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Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, happens when the glucose level in the blood falls below the normal range.
Given that glucose is your body’s primary source of energy, this condition can make you run out of steam and can give rise to a range of discomforting symptoms. Thus, you have to take measures to pump up your dwindling blood sugar back within the normal range in order to feel normal again.
If left untreated, your blood sugar level can fall further, which could induce serious complications such as loss of consciousness and seizures. Plus, a severely low blood sugar level poses a risk to your life if not treated immediately.
For those taking insulin, a low blood sugar level is considered to be less than 70 mg/dL. (1) For those who are not diabetic and/or don’t take insulin, blood sugar levels typically need to fall below 60 mg/dL before they would experience symptoms. (2)
Cause of Low Blood Sugar
Some common causes of low blood sugar levels include:
- When some people, even those who are not diabetic, eat very high carbohydrate, low-protein, low-fat meals or snacks (think pancakes and syrup), the high-carbohydrate foods enter the bloodstream very quickly and stimulate the pancreas to make a lot of insulin. All that insulin causes the blood sugar level to fall quickly and it can actually fall below the normal range and cause symptoms. This is called postprandial hypoglycemia.
- When diabetics take insulin, they can take more insulin than is needed, and this will cause a low blood sugar level.
- Rarely, nondiabetics can have an insulin-producing tumor in their pancreas that causes frequent low blood sugar levels.
- Other causes of hypoglycemia include: starving the body for prolonged periods by skipping or delaying meals, sudden and dramatic increase in physical activity (when the body is not prepared for it), or excessive alcohol intake on an empty stomach.
Symptoms of Low Blood Sugar
The symptoms of a mildly low blood sugar level include:
In extreme conditions when the blood sugar level drops dangerously low, people can suffer fainting spells, seizures, and even death if the condition is not met with prompt treatment.
Best Ways to Deal With Low Blood Sugar (Hypoglycemia)
Here’s how you can manage low blood sugar at home.
1. Act quickly (first line of treatment)
Once the blood sugar level is low, it is critical to treat it quickly. The typical rule of thumb is to take 15 g of glucose by mouth and recheck the blood sugar level in 15 minutes; 15 grams of glucose is equivalent to 3–4 glucose tablets or 4 oz of juice or milk.
It is not recommended to use chocolate or hard candies as they take too long to get into the blood and raise the blood sugar level. If after 15 minutes the blood sugar level is still low, an additional 15 g of glucose should be taken.
During a hypoglycemic episode, taking glucose tablets or juice is the best way to immediately raise and stabilize your blood sugar levels. Once the blood sugar level reaches the normal range, it can help to eat a small mixed meal, such as cheese and crackers or a sandwich, to keep the blood sugar level from dropping again.
2. Modify your diet
When it comes to postprandial hypoglycemia, the best option is to try to avoid it altogether by eating a diet low in simple carbohydrates and high in fiber, proteins, and healthy fats.
Foods such as these don’t overstimulate the pancreas to produce excess insulin that uses up all the blood glucose to give you an instant but short-lived energy burst. Once the glucose is utilized to make energy, your blood sugar levels inadvertently drop.
In general, a well-balanced diet that is low in simple carbohydrates and high in fiber, lean proteins, and healthy fats will improve overall glucose control and reduce the risk of hypoglycemia. (4)
3. Stay active
Moderate exercise after a high-carbohydrate meal can also be helpful in avoiding low blood sugar levels.
4. Keep a check on your sugar levels
People with diabetes who take insulin often find it more difficult to avoid low blood sugars. Their glucose levels drop frequently, sometimes without them even realizing it, which could be quite dangerous.
If you don’t know your blood sugar level is down, you won’t try to treat it. Delayed treatment or lack of treatment can make your blood sugar level fall extremely low, which could endanger your life. Therefore, such high-risk patients must constantly monitor their blood sugar level to avoid any sudden or drastic drops.
Consider using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) for this purpose. This device is worn on the arm or abdomen, and it keeps sampling your blood sugar through your skin. You can get the current reading on your blood sugar the entire time you are wearing it. (5)
Most CGMs allow the wearers to set alarms that go off if the blood sugar level is low or will be low in the next 30 minutes.
5. Don’t drink too much and don’t drink on an empty stomach
Alcohol consumption can also cause hypoglycemia, especially when you don’t have enough food in your system. (6) Experts recommend limiting your alcoholic intake to one serving with a meal in order to avoid such drops in blood sugar level.
Stress and Hypoglycemia
High stress levels typically don’t cause a drop in blood sugar level, but engender the opposite effect. Stress triggers the release of cortisol hormone in the body. High cortisol levels invariably cause your blood sugar level to spike rather than fall.
Low blood sugar levels feel terrible and are very anxiety provoking. It is important to try to stay calm and not over-treat hypoglycemia to avoid developing hyperglycemia. The symptoms of hypoglycemia may feel prolonged, but most cases can actually be treated in a matter of minutes.