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Recognizing and preventing hypoglycemia

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Feb 23, 2016

person holding their headThroughout the day, our body is normally very good at maintaining steady blood glucose levels – usually between 70 and 100 mg/dl. This is important as a steady supply of blood glucose is necessary for the brain and nervous system to function properly just as it is for a car needing gas to be able to operate.

For some people, a condition called hypoglycemia can occur. Hypoglycemia happens when blood glucose levels become too low – usually less than 70 mg/dl. Hypoglycemia is typically associated with a person who has diabetes. But if a person does not have diabetes, it is not completely understood why this can develop.

“Beyond the effects on your health, low blood sugar can have a great effect on your brain and things that require self-control, like mood stability,” stated Dr. David Samadi, chairman of urology and chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “The lower your blood sugar gets, the less fuel your brain has to function. Survival mode kicks in, and you do the things you need to, but when it comes to things like being nice or having a logical conversation – you probably are no longer equipped to handle it. Avoiding a blood sugar crash is something your brain and body will thank you for.”

How blood sugar is regulated

When we eat carbohydrates – breads, rice, pasta, vegetables, fruit and milk products – our body breaks these foods down into sugar molecules. One of the sugar molecules is glucose, our main source of energy for our brain and the cells of our body. Glucose enters the bloodstream but needs help getting into the cells of the body. Insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas, unlocks the cells allowing glucose to leave the bloodstream and enter into the cells providing fuel for them to function properly. Any excess glucose is stored in the liver and muscles in the storage from of glucose called glycogen.

This process helps regulate the level of glucose in the bloodstream, preventing it from reaching dangerously high levels (hyperglycemia).

To prevent dangerously low levels (hypoglycemia) if your blood sugar level drops (less than 70 mg/dl) another hormone from the pancreas called glucagon signals the liver to release the stored glycogen back into the bloodstream in the form of glucose, helping to bring the blood sugar level back up within a normal range.

Two types of hypoglycemia

Hypoglycemia is not a disease but it can be an indicator of a health problem. There are two types of hypoglycemia:

1. Reactive hypoglycemia

This occurs when blood glucose levels fall below normal within 2 to 5 hours after eating. It is called “reactive” because the body is reacting to food. A possible reason for this type of hypoglycemia may be that the body is producing more insulin than is needed to transfer glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells of the body. Or it can occur in people who’ve had gastric bypass surgery for weight loss where there can be too much insulin secretion after food is eaten.

2. Fasting hypoglycemia

This occurs when blood glucose levels are low when food has not been eaten for at least 8 hours. Fasting hypoglycemia can also occur due to certain medications, excessive alcohol consumption, critical illnesses such as severe hepatitis or disorders of the kidney, insulin overproduction and hormone deficiencies.

Symptoms of hypoglycemia

• Shakiness
• Hunger
• Dizziness
• Sweating
• Light-headedness
• Sleepiness
• Confusion
• Difficulty speaking
• Anxiety
• Weakness

How to treat hypoglycemia

If you do not have diabetes and are experiencing hypoglycemia, it is important to see your physician to determine what is causing it. Keep a journal of the frequency it occurs, what time of day it occurs, what symptoms you are having, foods you have eaten and a list of your medications.

Suggestions for avoiding symptoms of hypoglycemia are:

• Eat 5 to 6 small meals a day rather than 2 or 3 large meals to help steady the release of glucose into the bloodstream.

• Eat consistent amounts of carbohydrates at meals and snacks each day and avoid skipping meals.

“You can combat blood sugar getting too low by making sure you have a snack on hand at any given time, especially if you wait many hours between meals,” added Dr. Samadi. “Snacking throughout the day is not a bad habit, so long as it’s conducted in moderation and with healthy choices.”

• Spread carbohydrate foods throughout the day. Include protein foods and vegetables at each meal for satiety and extra calories, if needed.

• Avoid foods that have a lot of sugar, especially on an empty stomach. Examples are regular soft drinks or any other sugar-sweetened beverage, candy, cookies, pie, cake, sherbet, or regular fruited yogurt with more than 20 grams of sugar.

• Avoid beverages that contain caffeine. Caffeine can cause symptoms similar to hypoglycemia.

• Never drink alcohol on an empty stomach as it will drop blood glucose levels. Only drink alcohol with food and limit alcoholic beverages to 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men.
Keeping glucose levels normal

By understanding and following the suggestions on helping to prevent and or treat hypoglycemia, you can significantly reduce the incidence of having low blood glucose reactions. Paying attention to symptoms of hypoglycemia that are out of the ordinary for us and seeking out medical advice from our physicians, can help pinpoint what the cause is and the best treatment option for it.

This article originally appeared on the Osage County Herald-Chronicle newspaper.

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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.