Note: this post has been updated in June 2023.
What is Hypoglycemia?
Hypoglycemia is a condition that occurs when a person's blood sugar levels fall below 70 mg/dL. This can happen suddenly and without warning, leading to a range of symptoms such as dizziness, confusion, blurred vision, shakiness, excessive sweating and hunger. Learn about the causes and treatments for hypoglycemia here. There are two types of non-diabetic hypoglycemia – ‘fasting hypoglycemia’ and ‘reactive hypoglycemia’.
A person is diagnosed with fasting hypoglycemia if their blood test shows that their blood glucose level has gone below 50 mg/dL.
A great source for additional information is the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases which goes into considerable more detail than I can here.
For non-diabetics who have fasting hypoglycemia, the symptoms may manifest due to a serious illness and/or this can be caused by several factors. These include:
- Fasting hypoglycemia may occur to people who have not eaten anything for eight hours or longer.
- Taking herbal supplements such as cinnamon, ginseng and fenugreek.
- Binge-drinkers may experience alcohol-induced hypoglycemia if they have not eaten anything for the preceding 24 hours. Alcohol-induced fasting hypoglycemia is one grave complication of alcohol intoxication and without prompt treatment may lead to coma or death.
- Medications such as salicylates and other types of pain relievers and antibiotics may also cause fasting hypoglycemia.
- Illnesses such as tumor in the pancreas and those that affect the kidneys, liver and heart may also lead to fasting hypoglycemia.
- Sepsis, which is a serious infection, can also cause hypoglycemia.
- Hormonal deficiencies or having a shortage of production of certain hormones, such as epinephrine, cortisol and glucagon can lead to fasting hypoglycemia.
While any of these can cause hypoglycemia, a combination of factors will have a compounding affect, for example, if someone is ill or has an underlying condition is also affected by one or more of the discretionary causes, they are more likely to experience a hypoglycemic episode.
Reactive hypoglycemia occurs when the blood glucose level goes lower than 70 mg/dl, just like people who have diabetic hypoglycemia. Although the causes of reactive hypoglycemia can be different from diabetic hypoglycemia, the treatments used and the symptoms that manifest can also be similar.
The exact causes of reactive hypoglycemia are still unknown, but some experts believe that the following can be possible causes of reactive hypoglycemia:
- Having undergone surgery of the stomach, which makes the passage of food to the small intestine quicker than normal.
- Not having enough glucagon hormones in the body. Glucagon has the opposite effect of insulin which means it promotes an increase of blood glucose levels.
- Excessive insulin, triggered by carbohydrate intake but persisting beyond its needed time, scavenging too much glucose from the blood.
Diagnosing Non-Diabetic Hypoglycemia
Blood Test – this is a basic test that will be administered to find out if a person is hypoglycemic. The result of this test is also used as a starting point by doctors to determine what is causing the problem.
Oral Glucose Test – This test is done after an individual has fasted for eight hours. This is when the patient will be given a glucose drink and then his blood glucose levels will be checked after one hour and then again after two hours, to determine the amount of increase that has occurred to their blood glucose levels.
Fasting Tests – This is when a person will be asked to undergo an overnight fast, or in some cases they will be asked to fast for 72 hours. The blood sugar levels will be checked twice after an overnight fast. After the 72 hour fast, the doctor will then check whether the blood glucose level has dropped.
Tips to Prevent Hypoglycemia
If you are hypoglycemic, it means your blood sugar levels have dropped below 70 mg/dl. If you have a history of hypoglycemia, you are probably aware that this can happen suddenly and without warning. It can happen after engaging in exercise or any physical activity. It can also occur if you skip or delay a meal.
It is very possible that a person may be unaware that hypoglycemia is the cause of their symptoms. If you experience symptoms of hypoglycemia under the conditions described above, take steps to check it out. Either see a doctor or buy an inexpensive blood glucose metering kit, and use it when feeling affected.
Symptoms can be varied, but include shaking, fatigue, hunger, anxiety, irritability and heart palpitations. The person may be disorientated and confused, with slurred speech, even acting as though drunk.
These are all symptoms of a brain desperately short of glucose.
Hypoglycemia can be mild, but it can also be extreme and cause coma and even death. Aside from knowing the symptoms of hypoglycemia, it is equally important to know what you can do to prevent such an episode from occurring.
Hypoglycemia is nowhere near as prevalent today as hyperglycemia, and most of the publicity we see is about reducing high blood sugar.
However, hypoglycemia does occur. Its effects in mild cases can be frightening and disconcerting, in extreme cases dangerous and even deadly.
Perversely, it can affect those who normally have high blood sugar, if they are medicating to reduce those levels.
It can also affect non-diabetics for the reasons explained in the article. Awareness and preparation can prevent a hypoglycemic episode from developing into a dangerous event.
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