Hypoglycemia symptoms are not very common because our body is designed to maintain adequate blood glucose levels at all cost. Let us remember that the brain and central nervous system cannot function without a steady flow of this fuel and that they have no way to store it. However, low blood sugar symptoms may happen on occasions.
A look at insulin
When after a meal blood sugar (glucose) enters the blood after a meal, insulin is released by special cells located in the pancreas. Insulin works as the “key” that opens the “door” of the cells, allowing glucose to enter and be utilized as fuel. In so doing, insulin prevents blood glucose from rising to harmful levels. The normal range for blood glucose in humans is between 60 and 150 mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter, or one-tenth of a liter).
Symptoms of hypoglycemia
The symptoms of hypoglycemia typically appear when blood glucose goes below 50 mg/dl. Fatigue, clouded thinking, light-headedness, anxiety, irritability, and restlessness arise from the brain, which is being deprived of its fuel. If hypoglycemia is not rapidly corrected, confusion, seizures, loss of consciousness, and coma will follow.
The most common cause of hypoglycemia
The most common cause of hypoglycemia is a problem caused by medications used to treat diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes, who must give themselves injections of insulin on a regular basis, can overshoot the mark or not eat enough to compensate for a dose they gave themselves earlier in the day.
A severe drop in glucose following an injection of insulin is called insulin shock, a dangerous and potentially fatal event. Those who use insulin must have a glucose source, such as juice or another drink containing sugar, available at all times. This should be swallowed as soon as symptoms of hypoglycemia appear, and additional food should be eaten to maintain the glucose level, especially if symptoms do not improve over the next several minutes. Some diabetics carry a kit containing the hormone glucagon that can be injected if the low glucose persists.
Many people with type 2 diabetes take one or more medications that occasionally can cause hypoglycemia. Some also take insulin, though as a last resort when other treatment options have failed.
Other medical conditions
A variety of other medical conditions, such as severe liver or kidney disease, alcoholism, and anorexia nervosa can occasionally be associated with low or borderline glucose levels. Very uncommonly, abnormal amounts of insulin may be secreted by a tumor arising from the pancreas, or an insulin-like hormone may be created by a tumor elsewhere.
A very small number of people have true reactive hypoglycemia, in which glucose rises and then plummets to dangerously low levels after they eat a meal loaded with carbohydrates. Many more, however, experience a drop that is not as severe, but enough to bring on a sense of fatigue, hunger, tremulousness, or other symptoms. If you feel an improvement in symptoms after you have a small snack is a clue that this might be occurring.
A practical approach
A practical approach to correct reactive hypoglycemia is to make changes in your eating habits. Try to eliminate the foods that are most likely to provoke high and low levels. These include foods in which added sugars are listed as one of the first two ingredients, as well as a number of foods that have a high glycemic index. Reading food labels is always a must when buying packaged food.
A second approach to prevent sharp ups and downs in blood sugar is to eat smaller amounts of food more frequently. This second approach ensures that a steady flow of nutrients enters your digestive tract, and thus your blood throughout the day.
If you have hypoglycemia symptoms often enough, ask your doctor to check your blood glucose when you are fasting, after a meal, when you feel poorly, or perhaps as part of a more formal glucose tolerance test, which measures blood sugar one or two hours after you drink a standardized load of glucose.
You can also buy a glucose meter at a pharmacy and check your levels of glucose as frequently as you need to check what foods are causing the hypoglycemia symptoms.