Low Blood Sugar or Hypoglycemia
What is hypoglycemia?
The word hypoglycemia literally means low (hypo) sugar (glyc) in the blood (emia). Blood sugar is exactly what it sounds like, how much sugar or glucose is in your blood at a given time. This number is highly variable based on what you have eaten, your stress level, exercise, your caffeine intake and a variety of other factors.
Is hypoglycemia or low blood sugar the same as being diabetic?
No, in fact it is the polar opposite. However, diabetics who are on blood sugar lowering medication can experience hypoglycemia if what they have eaten and the dosage of their medication are a mismatch. Diabetic medication is outside the scope of this article and best discussed with your prescribing physician.
What causes low blood sugar?
Since your blood sugar level is influenced by a number of factors, you may experience low blood sugar for many reasons:
Under stress, your body depends on glucose for fuel to assist in the “fight or flight” response. The stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline tend to increase blood sugar to get more fuel to your muscles to prepare you for the fight. When your blood sugar shoots up quickly, your body responds by producing insulin to help move the sugar from the blood into the cells to either be burned as fuel or stored as fat. As insulin moves the glucose out of your blood and into your cells, your blood glucose level will drop. If it drops too much, hypoglycemia may result. Stress also often primes us to reach for the wrong foods, those rich in refined flour and sugar. The consumption of those foods is likely to lead to a blood sugar crash some time later.
Foods that induce a spike in blood sugar like sweets and starchy foods, will necessitate the production of insulin. Insulin, as mentioned above, then lowers blood sugar. In some instances, excess insulin is produced and blood sugar drops lower than normal. Avoiding consuming foods that spike insulin, helps maintain a more stable blood sugar.
For most forms of exercise, your body can maintain a stable blood sugar. However, if you participate in extended endurance workouts, like running marathons, there is the potential for your fuel to drop a bit low. The runner’s term for this is to “bonk” or “hit a wall”. Distance runners will often carry gels with them (containing mainly sugar) to prevent or treat a blood sugar crash. In my opinion, as a triathlete, I think a better strategy is to eat a meal containing easily digested protein (like fish), some healthy fat (like avocado) and some low glycemic index carbs (like a bit of sweet potato) 3 hours before a race, and to keep a few nuts and high fibre dried fruit with me rather than consuming sugary gels that are likely to result in a crash some time later.
Consumption of caffeine creates a spike in cortisol, which then increases blood sugar. As with stress and diet, anything that increases blood sugar stimulates production of blood sugar-lowering insulin. This creates the potential for a crash in blood sugar later.
Under-working adrenal glands
Your adrenal glands are your stress glands. They sit just on top of your kidneys. They perform many jobs, one of which is to keep your blood sugar stable. When it begins to drop, the adrenals signal to your liver to release some stored glucose, to bring your blood sugar back up. If adrenals fail to signal your liver, then your blood sugar will drop. For most of the people that I see, under-functioning adrenal glands and diet are the two biggest factors contributing to hypoglycemia.
While these do not increase your blood sugar, research suggests that your body will still produce insulin in response to the sweet taste. If blood sugar does not rise, yet insulin is still produced, blood sugar will drop due to the insulin. For many, the reason for using these is to reduce the amount of insulin being produced to help with weight loss. If insulin is produced anyway, consuming them kind of defeats the purpose.
Estrogen influences how well your body is able to use sugar and insulin. Postmenopause when estrogen is lower, there may be a greater tendency to have blood sugar fluctuations.
Non-sugary alcoholic beverages like wine or straight spirits may cause your blood sugar to crash, where sugary cocktails may do the opposite.
What are the symptoms of low blood sugar?
The symptoms of low blood sugar include:
- Feeling weak, shaky, dizzy, light-headed, headachy or irritable when going too long without eating.
- Sleep maintenance insomnia. This is where people wake up in the middle of the night, often highly alert or even feeling anxious or stressed and have a hard time going back to sleep.
6 Tips to Prevent Hypoglycemia
- Include protein with each meal. Protein is slow release energy that helps to maintain a stable blood sugar.
- Avoid high glycemic index carbs, sugar and artificial sweeteners. These spike your blood sugar which can lead to a subsequent crash.
- Drink alcohol in moderation. If you are experiencing sleep troubles, you may want to avoid alcohol in the evening.
- Support your adrenal glands. Eat lots of leafy greens, get good sleep, reduce your stress levels and take time to relax and have fun every day.
- Stress. Other than divesting yourself of the stress, moderate exercise is the best way to reduce your body’s response stress. Find an exercise that you enjoy and use it to burn off stress on a regular basis.
- Stay hydrated. While blood sugar doesn’t drop because you are dehydrated, dehydration can feel like hypoglycemia.
If you are experiencing the symptoms of low blood sugar, our Naturopathic Doctors and Registered Dietitian can help with nutrition advice. See Dr. Rachel Vong, ND, Dr. Pamela Frank, ND or Sanaz Baradaran, RD. Call us at 416-481-0222 or book online here.