What is hypoglycemia?
Hypoglycemia is when blood sugar levels are very low.
Hypoglycemia occurs when blood sugar levels drop below 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl). Severe hypoglycemia can be life-threatening if a person does not receive treatment. Treatments focus on returning blood sugar to safe levels.
Blood sugar, or glucose, is the body's primary source of energy. When levels fall too low, the body does not have enough energy to function fully. This is called hypoglycemia.
Insulin helps the body's cells to absorb sugar from the bloodstream. A person with diabetes may take insulin shots because their body is resistant to insulin or because it does not produce enough.
In people with diabetes, taking too much insulin can cause blood sugar levels to drop too low. Not eating enough or exercising too much after taking insulin can have the same effect.
However, people who do not have diabetes can also experience hypoglycemia.
Causes of hypoglycemia without diabetes
In people without diabetes, hypoglycemia can result from the body producing too much insulin after a meal, causing blood sugar levels to drop. This is called reactive hypoglycemia.
Reactive hypoglycemia can be an early sign of diabetes.
Other health issues can also cause hypoglycemia, including:
Drinking too much alcohol
When a person's blood sugar levels are low, the pancreas releases a hormone called glucagon.
Glucagon tells the liver to break down stored energy. The liver then releases glucose back into the bloodstream to normalize blood sugar levels.
Drinking too much alcohol can make it difficult for the liver to function. It may no longer be able to release glucose back into the bloodstream, which can cause temporary hypoglycemia.
Taking another person's diabetes medication can cause hypoglycemia.
Hypoglycemia can also be a side effect of:
Some groups have an increased risk of medication-induced hypoglycemia, including children and people with kidney failure.
A person with the eating disorder anorexia may not be consuming enough food for their body to produce sufficient glucose.
Hepatitis is an inflammatory condition that affects the liver. Having hepatitis can prevent the liver from working properly.
If the liver cannot produce or release enough glucose, this can cause problems with blood sugar levels and lead to hypoglycemia.
Adrenal or pituitary gland disorders
Problems with the pituitary gland or adrenal glands can cause hypoglycemia because these parts of the body affect the hormones that control glucose production.
The kidneys help the body process medication and excrete waste.
If a person has a problem with their kidneys, medication can build up in their bloodstream. This type of buildup can change blood sugar levels and lead to hypoglycemia.
Pancreatic tumors are rare, but having one can lead to hypoglycemia.
Tumors in the pancreas can cause the organ to produce too much insulin. If insulin levels are too high, blood sugar levels will drop.
Dizziness and confusion can be symptoms of hypoglycemia.
When a person has hypoglycemia, they may feel:
- unable to concentrate
- unable to focus their eyes
A person with hypoglycemia may develop a headache or pass out (lose consciousness).
If a person has hypoglycemia often, they may stop experiencing symptoms. This is called hypoglycemia unawareness.
To diagnose hypoglycemia, a doctor first asks a person about their symptoms. If the doctor suspects hypoglycemia, they may perform a blood test.
Blood sugar levels below 70 mg/dl can indicate hypoglycemia.
However, everyone has a different base blood sugar level, and the measurement that determines hypoglycemia can vary.
The doctor may use other tests to determine the underlying cause of low blood sugar.
Glucose tablets can help to raise blood sugar levels.
Treating the underlying cause is the best way to prevent hypoglycemia in the long term.
In the short term, receiving glucose helps blood sugar levels return to normal.
According to research from 2014, the best way to treat mild hypoglycemia is to:
- take 15 grams of glucose
- wait for 15 minutes
- measure blood glucose levels again
- repeat this treatment if hypoglycemia persists
There are many ways to receive glucose, including:
- taking a glucose tablet
- injecting glucose
- drinking fruit juice
- eating carbohydrates
Eating slow-release carbohydrates may help sustain blood sugar levels.
Non-diabetic hypoglycemia diet
A non-diabetic hypoglycemia diet can help keep blood sugar levels balanced. The following tips can help to prevent hypoglycemia:
- eating small meals regularly, rather than three large meals
- eating every 3 hours
- eating a variety of foods, including protein, healthful fats, and fiber
- avoiding sugary foods
Carrying a snack to eat at the first sign of hypoglycemia can prevent blood sugar levels from dipping too low.
Ultimately, the best way to prevent hypoglycemia is to identify and treat the underlying cause.