if all of the world’s diabetics lived in their own country, it would be the third-most populous nation on the planet.
With all of this (well-deserved) attention focused on diabetes, it can be easy to overlook another problem associated with abnormal glucose levels. Instead of excessively high glucose levels, hypoglycemia presents the exact opposite problem, as patients with this condition must contend with blood sugar levels that are far below normal. And while not as widely known as both forms of diabetes, hypoglycemia still presents a formidable challenge to those who develop it.
The Consequences of Low Blood Sugar
Though much has been written about the dangers of excess glucose, your body still needs an adequate amount of blood sugar to function normally. When the body’s levels of blood sugar dip too far below normal, the body will start to feel a barrage of seemingly inexplicable symptoms. People who develop hypoglycemia can expect to encounter many of the problems listed below:
- Clammy skins
- Excessive sweating
- Accelerated heartbeat
- Problems with speaking clearly
- Pale skin
- Unexplained mood swings and emotional reactions
- Erratic movements and poor coordination
- Decreased attention span, and/or bouts of confusion
- Tingling sensation around the mouth
Hypoglycemia’s most unique trait is that it usually appears as a result of diabetes medications. Essentially, low blood sugar is often a side effect of insulin treatment. Upon entering the blood stream, insulin causes the body’s cells to absorb a greater amount of sugar from the surrounding blood. When too much insulin medication enters the body, an excessive amount of blood sugar is converted into stored energy, leaving the patient with an insufficient amount of glucose.
Though it is not especially common, hypoglycemia can develop without a preexisting case of diabetes, as medications used to treat other maladies can also cause this condition as a side effect. Taking a large amount of aspirin, for instance, can deplete glucose levels in the blood stream. Hypoglycemia has also been linked to monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), the first generation of antidepressants used to treat mental disorders. Though they have generally been replaced by newer model antidepressants, doctors still occasionally resort to MAOIs when first line treatments prove ineffective or problematic.
Aside from complications with various medications, alcohol abuse can also be responsible for the appearance of hypoglycemia. This scenario is most likely to occur in those who suffer from chronic alcoholism and are prone to binge drinking. Patients who struggle with alcohol can further compound their risk of hypoglycemia by failing to eat roughly 6 hours before drinking. Furthermore, low glucose levels can also be a secondary effect of serious infections of the kidneys and liver. A particularly strong case of hepatitis, a frequently-chronic condition that causes inflammation of the liver, may cause hypoglycemia to develop in the blood stream.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Unlike most conditions, you do not need the assistance of a doctor to identify a precipitous drop in blood sugar. As illustrated above, the symptoms of hypoglycemia are often blatantly obvious, making it clearly apparent that something is wrong with your body. If you begin to feel the effects of hypoglycemia, your first step is to place yourself out of potentially dangerous situations. For example, pull over to the side of the road if you are driving, or sit down immediately when descending a stairway.
The next step is to test your blood sugar levels as soon as possible. This can be done fairly quickly with the help of a blood glucose meter, a device which checks glucose levels by extracting a drop of blood from the patient. The threshold for hypoglycemia is 70 mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter). A reading below this level is a confirmation of dangerously low glucose level.
If your blood sugar reading indicates that a hypoglycemic episode is taking place, your immediate goal should be to boost your glucose level as soon as possible. The crucial goal can be accomplished by eating a sizable amount (about 15 to 20 grams) of simple carbohydrates (diabetic patients are sometimes advised to keeps such carbohydrates on hand in case of such an emergency). Some examples of simple carb pick-me-ups are noted below:
- A handful of saltine crackers
- About a half-dozen pieces of hard candy
- A miniature box or two of raisins
- 4 teaspoons of sugar
- A half cup (4 ounces) of fruit juice or soda
- A single tablespoon of corn syrup or honey
- A cup of milk
It will take about fifteen minutes or so to determine if your simple carb remedy has done the trick. If a second blood glucose reading still shows a glucose level below 70 mg/dl, try ingesting an additional 15 to 20 grams of simple carbohydrates. You may need to repeat this process several times before your blood sugar returns to normal.
Patients who are unable to raise their glucose levels on their own should seek immediate medical attention. Likewise, losing consciousness or suffering hypoglycemia-induced seizures is more than enough reason to seek the assistance of medical professionals. When treating people in the midst of a severe hypoglycemic episode, a doctors may inject a potent substance known as glucagon into the patient’s bloodstream. While the patient’s friends and family can be trained to administer glucagon injections, the patient should still seek medical help when experiencing intense hypoglycemia.
Preventing Hypoglycemia through Diet
Given that your glucose levels are directly linked to your diet, it’s no surprise that those at risk of hypoglycemia are encouraged to watch what they eat. The biggest area of concern is carbohydrates, which the body turns into glucose upon digestion. While simple carbohydrates are essential during a hyperglycemic attack, in normal circumstances they should be consumed in strictly limited quantities (this guideline pertains to both diabetics and non-diabetics alike, though for diabetics it takes on a greater level of importance). In lieu of simple carbs, the body is much better served by a steady intake of complex carbohydrates, which can be found in such fare as whole-grain breads and cereals.
Two other types of nutrients that are emphasized in healthy diets are fiber and healthy fats. The former can be readily purchased in the form of vegetables, nuts, legumes and various whole-grain offerings. Fiber effectively puts the brakes on the carbohydrate conversion process, slowing down the speed at which the body transforms this nutrient into sugar. In turn, this prevents the body from running low on glucose. Healthy fats possess this same characteristic, and can be found in abundance in fish, nuts, avocadoes and olive oils.
Of course, the main trigger behind most cases of hypoglycemia is an excessive amount of synthetic insulin in the body. To rectify this problem, doctors closely work with diabetic patients to determine a more appropriate insulin dosage. Along with better dietary habits, a modified intake of insulin can help ward off hypoglycemic symptoms.