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You’re sitting at your desk mid-morning when it hits — exhaustion with a headache on the side. As you shakily punch in an Uber Eats order, you kick yourself for leaving the emergency snack on the kitchen counter. What’s the deal? You’re probably experiencing hypoglycemia (aka low blood sugar).
For most of us latte-sippers and late-night noshers, an occasional sugar crash is pretty normal (at least in college, amiright?). Hypoglycemia isn’t a disease, but it can indicate an underlying health problem.
Here’s the lowdown:
Low blood sugar happens when there isn’t enough glucose (aka sugar) in your bloodstream. Glucose comes from carbs. Whether from an apple or a slice of pizza, the carbs-turned-glucose fuel your body with the help of insulin, another critical player. When glucose levels get low, your body can’t function on all cylinders.
Technically, hypoglycemia occurs when your blood sugar is below 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). According to the American Diabetes Association, those with diabetes or other blood sugar issues should get a meter or wearable continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to keep blood sugar levels in check.
Interestingly, the most common cause of super low blood sugar is diabetes medication. People with diabetes take insulin because their bodies don’t produce enough of it naturally. But sometimes the insulin dose is too much, or the person hasn’t eaten enough to need the insulin.
For people without diabetes, hypoglycemia can be caused by:
- binge drinking
- kidney disorders
- eating disorders (anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa)
- a pancreatic tumor
- hormone deficiencies
- peptic ulcers
There’s also something called reactive hypoglycemia (postprandial hypoglycemia) that occurs several hours after your last meal. It’s likely related to a disrupted eating schedule, like skipping your usual breakfast or drinking alcohol without food.
Hypoglycemia is just a fancy translation of your cells screaming, “Halllp, feed me some glucose!” As blood sugar dips, you might feel weak, annoyed, or jittery — hangry, in a word. This woozy cocktail of symptoms indicates that fuel levels are dropping into unhealthy territory.
Immediate effects of hypoglycemia can include:
- sudden paleness
- blurred vision
Frequent low blood sugar isn’t something to ignore. Hypoglycemia may be a sign of a deeper medical condition, and starving your cells of glucose too often or for too long can cause unpleasant complications down the road.
Hypoglycemia unawareness, aka “I’m fine.”
You know the cartoon dog sipping coffee in a burning room? That’s your brain dealing with hypoglycemia unawareness.
Having frequent low blood sugar can trick your body into thinking hypoglycemia is normal. Without symptoms like tremors, headaches, or weakness, the body continues operating in an unhealthy state, increasing the risk for life-threatening complications.
Instead of waiting for your body to adapt to a toxic situation, talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing hypoglycemia often. In the meantime, ward off low blood sugar by noshing on small snacks throughout the day.
Dangerously low blood sugar sometimes causes seizures. The risk is higher for those with diabetes who take insulin to control their blood sugar. An insulin overdose can induce sudden hypoglycemia, affecting the central nervous system in a bad way.
In rare cases, low blood sugar could cause a blackout, coma, or even death. Think about it, glucose is the body’s fuel, and you can only run on empty for so long. Death can eventually occur as a result of depriving your brain of crucial energy.
Falls and fractures
Blacking out can cause other issues too. If you’re feeling lightheaded or unstable, it’s best to stay put. Losing consciousness, falling, and hitting your head only makes a bad situation worse.
Frequent hypoglycemia can eventually affect the brain. A 2013 study found that older diabetic patients who experienced dangerously low blood sugar were twice as likely to develop dementia. This suggests that keeping blood sugar in check could help lower your risk of memory loss later in life.
So what can you safely do when your blood sugar drops?
Here’s how to boost glucose back into the safe zone:
- Sip some orange juice.
- Drink a bit of sugary soda.
- Eat a snack.
- Avoid skipping meals.
Try the 15-15 rule
For people with diabetes, blood sugar levels can swing hard and fast. It’s always best to keep a blood sugar monitor handy. But if you’re feeling lightheaded or shaky and don’t have a way to check your blood sugar, treat yourself for hypoglycemia anyway.
- Reach for the carbs. A good rule of thumb is to eat 15 grams of carbs to raise blood sugar gradually and safely. That’s about 4 oz. of juice or regular soda, a handful of jelly beans, or a tablespoon of honey.
- Wait 15 minutes. It’s tempting to smash a bag of Sour Patch Kids when you’re feeling lightheaded with hunger, but that might backfire by spiking your blood sugar TOO high.
- Check again. If your blood sugar is still low, repeat the process until you’re in the safe zone.
- Talk to your doctor. Make a note of any hypoglycemic incidents, then report it to your medical team. It’s possible that your meds or diet need an adjustment.
Pour some sugar on me (if you’re going downhill fast)
There’s no sweeter way to add glucose to your bloodstream than a spoonful of sugar or honey. Another option is Glucogel, a non-prescription, thick syrup available at any drugstore. If you have a tube of Glucogel on hand, squirt it inside your cheeks for fast absorption.
Remember to wait 15 to 20 minutes before you eat more. You’re looking for a natural boost of energy, not a sugar high.
Get medical help if you’re losing consciousness
Never force-feed someone losing consciousness (choking hazard alert!). Instead, if your friend has diabetes and is fading fast, it’s time to bust out a glucagon shot. Glucagon injections are for medical emergencies, like when someone with extremely low blood sugar is unconscious or too disoriented to consume sugar.
After using a glucagon injection (or calling 911 if you don’t have one), lay the person on their side in the recovery position.
Prevention is the best medicine
The best way to treat low blood sugar? Prevent it from happening in the first place.
Avoid hypoglycemia by fueling your body with frequent nutritious meals and snacks. Focus on a hypoglycemia diet rich in complex carbs and low in sugar content.
- Hypoglycemia is a natural response to a lack of sugar in the bloodstream, but it can also signify underlying health problems.
- Hypoglycemia can cause a range of symptoms, from headaches, to irritability, to loss of consciousness.
- People with diabetes can manage blood sugar with medications and diet. People without diabetes can avoid hypoglycemia with a low-sugar diet and frequent small meals. Learning to stay on top of your glucose levels will help you avoid a dangerous blood sugar drop — or spike.
- It’s important to let your healthcare provider in on your low blood sugar episodes.