Glucose comes from the food we eat. It is the main source of energy for the body.
The pancreas secretes substances, including the hormone insulin, and enzymes. Enzymes break down food. Insulin makes it possible for body cells to absorb the glucose we consume.
With diabetes, either the pancreas is unable to produce insulin to help the glucose get into the body cells, or the body becomes resistant to the insulin. The glucose stays in the blood instead.
This is what raises blood sugar levels. High blood sugar is known as hyperglycemia.
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Causes of blood sugar spikes
People with diabetes have to be especially careful about keeping their blood sugar levels under control.
Lack of sleep can cause blood sugar spikes.
There are several reasons why blood glucose levels may spike. These are:
- Sleep: A lack of sleep can be especially bad for people with diabetes, because it can also raise blood sugar levels. One study performed on Japanese men found that getting under 6.5 hours of sleep each night increases a person's risk for high blood glucose levels. Prioritizing healthy sleep and promoting sleep hygiene are good habits for everyone, but especially for people with diabetes.
- Stress: When under a lot of stress, the body produces hormones that make it difficult for insulin to do its job, so more glucose stays in the bloodstream. Finding a way to keep stress levels down, such as yoga or meditation, is essential for people with diabetes.
- Exercise: Having a sedentary lifestyle can cause blood sugar levels to go up. In addition, exercise that is too difficult can cause stress and blood glucose levels to rise. With diabetes, it is important to get light to moderate exercise regularly, as opposed to pushing too hard.
- Medications: Some medicines can cause blood sugar levels to rise, such as corticosteroids, diuretics, some blood pressure medications, and some antidepressants. A person with diabetes must let their healthcare provider know if they are also taking one of these medications. In addition, taking the wrong dose or missing a dose of insulin can also cause the blood sugar levels to spike.
- Smoking: Smoking cigarettes can make it difficult to keep blood sugar levels low. A person who smokes should make it a priority to quit. Their doctor or local health service can provide resources if needed.
- Foods: Eating foods that are high in sugar or carbohydrates are more likely to raise blood sugar levels. One way to track how a particular food will affect the blood glucose level is by looking at its glycemic index (GI). The GI measures how much a carbohydrate will affect the blood glucose level. Foods with a high GI (70 or greater) include bagels, popcorn, or crackers. Foods with a low GI (under 55) include barley, bulgar, corn, and sweet potato. People with diabetes should try to eat low GI carbohydrates.
Managing blood sugar spikes
People who have a diagnosis of diabetes need to keep in touch with their healthcare provider. The doctor should provide clear instructions about medication dosages, necessary diet and activity changes, and how to check blood sugar levels at home. Following these instructions is essential for preventing blood sugar spikes.
If blood sugar spikes still happen despite following medication and diet instructions, the individual must follow up with the doctor for an adjustment on the medication.
It is important to know when to call the doctor, and when, if necessary, to seek emergency care. This is because high blood sugar spikes can lead to severe health problems.
It may help to keep a journal to record blood sugar levels each time they are measured.
Look for patterns, such as if blood sugar spikes present each morning. If so, it might be time to check in with the doctor about adjusting insulin dosage. Is it high after meals? Try going for a walk to see whether a little exercise can bring them down. Make sure to bring the journal to appointments so that the doctor can review the results.
Symptoms of a blood sugar spike
Usually, there are no symptoms of hyperglycemia until the blood sugar level is quite high. Symptoms tend to be more severe the higher the blood sugar level is, and the longer that it has been elevated.
Early signs of hyperglycemia include:
- frequent urination
- blurred vision
As blood sugar levels continue to rise without being addressed, ketones may start to build up in the blood and urine.
This causes more severe symptoms, including:
- fruity-smelling breath
- nausea and vomiting
- shortness of breath
- dry mouth
Anyone experiencing these symptoms should immediately check their blood sugar and contact their doctor if the level is high. The doctor should provide information about when to call and what to do after an abnormal blood sugar reading.
Who is at risk for a blood sugar spike?
There are several risk factors associated with having a blood sugar spike.
People who smoke are more at risk of blood sugar spikes.
- cigarette use
- improper use of diabetes medication
- being sedentary
- illness or infection
- injury or trauma
- recent surgery
- use of certain medications
- having significant emotional stress
A person with these risk factors should contact their physician to discuss how they might affect their blood glucose levels. The physician may make specific recommendations on how to address and minimize the risk factors.
It is especially important to be careful about measuring blood glucose levels at home, and be aware of the signs and symptoms associated with high blood sugar.
Complications of blood sugar spikes
Recurrent blood sugar spikes can have severe consequences. Persistently high and uncontrolled blood sugar levels can cause very serious health complications.
Diabetic ketoacidosis happens when there is a lack of insulin in the body, causing sugar to stay in the blood, instead of going into the body cells for energy.
The body compensates by breaking down fat for energy. This produces toxic substances known as ketones. These are normally excreted in urine. If too many ketones build up in the blood, they cannot be excreted. Untreated, diabetic ketoacidosis can lead to coma and, in some cases, death.
Hyperglycemic hyperosmolar syndrome occurs when the body still produces insulin but it does not work well or at all. In this situation, glucose still builds up in the blood, but the body cannot use it or burn fat for energy. The extra blood sugar leaves the body through the urine, causing extreme dehydration, coma, and even death.
High blood sugar can have other long-term health complications, including:
- heart disease
- nerve damage
- kidney damage or failure
- damage to the feet leading to amputation
- infections of the skin
- problems with the teeth and gums
Keeping blood sugar levels under control and preventing spikes is essential to staying healthy. Patients should speak to a doctor about concerns or recurrent spikes.