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What is Hypoglycemia? Discover Causes, Signs, & Symptoms of Hypoglycemia

Do you often feel exhausted or dizzy? Do you have blurred vision or a persistent headache? If so, you might be experiencing hypoglycemia, otherwise known as low blood sugar.

Hypoglycemia is a condition that affects many adults and children alike, and can be difficult to manage. Let's explore the three types of fuel that your body uses for energy: fat, protein, and carbohydrates, and discover the connection between these types of fuel and hypoglycemia.

Body Fuel #1 - Fat

When a living animal or plant has excess fuel, it will convert it to fat and store it to use during times that it does not have any other source of energy. Fat is an excellent fuel storage source because it can hold nine calories of energy per gram (which is a lot), but it is hard to break down, which you have probably experienced if you have ever tried to lose weight.

Fat is essential because it is one of the reasons our ancestors were able to survive long, cold winters when food was scarce. Fat put on the body during Spring, Summer, and Fall was needed to sustain life during Winter months, when hunting and gathering was more difficult, if not impossible.

Body Fuel #2 - Protein

Another source of fuel for the body is protein. Proteins in nature are amino acids, which are biochemical compounds that contain nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Proteins build muscles and form enzymes, hormones, and other biological structures that are necessary for life to adapt and evolve.1

The human body can use protein as a fuel source by converting it into glucose, most commonly known as sugar. When a lot of protein is consumed or when a person is under severe starvation, the human body can turn protein into sugar.1

Body Fuel #3 – Carbohydrates

The most common way the body gets the energy it needs is from food rich in carbohydrates, by converting them into glucose, the smallest sugar.1 Glucose is the cell's default energy choice for fuel because it is the easiest to extract energy from; but it also has the least amount of energy in it - only four calories per gram.1

Glucose and its Connection to Hypoglycemia. What is Hypoglycemia?

Because cells prefer to use glucose for energy before using other fuels, glucose levels can fall quickly. This condition is called hypoglycemia, which literally means "low sugar".1

Hypoglycemia can be caused by diets low in sugar, fasting, too much aerobic exercise, medications that lower blood sugar, and stress.

According to the American Diabetic Association, hypoglycemia starts when you have about two grams, or about 1/2 teaspoon, of sugar in the blood.1,2 For reference, two grams is not enough sugar to sweeten the average cup of coffee.

Symptoms of Hypoglycemia

Since we can't monitor the amount of sugar in our blood without tools like a glucometer, which is an electronic device that is used to measure blood sugar levels, it is important to watch for common symptoms of hypoglycemia. If you experience two or more of the following symptoms, you may want to consult your healthcare practitioner to see if you are hypoglycemic2:

  • Two of the most common symptoms are feeling exhausted and appearing pale.
  • The whole body trembles as if shivering, but it isn’t cold.
  • Another symptom of hypoglycemia is the feeling of dizziness.
  • Vision becomes blurred, due to the inability to focus on objects in your surroundings.
  • You may also experience extreme mood changes; one moment feeling euphoric, and the next feeling depressed or angry.
  • A common sign is hunger and/or a headache.
  • Tachycardia, the medical name for an especially fast heartbeat, has also been reported.
  • Cold sweats are another reported symptom.
  • The last stage of hypoglycemia is when a person can no longer think clearly and needs another person’s assistance to do basic tasks.

What to do if You are Feeling Hypoglycemic

If you are feeling hypoglycemic, experts recommend eating something that has at least 15 grams of sugar or more to raise blood sugar quickly.2

If eating sugar does not work, a shot of glucagon may be needed. Glucagon is a hormone produced by the body that signals the liver and muscles to release stored sugar into the bloodstream.1,2 This shot is available at a primary care office, urgent care facility, or an emergency room.2

Prevention of Hypoglycemia

The old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is never more true than in the case of hypoglycemia. The following guidelines are provided by The Mayo Clinic as ways to prevent hypoglycemia4:

  • Eat more or take less blood sugar medication if you are going to exercise, since it burns more sugar.
  • Eat regular meals throughout the day that contain carbohydrates.
  • If taking blood sugar medication, take at the times the doctor directed.
  • Check your glucose level with a glucometer if available.
  • Look for signs of hypoglycemia.

Hypoglycemia is a condition that can be frustrating and harmful to otherwise healthy people, and properly managing it is important … especially in our fast-paced, nutrient-deficient world. Do you have an experience with hypoglycemia to share? Find us on Facebook, we’d love to hear your story.

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References
1. Campbell, Neil A., and Jane B. Reece. Biology. San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2008. Print.
4. Diabetic Hypoglycemia. (2015, 20 February). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetic-hypoglycemia/basics/prevention/con-20034680.