Extreme changes in blood sugar levels are more common than you might think, and can lead on to serious problems if left unchecked.
A 2015 review found that, among those with type 2 diabetes, mild episodes of low blood sugar occur an average of 19 times a year, with almost one severe episode on average annually. This was particularly common among those taking insulin.
Thankfully, there are several warning signs that all is not well. Learn to identify when you hit a blood sugar dip and take action to stabilize glucose levels for the good of your health.
Blood Sugar Highs & Lows
Our blood sugar levels can affect so many aspects of our wellbeing – both mental and physical. But what exactly is blood sugar?
Well, after eating, our food is broken down into various parts – one of which is glucose (sugar), which is either used right away for energy or stored for later use. For our bodily cells to be able to use glucose, we must be producing enough insulin, and our body must be able to use this insulin correctly. (Diabetics either cannot produce insulin or cannot use it properly.)
If our bodies cannot do this, we experience fluctuations in blood sugar. We can also experience these fluctuations if we skip meals, drink alcohol on an empty stomach, eat a lot of junk food or simple carbohydrates, engage in more physical activity than we are used to, or as a side effect of various medications.
If blood sugar levels dip below 70 mg/dL, they are considered too low – a condition known as hypoglycemia – and can cause a variety of symptoms, including the following 13:
13 Warning Signs of Low Blood Sugar
1. Shakiness, Lightheadedness or Dizziness
Feeling shaky, lightheaded or dizzy are very common symptoms of low blood sugar as brain cells tend to malfunction when blood glucose drops below a certain level.
In fact, these signs are often one of the first things you will notice – especially immediately upon waking in the morning, after your body has been fasting all night long. If you experience these symptoms, make sure to sit down to avoid fainting or injuring yourself.
2. Disturbed Sleep
A poor nights’ sleep is another common symptom of hypoglycemia, especially if it occurs around 2am or 3am, when blood sugar levels fall and the body has insufficient short chain fatty acids to maintain proper blood sugar levels.
Because glucose is important to the function of the brain, the body often has an adrenalin reaction at this time to bring the blood sugar back up to normal levels – which only serves to wake you up.
Of course, there are many other reasons why you may not be sleeping well – see some common sleep-destroying habits here.
3. Changes in Mood
If you feel the sudden onset of nervousness, anxiety, irritability, impatience, anger, sadness or any other changes in mood, your blood sugar levels may have just dropped.
Studies have found that, even in healthy people without diabetes, episodes of hypoglycemia are known to cause feelings of increased stress. And other research shows that, in those with Type 1 diabetes, acute hypoglycemia causes increased anxiety.
Again, these effects come down to glucose’s role in brain function, making it all the more important that you carefully monitor your blood sugar levels.
4. Sudden, Intense Hunger
Are you regularly hit by a wave of ravenous hunger seemingly out of nowhere? It’s probably a sign that your body needs more glucose. This can happen if you haven’t eaten in a while, but can also happen soon after a meal, especially if the meal didn’t contain complex carbs (such as bananas, beans, brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato etc.) which help provide slow, sustained glucose energy.
5. Weakness or Fatigue
Tiredness and low energy are signs that your blood sugar levels have dropped and occur because your body doesn’t have enough energy, in the form of glucose, to meet all its needs.
Even once blood sugar levels are restored after a hypoglycemic episode in healthy, non-diabetic patients, studies have found that a state called ‘tense tiredness’ has been seen to persist for at least 30 minutes afterwards.
6. A Change in Heart Rate
Low blood sugar can cause your heart to beat rapidly and will usually be accompanied by shaking, dizziness or lightheadedness. These are some of the first signs to look out for following a drop in blood sugar levels.
But, if left untreated, hypoglycemia may affect the heart in other ways too. A 2008 government-funded clinical trial found that hypoglycemia can lead to prolonged, slow heart rates that disturb blood flow to the heart and can result in a lethal cardiovascular event.
7. Sweating, Chills and Clamminess
Sweating is almost always present in cases of hypoglycemia. Controlled by the autonomic nervous system, this excessive perspiration will usually happen suddenly and without warning, regardless of how warm or cold the temperature around you may be.
If your hands or face don’t feel clammy, check for sweating on the back of your neck around your hairline.
A pounding headache can indicate that you had a hypoglycemic event earlier in the day or have had it for some time. If this happens, eat something with carbohydrates – like a banana or some raisins.
You’ll also need to monitor your condition throughout the day because, if the hypoglycemia has lasted for some time, your glucose stores may be used up, and you’re more likely to suffer repeat episodes of low blood sugar later in the day.
9. Blurred or Impaired Vision
Seeing double, or blurred vision, is another common symptom of a drop in blood glucose levels. According to Diabetes Self-Management, this happens because, while the brain routinely takes pictures from both eyes and formulates them into a single image, without enough glucose the brain loses the ability to coordinate vision. It’s also a sign that you have been hypoglycemic for some time that day and you need to be vigilant about repeat episodes.
While it may cause you concern, Diabetes UK advises your vision should return once your blood sugar levels have been restored to the normal range.
10. Slurred Speech
You may have difficulty getting the words out if your blood sugar drops too low – it can often sound like you’ve had a few too many! You may not even notice the change, so pay heed if others around you point it out.
11. Tingling or Numbness
Numbness or tingling in the face or hands are other symptoms to be aware of. You may initially notice that the tingling or feeling of numbness is confined to one spot, but it later spreads to other areas.
If you are looking paler than normal, or those around you advise you could do with some sun, it could be down to your blood glucose levels!
13. Confusion & Cognitive Problems
Hypoglycemia is generally thought to affect cognition in a number of ways.
Moderate episodes of low blood sugar have been shown to cause short term cognitive deficits (and increase the risk of motor vehicle accidents). In a vehicle driving study on people with diabetes, cognition was shown to return to baseline once blood sugar levels returned to normal. The length of time it takes to recover cognitively may be related to the severity of the hypoglycemia – those with severe cases can take several days!
You may also have trouble finding the exact words you are looking for, and may struggle to absorb new information.
There May Be No Warning Signs!
According to the American Diabetes Association, many people can have blood glucose readings below normal and feel no symptoms. Known as ‘hypoglycemia unawareness’, sufferers are less likely to be awakened from sleep when hypoglycemia occurs at night. This condition occurs most commonly in those who frequently experience low blood sugar levels, or have had diabetes for a long time.
However, studies have shown that preventing hypoglycemia for several weeks can sometimes break this cycle and restore awareness of symptoms so you know when you’re running low in glucose and can take appropriate action.
Complications Arising from Long-Term Low Blood Sugar Levels
Without treatment, this can lead to even more severe symptoms, such as:
- Poor coordination
- Nightmares or crying out during sleep
How to Balance Blood Sugar Levels
As you can see, blood sugar lows have far-reaching consequences for your overall health and sense of wellbeing.
That’s why it is so important to treat low blood sugar immediately to avoid long term serious effects. While certain hypoglycemic incidents rarely produce serious symptoms (such as those resulting from exercise several hours after a meal), those with other causes – including from underlying diseases – are more serious and must be treated by a doctor.
If you’re suffering from low blood sugar, in addition to consulting your doctor, you should learn how to maintain balanced blood sugar as it’s one of the most important things you can do for your mind and body.
Once you know the secrets to achieving this balance, you can enjoy better mood and concentration, higher energy levels and sustain a healthy weight. So here they are – the 10 secrets you need to know in order to balance your blood sugar!