What Is Hypoglycemia? - Definition, Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Instructor: Kiley Griffin
In the following lesson, you will learn about hypoglycemia. You will begin to understand its role in diabetes, its causes and treatment, and why it is important to manage symptoms immediately.

Joe was recently diagnosed with diabetes and is still learning about how it affects his body. He is still overwhelmed with all of the information his doctor has given him. Joe has started to exercise as instructed by his doctor but often feels lightheaded after going for a light jog. His doctor told him that this might happen and to make sure he has some juice or soda with him to drink when he feels this way. Joe has a doctor's appointment coming up and wants to know exactly why this is happening. A friend told him it is probably hypoglycemia, but Joe is not sure what that has to do with his diabetes.

Joe jogging

What Is Hypoglycemia?

Hypoglycemia is low blood sugar, or blood glucose. The body needs glucose, or sugar, for energy and gets it from the carbohydrates that we eat. Extra glucose is stored in the muscles and liver for later use by the body. The liver will release this extra glucose if blood sugar begins to fall, in order to keep sugar levels balanced in the body. For some people, especially those with diabetes, this doesn't always work, and their blood sugar will remain low, causing hypoglycemia.

When glucose levels increase, insulin is released by the pancreas and the extra glucose enters the liver for storage for later use. In people with normal functioning systems, if blood sugar begins to drop, a hormone called glucagon is released, which signals the liver to release the stored glucose to regulate blood sugar. Normal glucose levels are between 70 and 100 milligrams per deciliter; diabetics should check their blood sugars frequently to ensure that they stay within the normal range and adjust food, insulin and medications to make this happen.

Low blood sugar.

What Are the Symptoms of Hypoglycemia?

Each person who experiences hypoglycemia will have different symptoms. For individuals who experience this frequently, it is important that they know what their early symptoms are so that they can treat it. If hypoglycemia goes untreated, then it can lead to more serious and life-threatening symptoms.

Some of the early symptoms of hypoglycemia include hunger, shakiness, dizziness and irritability. Some people might even experience nausea, fatigue and chills. When an individual who knows that they are at risk for hypoglycemia develops any of the above symptoms, they should take action immediately to raise their blood sugar. If an individual does not treat their hypoglycemia and ignores the early warning signs, then their condition will get worse.

More serious symptoms of hypoglycemia include lack of coordination, blurred vision, headache and fainting. Seriously low blood sugar can also lead to seizures, unconsciousness and coma if left untreated and would require emergency medical care.

What Causes Hypoglycemia?

Hypoglycemia occurs most often in people with diabetes, although it can also occur in people taking certain medications. The medications that are used to control blood sugars in people with diabetes can cause side effects, including low blood sugar. People who have diabetes have insulin that does not function normally or there is not enough of it in the body. Insulin is what controls blood sugar, so if there is not enough insulin, blood sugars can rise. Diabetics often need to inject insulin into their bodies so that this process can be regulated.

In people who have diabetes, diet and exercise can also trigger hypoglycemia. If a diabetic is taking insulin and takes too much after a meal, it can cause hypoglycemia. It can also occur from skipping a meal, not completely eating a meal or eating a meal high in sugar. If a diabetic exercises too much, then their body is using energy and depleting the blood sugars needed to regulate the body. This can also cause blood sugars to drop, but it can be managed by balancing food and insulin.

How Is Hypoglycemia Treated?

Hypoglycemia can often be treated with simple changes to diet. If a diabetic gets hypoglycemia after eating meals high in sugar, then they should avoid sugary foods and eat more frequent meals. If hypoglycemia occurs when a diabetic has not eaten a meal, then they should have a snack with protein.

Immediate treatment for hypoglycemia is eating or drinking 15 grams of glucose or a simple carbohydrate and rechecking your blood sugar after 15 minutes. If an individual's blood sugar continues to be low, doctors often advise them to have another snack and recheck their blood sugar. Once their blood sugar is normal, they should have a small snack or meal. Some examples of what the typical 15 grams of carbohydrates snacks are include a half of a cup of juice or soda, a cup of low-fat milk or a tablespoon of honey or sugar or glucose tablets.

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