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Hyperglycemia: Causes, Signs & Treatment

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What is Hyperglycemia?

Physicians use the term “hyperglycemia” to refer to high glucose levels in the blood. Glucose is also called blood sugar. It is an essential nutrient that the body requires to function properly and all cells use it to generate energy. Hyperglycemia develops when the body is unable to use or make the hormone insulin, which is a distinct characteristic of diabetes, along with high blood sugar (x).

Glucose comes from food, including fruit, milk, rice, bread and potatoes. In fact, carbohydrates like potatoes are significant sources of glucose. After ingestion, the body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose and then transports it to various organs and tissues through the bloodstream (x).

The Role of Insulin

The body needs insulin to use glucose. The hormone’s primary function is to transport glucose into cells, especially muscle cells. Patients with type 1 diabetes do not produce insulin in the body. Therefore, they have to inject insulin. On the other hand, those with type 2 diabetes produce insulin, but they are insulin resistant, which means the body does not use its insulin effectively (x).

Hyperglycemia develops when patients with diabetes fail to control their blood glucose levels either through medication or insulin injections. There are two main types of hyperglycemia: fasting and reactive (x).

Signs of Hyperglycemia

Hyperglycemia is often asymptomatic, but it may produce symptoms that the patient may notice by self-monitoring or a physician may notice them during regular exams. Common signs of hyperglycemia include (x):

  • Glucose levels above 130 mg/dL before meals or 180 mg/dL after meals
  • Frequent urination
  • Excessive thirst
  • High glucose levels in the urine

In early stages of the condition, patients may also experience blurred vision, fatigue and headaches. Left untreated, hyperglycemia may cause toxic acids called ketones to build up in the blood and urine. Without early treatment, it can progress into later stages that may cause various additional symptoms including weakness, nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort and confusion. The patient may also notice shortness of breath, fruity smelling breath and dry mouth. Patients with diabetes should self-monitor regularly in order to control blood glucose levels before they reach dangerous levels (x).

Causes of Hyperglycemia

Many patients experience an increase in blood sugar levels after eating meals rich in glucose. However, if a patient’s blood glucose increases significantly on a consistent basis, it may indicate hyperglycemia. Patients with this condition have difficulty producing or using insulin properly. Lack of exercise may increase blood sugar to a point that may interfere with insulin efficiency because the body is overwhelmed by the amount of glucose in the blood. Lack of exercise causes more glucose than the body can process (x). In addition, stress may cause hormones to release that keep blood sugar at excessively high levels. Also, health conditions or illnesses such as the flu may cause stress, which can cause blood sugar levels to rise (x).

Fasting Hyperglycemia

Fasting hyperglycemia occurs when a patient with diabetes does not eat for at least eight hours. This type of hyperglycemia occurs when blood glucose levels rise above 130 mg/dL (x).

Reactive Hyperglycemia

Reactive or postprandial hyperglycemia occurs when blood glucose levels are above 180 mg/dL. This type of hyperglycemia develops if the liver is unable to stop sugar production after meals, which causes the body to store glucose as glycogen (x). However, reactive hyperglycemia may also occur in patients who do not have diabetes. Instead, some medications and medical conditions may cause reactive hyperglycemia. For example, medications like steroids and beta-blockers and conditions like bulimia nervosa may interfere with liver function and sugar production (x).

The Dawn Phenomenon

One of the most common causes of hyperglycemia among diabetic patients is the dawn phenomenon. As the name suggests, the patient’s blood sugar is usually higher in the morning when there are higher hormone levels in the blood, including cortisol, glucagon and epinephrine. The hormones stimulate glucose release into the bloodstream. The dawn phenomenon may occur a few hours the patient goes to sleep (x).

The dawn phenomenon does not necessarily cause high blood glucose levels in the morning specifically. The patient’s blood sugar may be higher in the morning if they consume carbohydrates or sugar treats before bed. In addition, forgetting to take insulin shots before bed or taking the wrong medication dosage may also lead to high blood glucose levels in the morning. Testing blood sugar levels at night is a good way to determine whether the peaks are are a result of the dawn phenomenon or other causes (x).

Risk Factors for Hyperglycemia

There are several factors that can contribute to a patient’s risk for hyperglycemia, including (x):

  • Lack of exercise
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Illnesses and infections
  • Injuries or surgeries
  • Steroid use
  • Using an incorrect dosage or using expired insulin (x)
  • Stress
Causes of Hyperglycemia

Hyperglycemia Treatment

One of the best ways to treat hyperglycemia is prevention. Controlling diabetes may be a good way to prevent hyperglycemia (x). It is important to recognize early symptoms that diabetes and hyperglycemia may cause, however subtle. Patients should take their insulin shots as prescribed, avoid sugary foods and eat carbohydrates in appropriate amounts. In addition, controlling stress, exercising regularly and visiting a doctor for regular monitoring may also help keep blood glucose levels in a healthy range (x).

Physicians may also advise that patients meal plan carefully. They may have to limit alcohol, sugary foods and unhealthy carbohydrates. Instead, the doctor may recommend a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains (x). Exercising regularly can also help maintain healthy blood glucose levels. However, exercise may not be safe for patients with diabetic ketoacidosis because it may cause blood glucose levels to rise (x).

Complications from Hyperglycemia

Complications often occur if a patient has high blood glucose levels for a prolonged period of time without treatment. Hyperglycemia may cause a wide range of health complications.

Infections

High blood glucose levels increase the risk of bacterial and fungal infections, including athlete’s foot, ringworm, boils and jock itch. Prolonged hyperglycemia may also cause other skin conditions to develop that may cause itching, pain and lesions on the skin (x).

Hyperglycemia may also cause diabetic dermopathy, in which circular brown patches develop on the skin, especially on the legs. Prolonged hyperglycemia can also cause other skin conditions, including acanthosis nigricans, necrobiosis, diabetic blisters, eruptive xanthomatosis, digital sclerosis and disseminated granuloma annulare (x).

Nerve Damage

Prolonged hyperglycemia is also associated with nerve damage. For example, patients may suffer from peripheral neuropathy that causes weakness and numbness in the hands and feet. This condition also increases the risk of infections. Hyperglycemia may also cause autonomic neuropathy that can cause problems with bladder control, digestion and sexual function. In addition, long-term hyperglycemia may also cause cranial, femoral, focal and thoracic nerve damage (x).

Vision Damage

Diabetes and prolonged hyperglycemia may cause diabetic retinopathy or blood vessel damage in the eyes. Diabetic retinopathy may eventually cause blindness or loss of vision. It may also increase the risk for cataracts and glaucoma (x).

Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA)

Diabetics may also experience diabetic ketoacidosis, which occurs when the body’s cells become less sensitive to insulin. Low insulin levels make it difficult for body cells to access glucose. This forces the cells to use fat for energy instead and fat breakdown produces ketones (x). The human body cannot tolerate high ketone levels. Some ketones may pass in the urine, but if they build up in the body it causes acidity in the blood (x).

DKA causes acid buildup in the body, which may lead to diabetic coma without prompt treatment (x). Patients who experience dry mouth, shortness of breath, vomiting, nausea and fruity smelling breath should seek medical attention (x).

Supplements for High Blood Sugar

Cinnamon Bark

According to research, cinnamon bark can help maintain healthy blood glucose levels and support digestion. In addition, it is rich in antioxidants that aim to counter the damaging effects of free radicals in the body. This supplement may help patients maintain healthy cholesterol and glucose levels. Combined with exercise and a healthy diet, cinnamon bark extract may also help maintain a healthy body weight. In addition, the supplement may help strengthen the immune system and support heart health (x).

The healthy dosage for cinnamon bark extract is between 650 and 1,350 mg up to three times per day. For best results, take the supplement with meals and water. Exceeding the recommended dosage may be harmful even though experts consider it safe. Patients who are pregnant or nursing should avoid the supplement to avoid any potential risks. Consult a doctor to confirm the supplement’s dosage and safety.

Ginseng Root

Studies state that ginseng root can help support the immune system and cardiovascular health. In addition, ginseng is a powerful antioxidant that aims to protect the body from free radical damage. It may also promote brain and cognitive health as well as metabolism and sexual function (x).

The recommended serving size for ginseng root extract powder is between 1,000 and 2,000 mg once or twice a day. Side effects may include loss of appetite, stomach pain, insomnia and mood changes. Patients should stop using the supplement if they notice signs of allergic reactions including swelling, itching or a rash. Pregnant and breastfeeding patients should avoid this supplement. In addition, patients with autoimmune and heart disorders, diabetes and high blood pressure should not take the supplement without consulting a physician first.

Berberine

Berberine supports healthy blood glucose levels, liver function and cardiac health. In addition, it may also help patients maintain a healthy weight. Berberine may help with vision and digestion and research claims that it may help control diabetes (x).

The recommended dosage for berberine HCL powder is 500 mg twice a day. However, do not use this supplement for more than three months at a time without approval from a doctor. This product may not be safe for children and pregnant or nursing patients. In addition, patients with blood pressure conditions should avoid supplementing with berberine. Consult a doctor before adding this supplement to a supplement regimen.

Vitamin D3

Vitamin D supports bone health, metabolism and it also helps regulate phosphorus and calcium absorption in the body. In addition, vitamin D is essential for promoting healthy bones and teeth (x). The recommended dosage for vitamin D3 supplements may range depending on patients’ individual needs. But physicians recommend that patients start with the lowest dosage. Physicians recommend one 5,000 mg vitamin D3 softgel daily with food or 10 to 46 mg of pure vitamin D3 powder.

Despite its benefits, vitamin D can be toxic in extreme doses. Side effects may include weight loss, irregular heartbeat, weak muscles, nausea, constipation, seizures and irritability. It may not be safe for patients who are pregnant or nursing.

Gymnema Extract

According to research, gymnema may successfully support healthy weight and glucose levels in conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise. Researchers claim that it is a natural anti-inflammatory that may also support heart health (x). As a dietary supplement, take 500 mg of gymnema extract powder once or twice a day. Do not take this supplement with aspirin and it may also cause adverse interactions with diabetes medication. Potential side effects include dizziness, nausea and headaches. Consult a doctor before taking this supplement.

Bottom Line

Hyperglycemia is a condition that refers to high blood glucose levels. It interferes with the body’s ability to make insulin, which is a common characteristic in patients with diabetes. Signs of hyperglycemia include frequent urination, nausea, weakness and vomiting. It may also cause fruity-smelling breath, confusion or shortness of breath. Usually patients experience symptoms associated with high blood sugar levels after meals. They may also develop in the morning if the patient consumes sugary foods before bed.

The best treatment method is prevention by maintaining regular exercise and healthy dietary choices. This may help protect the body from diabetes. Patients with diabetes should take their insulin as prescribed and have regular physical checkups from a physician. Without treatment, hyperglycemia may cause many health complications, including acidity in the blood, diabetic coma and a higher risk of infections. In addition, patients may also use natural supplements to help control blood sugar levels. However, they are not a proper medical treatment for hyperglycemia or any other medical condition. Instead, they aim to promote overall health and they may be effective with a doctor’s approval.

About the author

Carey Ojuju


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