The Lowdown on Low Blood Sugar
By Melissa Diane Smith
This article was first published in DeliciousLiving! magazine, May 1998.
Have you ever eaten dessert or pasta, and a few hours later suffered from fatigue, shakiness, poor concentration or sugar cravings? If so, you probably experienced a type of low blood sugar, reactive hypoglycemia. This condition is a common but misunderstood cause of illness that affects millions of Americans, says Ralph Golan, M.D., author of Optimal Wellness (Ballantine).
The body works hard to maintain balanced blood sugar because blood sugar, or glucose, is the fuel most cells -- especially brain cells -- need for energy. Low blood sugar develops when the body's intricate blood-sugar-balancing mechanisms malfunction for one reason or another. This can occur because of genetics, but it's often due to poor eating and lifestyle habits.
The most common factor that predisposes us to developing hypoglycemia is a diet high in sugar, concentrated sweets and refined carbohydrates such as white-flour products. These types of carbohydrates contain little or no fiber to slow down the release of glucose in the bloodstream, so they cause the blood sugar to rise quickly. The pancreas responds to high blood sugar by oversecreting a hormone called insulin, which stimulates blood sugar to drop too low. As a result, the brain becomes deprived of optimal amounts of glucose and its function suffers. Symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, mental fatigue, confusion, blurred vision, poor memory and depression or mood swings can then develop.
Stress and adrenal gland malfunction also are involved in the development of hypoglycemia. When the adrenals, our "stress glands," are healthy, they respond to falling blood sugar by sending just the right amount of adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol into the system to raise blood sugar to a steady level. However, when the adrenals are exposed to too much stress -- whether physical or emotional -- they can produce either too much or not enough stress hormones in response to plummeting blood sugar. If the adrenals overreact to falling blood sugar and produce excessive amounts of adrenaline and cortisol, certain types of symptoms associated with hypoglycemia such as anxiety, hyperactivity, panic attacks, shakiness, and excessive or unexplained sweating can develop. On the other hand, if the adrenals don't produce enough stress hormones, they won't raise blood sugar enough, and fatigue and mental dullness can result.
There are several ways to test for hypoglycemia, such as with a glucose tolerance test, glucose-insulin intolerance tests and by measuring your insulin and adrenaline levels. These diagnostic techniques are expensive though and often not necessary. The most useful way to determine if you have hypoglycemia is by assessing your symptoms, notes Julian Whitaker, M.D., in Dr. Whitaker's Guide to Natural Healing (Prima). Common symptoms include:
- Cravings for sweets
- Irritability if you miss a meal
- Tiredness or weakness if you miss a meal
- Dizziness when you suddenly stand
- Frequent headaches
- Poor memory or poor concentration
- Feeling shaky at times
- Feeling tired an hour or so after eating
If your symptoms indicate hypoglycemia, follow a diet and supplement program designed to help balance blood sugar. If your symptoms don't improve after a month, have a doctor test for conditions such as food allergies, candidiasis and hypothyroidism, which may mimic or aggravate hypoglycemia.
If you have hypoglycemia, however mild, don't let this condition persist. Hypoglycemia represents the beginning stages of faulty blood-sugar metabolism, says Whitaker, and may progress into adult-onset diabetes if left untreated.
How to handle hypoglycemia
Since an overworked pancreas and overstressed adrenals are involved in hypoglycemia, the best way to treat this condition is to adopt diet and lifestyle habits that promote balanced blood sugar and minimize stress on these glands. Here are some tips:
- Keep blood sugar steady. Eat at least three meals daily at regular intervals and avoid going too long without food. You may do best having five or six small meals or snacks throughout the day, at least initially. This is particularly important if you experience hypoglycemic symptoms in mid-morning or mid-afternoon.
- Emphasize balanced nutrition. Try to include some protein, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and fat in each meal and snack. Eating these nutrients together helps ensure steady blood sugar. Good sources of protein include fish and lean meats, and healthy types of fat are nuts, seeds, olive oil and flaxseed oil. The best types of carbohydrates to emphasize are those that release glucose gradually such as vegetables and legumes.
- Choose the least-processed carbohydrates possible. Select an apple over apple sauce, brown rice instead of white rice, and cooked whole-grain cereal in place of instant, ready-to-eat cereal. The more natural a state a carbohydrate is in, the better it is for your blood sugar. Less processed carbohydrates not only contain more blood-sugar-balancing fiber, but also usually contain significantly more blood-sugar-balancing chromium. (See Tip 7.)
- Avoid or greatly minimize your intake of sugar and all sweets. This includes not only refined sugar, but also honey, maple syrup, other natural sweeteners, fruit juices and dried fruits. Natural sweets are more nutritious than refined sugary treats, but they still are concentrated sources of sugar that cause quick blood sugar highs and lows, which stress adrenal and pancreatic function.
- If you must have a sweet, have it after a well-balanced meal. Eating sweets on an empty stomach is particularly hazardous for blood-sugar control and invites strong hypoglycemic reactions.
- Reduce your intake of alcohol and caffeine. Found in coffee, tea, cola and chocolate, caffeine, as well as alcohol, can cause abrupt blood sugar highs and lows much like sugar does, resulting in extra work for the adrenals and pancreas.
- Take supplements of chromium. A mineral essential for proper blood sugar balance, chromium helps normalize both high and low blood sugar, and supplemental chromium has been found to alleviate common hypoglycemic symptoms (Metabolism, 1987, vol. 36). Up to 90 percent of Americans are deficient in chromium, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Good food sources of chromium include shellfish, liver, mushrooms, brewers yeast and whole grains. However, refined grains and white flour and sugar products, which are eaten in high amounts in this country, deplete chromium stores.
- Work with a health professional. A nutrition expert can determine the best supplement program to enhance your recovery from hypoglycemia. In addition to chromium, supplements that help treat hypoglycemia include the B-complex vitamins, pantothenic acid, vitamin C, biotin, and the amino acid glutamine, Golan notes. The B vitamins improve carbohydrate metabolism and soothe stressed-out nerves, and pantothenic acid and vitamin C are key nutrients for enhancing adrenal function. Biotin and glutamine tend to reduce sugar cravings, he says.
- Learn to reduce stress. Make time for rest and relaxation daily. Try deep breathing exercises, meditating, talking to a trusted friend, taking a luxurious herbal bath or listening to relaxing music. It doesn't matter how you manage stress but that you do. Reducing stress improves adrenal function, which helps prevent the blood sugar lows.