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Understanding Hypoglycemia

Eating to Prevent Low Blood Sugar

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Your body breaks down the food you eat into a type of sugar called glucose. After you eat a meal or snack, that glucose makes its way into the bloodstream, causing the level of sugar in your blood to increase. Your pancreas responds by releasing the hormone insulin, which allows glucose to leave the bloodstream and enter into body tissues (including the liver, for later use). When the sugar supplied by your last meal is more or less used up, insulin levels go back down to keep your blood sugar from falling further. In addition, stored sugar is released back into the bloodstream from the liver with the help of another hormone called glucogon. Normal levels of blood glucose levels vary depending on when levels are measured and can range from 70- 145 milligrams per deciliter. Most people’s systems are remarkably adept at maintaining a fairly steady blood sugar level.

However, for people with hypoglycemia, which technically means "low blood sugar," this process doesn't come as easily. While it is not considered a disease itself, hypoglycemia is a medical condition that has many uncomfortable symptoms. Frequent episodes of hypoglycemia can also be related to other medical diagnoses, most commonly diabetes. There are two types of hypoglycemia.

Fasting hypoglycemia occurs when you have not eaten for eight or more hours. It can be caused by certain conditions that disrupt your body’s ability to balance the levels of glucose in the blood: eating disorders, and diseases of the kidney, liver, pancreas, and pituitary or adrenal glands. Taking a high dose of aspirin may also lead to fasting hypoglycemia.

Non-fasting (reactive) hypoglycemia occurs after eating a high-carbohydrate meal or snack. If your body is unable to respond appropriately, it releases insulin too late and in excessive amounts. This causes your blood glucose levels to drop too low.

Hypoglycemia can also be caused by:
  • Diabetes. Taking too much medication, eating inappropriately, changing your exercise routine, or illness can cause low blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
  • Prolonged exercise
  • Waiting too long between meals and snacks, especially during pregnancy.
  • Prolonged fasting
  • Eating large amounts or the wrong types of food after certain stomach surgeries, such as gastric bypass surgery
  • Diseases of the glands that produce hormones important in blood glucose control, such as the pancreas, pituitary gland, or adrenal glands. (These are rare and generally require the care of an endocrinologist.)
  • Kidney failure, severe liver disease, severe congestive heart failure or severe widespread infection
  • Medication interactions
Signs of hypoglycemia include weakness, nausea, hunger, headache, sweating, nervousness, mental confusion, anxiety, shakiness, drowsiness, dizziness, and trembling.

Because these symptoms are similar to many other problems, including panic attacks and stress, it's important to get appropriate testing and an accurate diagnosis from you physician.
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

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