Understanding hypoglycemia is sometimes confusing, especially when there’s a lot of medical terms in the text. I will do my best in providing clear information on hypoglycemia to encourage readers who are looking for answers.
Hypoglycemia by definition is when glucose levels drop below normal, which typically means under 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl). Low blood glucose or low blood sugar are other names for this condition.1
*It is important to keep in mind that this number may vary depending on each person as everyone’s body is different. Check with your physician to gain a better understanding of what levels are too low for your body.2
People who have diabetes have to monitor their glucose or sugar
levels, and it can be a challenge to keep them balanced. Medicines that help manage high blood sugar can cause levels to drop too low, and the person may experience hypoglycemia. Even though hypoglycemia is a real issue for those with diabetes, it is a condition in and of itself. You can have hypoglycemia without being diabetic, also referred to as non diabetic hypoglycemia.
WHAT IS GLUCOSE?
Glucose is a sugar, and it’s the greatest producer of energy for the body and brain.3 At all times, even during rest, our bodies rely on glucose to operate and perform well.4 We take in glucose through eating foods.3 The digestion process releases sugar, which becomes glucose,5 then it’s absorbed or drawn in through the bloodstream6 and directed to our cells.7 Our body, especially the brain and nervous system, requires a particular level of glucose to work well. This glucose level can’t be too high or too low. With unbalanced blood glucose levels, the body responds with symptoms to indicate something is wrong.5
For regular brain function, there has to be a constant supply of glucose in the blood. In a person with good health, who doesn’t regularly experience hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), there are a number of natural safeguards designed to protect the brain if there is an unexpected drop in blood glucose. Various hormones respond to correct and stabilize glucose levels, these hormones include; insulin, glucagon, epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol, and growth hormone.8
People with diabetes or recurrent hypoglycemia have to manage blood glucose levels with foods and or medication. The natural functions in the body stop working as they should and the response to falling or rising blood glucose levels are unreliable. The hormone response to correct glucose levels either doesn’t work at all or works for a limited time and requires help from the individual for stabilization. If necessary medication or food management isn’t followed, there is a risk of developing serious health conditions including severe hypoglycemia or unawareness, both of which are life-threatening.
The majority of the body has the ability to use up fat or muscle when it’s in need of extra fuel or energy. Our brains are unable to use fat or muscle as an energy source, and instead relies on a constant reserve of glucose.9
The hypothalamus is a part of our brain that helps regulate blood glucose levels (and other bodily functions). It produces hormones that instruct the body to use up the stored glucose in the liver. Once this supply is used up, the liver will convert fat and muscle into glucose so the brain has energy. This is a natural process for the hypothalamus as it does it’s part in regulating blood glucose levels.9
The pancreas is meant to adjust the level of glucose in the blood, if the level is too high, the pancreas will send out insulin—enabling the body to take in glucose through the cells. Any excess glucose is held in the muscles and liver for the body to use later.9
When there’s too much insulin, due to a miscalculated injection by a person or because the body isn’t functioning properly, the body might use up too much glucose, to the point where the liver cannot keep up with the demand of blood glucose for both the body and brain. This is when the sympatho-adrenal response kicks in and, as an alert system, the body experiences hypoglycemia symptoms to indicate food should quickly be consumed to balance blood glucose levels again. Possible symptoms may include, shaking, dizziness, sweating, hunger, and more.9
The brain is most affected when blood glucose levels are too low. Many hypoglycemia symptoms are directly related to brain function. As the brain becomes more and more deprived of much needed glucose (fuel), symptoms become more severe and the brain begins to shut down, to the point of unconsciousness or death.10,9 (Here is a link to the Signs and Symptoms of hypoglycemia.)
Carbohydrates, the primary source for glucose,7 like; vegetables, fruit, grain, and even table sugar dissolve into simple sugars through digestion. These sugars go into the blood stream as glucose, which makes the blood sugar levels in our body spike.11
As a result, the pancreas will release insulin into the bloodstream. This response is our body’s natural way of bringing down high glucose levels so they are normal and balanced.11
WHAT IS INSULIN?
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, and it aids cells in using glucose as energy.7 It also helps to balance out blood glucose levels, which keeps the body functioning correctly. Insulin encourages the glucose to go into our cells so it can be used as fuel.3
When we consume a higher amount of glucose than what the body needs, the liver, and muscles store the excess as glycogen.7
WHAT IS GLYCOGEN?
Combined glucose molecules create glycogen, and glycogen is the stored form of glucose.12 Glycogen is a source of energy between meals or when the body is in need7 of a fast pick-me-up, or energizer. It’s also used if the body cannot gain enough glucose from foods12 or if blood glucose levels go down.13 Glycogen is reduced and dissolved so it can send glucose out into the bloodstream to supply nourishment to the cells.12
The pancreas also produces a hormone called glucagon.7
WHAT IS GLUCAGON?
Glucagon increases the level of glucose in the blood. The pancreas supplies and sends out glucagon through the bloodstream when cells require more glucose.14
As blood glucose levels fall, glucagon alerts the liver to dissolve the stored glycogen and send glucose out into the bloodstream. This causes blood glucose or sugar levels to balance out by going up to a normal level.7
Hypoglycemia happens when our body struggles to deal with or manage the high volume of sugar found in many foods. Eating sugary foods in excess, consuming caffeine and alcohol, or experiencing stress can create a strain on the body.11
With hypoglycemia, the body’s natural way of managing high glucose levels get out of whack. When there is a fast increase in blood sugar, the pancreas does not respond as it should and will release too much insulin. This causes blood sugar or glucose levels to drop much lower than the normal range of where our body functions best.11
All the body’s cells use glucose for energy or fuel, the brain cells in particular. When blood glucose levels are too low, cells become malnourished and deprived of necessary fuel, and this will cause physical and emotional symptoms of hypoglycemia.11
If you have any thoughts, questions, concerns, or want to share a piece of your personal experience with hypoglycemia, please feel free to post a comment down below!
Published March 3, 2017
Updated October 12, 2017
1. Low Blood Glucose (Hypoglycemia). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/low-blood-glucose-hypoglycemia. Published August 2016. Accessed February 16, 2017.
2. Mayo Clinic Staff. Diseases and Conditions: Hypoglycemia. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hypoglycemia/basics/definition/CON-20021103?p=1. Published January 20, 2015. Accessed February 16, 2017.
3. FACT SHEET: Nondiabetic Hypoglycemia. Hormone Health Network. http://www.hormone.org/questions-and-answers/2013/nondiabetic-hypoglycemia. October 2013. Accessed February 24, 2017.
4. Hypoglycemia. KidsHealth From Nemours. http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/hypoglycemia.html. Accessed March 1, 2017.
5. What Is Hypoglycemia?. TeensHealth by Nemours. http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/hypoglycemia.html. Updated October 2016. Accessed March 1, 2017.
6. Hypoglycemia; Also called: Low blood sugar. Medline Plus Trusted Health Information For You. https://medlineplus.gov/hypoglycemia.html. Updated January 12, 2017. Accessed February 23, 2017.
7. Hypoglycemia. PubMed Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0024699/. Accessed February 28, 2017.
8. Choi I, Seaquist E, Gruetter R. Effect of Hypoglycemia on Brain Glycogen Metabolism In Vivo. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1471897/.
Published May 30, 2006. Accessed October 12, 2017.
9. Curry, A. Going Low: Hypoglycemia; How the brain responds to low blood glucose. Diabetes Forecast The Healthy Living Magazine. http://www.diabetesforecast.org/2015/may-jun/going-low-hypoglycemia.html. Published May 2015. Accessed June 5, 2017.
10. What Is Hypoglycemia? TeensHealth from Nemours. https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/hypoglycemia.html. October 2016. Accessed June 4, 2017.
11. Ruggiero, Roberta. FAQs: What is Hypoglycemia?. The Hypoglycemia Support Foundation, Inc. HSF. http://hypoglycemia.org/about-hsf/faq/. Published 2016. Accessed February 23, 2017.
12. Definition: Glycogen. TeensHealth from Nemours. http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/glycogen.html?WT.ac=ctg. Accessed March 2, 2017.
13. Word! A Glossary of Medical Words: Glycogen. KidsHealth from Nemours. http://kidshealth.org/en/kids/word-glycogen.html?WT.ac=ctg#catg. Accessed March 2, 2017.
14. Definition: Glucagon. TeensHealth from Nemours. http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/glucagon-def.html?ref=search#catg. Accessed March 2, 2017.