What is Hypoglycemia?
Hypoglycemia is a condition characterized by low blood sugar (glucose) levels in the body. Glucose levels rise and fall throughout the day, but in hypoglycemia, level falls too low—under 70 mg/dL. This can be very dangerous and the patient has to treat the condition to raise their blood sugar as soon as possible (x).
Usually the condition affects patients with diabetes, but other patients may experience symptoms as well. For example, research also associates abnormal glucose metabolism with rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and metabolic syndrome (x, x, x). There are several risk factors, including lifestyle and dietary choices (x).
Symptoms of Hypoglycemia
There are a wide number of symptoms for hypoglycemia. They usually develop very quickly and each patient reacts differently to the condition. Not all patients will experience the same symptoms, but it’s important to be able to recognize the signs of low blood sugar. The only way for a patient to confirm low blood sugar is to check their blood sugar levels.
When the blood sugar drops, the body releases adrenaline, which can trigger anxiety, shaking, tingling, sweating and a racing heart. It can also cause headaches, lightheadedness or dizziness. The patient may also have difficulty sleeping, such as fatigue and nightmares. Hypoglycemia can also cause confusion, blurred vision, clumsiness, nausea, intense hunger and even seizures (x).
Complications from Hypoglycemia
Hypoglycemia can be a very dangerous condition, putting the patient at risk for serious complications, including (x):
Causes of Hypoglycemia
Hypoglycemia is usually associated with diabetes, but other patients can suffer from abnormal glucose levels. Glucose is one of the most vital sources of energy in the body and is mainly present in foods rich in carbohydrates. The body sources energy from foods with high glucose levels, such as beans, fruits, vegetables and sugary drinks and snacks. The body absorbs this glucose into the bloodstream and then transports it to the cells that need it for energy (x).
The pancreas produces a hormone called insulin that makes it possible for the body to use glucose. The pancreas also controls glucose levels in the body in relation to how much it consumes from outside. Additional glucose travels to the liver or other body tissues for storage as glycogen. The body also stores the extra glucose as fat cells when it doesn’t need to be used as energy (x).
When blood glucose levels fall too low, the hormones instruct the liver to release the stored glycogen. This helps keep the blood glucose levels under control. When something interrupts this process and blood sugar levels do not regulate properly, it causes hypoglycemia. Because diabetes can cause drastic changes in blood sugar, the condition often affects diabetic patients. According to the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), the symptoms of hypoglycemia typically appear when the blood sugar levels fall below 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) (x).
Risk Factors for Hypoglycemia
Patients with diabetes use medication to control blood sugar and keep it in a healthy range. Research shows that some medications may contribute to hypoglycemia. Some common medications that may trigger the condition include glimepiride (Amaryl), repaglinide (Prandin) and chlorpropamide (Diabinese) (x).
High levels of glucose in the blood can raise insulin levels, which contributes to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a condition where the cells fail to respond to normal insulin levels in the blood. This imbalance can increase the risk for diabetes or cause irregular blood sugar metabolism (x).
Hepatitis is a condition caused by inflammation in the liver that interferes with the organ’s ability to function. When the liver cannot metabolize sufficient amounts of glucose, the process falls out of balance (x).
Increased Physical Activity
Exercising can cause blood sugar levels to fall too low. When the body is active, the muscles use up all the glucose and stored glycogen in order to repair themselves. For diabetics, exercise can cause an unhealthy decline in blood sugar, depending on the intensity, duration and timing of the activity (x).
Alcohol can disrupt blood sugar levels in the body, interfering with the hormones that help regulate them. For a patient with diabetes or hypoglycemia, heavy drinking can use up an unhealthy amount of blood sugar and energy. It can also make insulin less effective (x).
Specific enzyme deficiencies can make it difficult for the body to process glucose properly. The liver stores excess glucose to use later. However, if the enzyme that regulates this process is not present it can lead to hypoglycemia because the body cannot maintain glucose levels (x).
In a stressful situation, the body releases glucose in different organs, raising blood sugar levels. For patients with diabetes, it can be more difficult to keep these blood sugar levels regular and in the long term, it can increase the risk for hypoglycemia (x).
Hypoglycemia symptoms may be mild or more severe and they affect patients differently. It’s important to see an endocrinologist for proper diagnosis. The doctor uses a set of three factors to make a diagnosis: low blood sugar levels, if symptoms appear when blood sugar drops and if the patient finds relief with treatment. Then the doctor administers a blood test to measure glucose levels either after the patient fasts overnight, after they exercise or in between meals (x).
Treatment for Hypoglycemia
Treatment for hypoglycemia depends on the cause. The condition can affect patients with or without diabetes, so different patients may require different treatment methods. If hypoglycemia is a result of diabetes medication, the doctor may adjust the dosage or the time the patient takes it. Patient can work with a dietitian to develop a healthy diet plan with consistent carbohydrates, which contain glucose. The patient may need to monitor their blood glucose levels more closely to keep them from dropping. It’s also a good idea to limit alcohol consumption (x).
When blood sugar drops, patients can take steps to regulate them quickly. Doctors may recommend carrying hard candy or glucose tablets. Drinking juices may help and the body absorbs fruits very easily to raise blood sugar quickly. However, avoid foods with protein or fat when the blood sugar is low because they do not raise glucose levels fast enough. Patients should also avoid skipping meals and non-diabetics should take small meals and snacks throughout the day to maintain healthy blood sugar levels (x, x).
Diet for Hypoglycemia
Following a healthy, balanced diet can help patients manage hypoglycemia. Working with a dietitian can help develop a meal plan that will help keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range (x).
Carbohydrates are the main source of glucose in the body, so it’s important to include healthy carbs in the diet that will help with glucose metabolism. These include potatoes, whole grains, legumes, corn, peas and sweet fruits like bananas, melons and grapes (x).
Including healthy fats in the diet can help regulate blood sugar and blood pressure. Patients should opt for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—avocados, oils, nuts, fatty fish, soy milk and flaxseed (x).
A diet with adequate amounts of fiber can reduce the risk for diabetes. It may even help patients who already have diabetes regulate their blood sugar. Patients can get fiber from whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat pasta and whole grain cereal. Fruits and vegetables are also high in fiber, especially berries and leafy greens (x).
Protein provides the body with energy and can help reduce the risk for diabetes and heart disease. It’s best to include high-quality protein rather than low-quality protein like red or processed meats. Fish, poultry, dairy products, nuts, seeds and soy products are all good options (x).
Fruits & Vegetables
Consuming fresh fruits and vegetables may help patients control hypoglycemia. They may provide the body with enough glucose to raise levels back to normal when they drop (x).
Foods to Avoid
Supplements for Hypoglycemia
Patients may also benefit from natural supplements. They are not an adequate treatment or cure for any health condition, but they may benefit overall health. Supplements cannot completely control blood sugar on their own but they may help, paired with other treatment methods. Speak to a doctor before adding any supplements to a dietary routine, especially with diabetes.
Beta-carotene is a plant pigment that gives fruits and vegetables their color, including carrots, apricots, peppers and leafy green vegetables. It is a powerful antioxidant that protects several bodily systems. It can help protect the eyes from cataracts, support cystic fibrosis and reduce the risk for cancer. Beta-carotene may also help control blood pressure and blood sugar. The recommended dosage for beta-carotene powder is 1,300 mg per day, after confirming the dosage with a doctor.
Green Coffee Bean
Raw coffee beans are actually green and roasting them is what gives them their dark color. They have a high level of a compound called chlorogenic acid that may help with weight loss and high blood pressure. Research states that green coffee beans may help manage diabetes symptoms, reduce inflammation and regulate glucose metabolism (x). As a dietary supplement, the recommended dosage for green coffee bean powder is 50 to 200 mg one or two times per day. Consult a doctor to confirm the dosage.
There are tons of kelp extract products on the market and people have been using it for centuries in food and drinks. Research states that it may help reduce the risk of diabetes by balancing blood sugar levels in the body. It contains a natural metal called vanadium that can help regulate insulin and control blood sugar (x). The recommended daily dosage for kelp extract powder is 600 mg (about ¼ tsp) per day with food, if a doctor approves the dosage.
The Bottom Line
Hypoglycemia is a condition in which the body does not regulate glucose properly and blood sugar levels become abnormally low. Typically doctors associate hypoglycemia with diabetes, but patients without diabetes can develop it as well. Common symptoms include dizziness, fatigue, hunger pangs, headaches and seizures. Symptoms can be mild or severe and can cause complications like dementia, injuries and may even put patients in a coma.
Patients can take steps to manage the condition by following a healthy and balanced diet, monitoring blood sugar levels and adjusting medications with the help of a doctor. There are also natural supplements that may help regulate blood sugar. However, they are not a cure for hypoglycemia or any other medical condition. Consult a doctor to avoid side effects and medication interactions. Although they are not a cure, supplements do aim to benefit overall health.