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Hypoglycemia: More Sugar Please?

Do you regularly have headaches? Does your heart race? Are you irritable before meals? Do you feel confused or unable to make a decision? Are you constantly hungry? Are you always tired? Like Hollywood celebrities Burt Reynolds and Merv Griffin, you may be suffering from hypoglycemia, popularly known as “low blood sugar.”

Medical science points out that our body normally maintains the levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood within a range of about 70 to 110 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). Glucose, a form of sugar, is an important fuel for our body. Carbohydrates are the main dietary sources of glucose. Rice, potatoes, bread, milk,fruit,and sweets are all carbohydrate-rich foods. Is it another form of diabetes? “In hypoglycemia,the sugar levels in the blood become too low,” explains the second home edition of The Merck Manual of Medical Information. “In diabetes, the sugar levels in the blood become too high, a condition called hyperglycemia. Although diabetes is characterized by high levels of sugar in the blood, many people with diabetes periodically experience hypoglycemia.”

Signs and symptoms of hypoglycemia can vary from person to person. According to American Diabetes Association, the symptoms of hypoglycemia include: shakiness, dizziness, sweating, hunger, headache, pale skin color, sudden moodiness or behavior changes (such as crying for no apparent reason), clumsy or jerky movements, seizure, difficulty paying attention or confusion, and tingling sensations around the mouth. Hypoglycemia can also happen while you are sleeping. You might cry out or have nightmares, find that your pajamas or sheets are damp from perspiration and feel tired, irritable, or confused when you wake up.

Take note, though: these symptoms aren’t necessarily specific to hypoglycemia, because other conditions can produce the same feelings and malfunctions! “To find out if hypoglycemia is the cause of your symptoms,have your blood sugar measured when the symptoms are present,” suggests the American Diabetes Association.

Probable Causes
Hypoglycemia can occur in people with diabetes who take insulin and other drugs (for example, sulfonylureas) to keep their blood glucose levels in control. “People with diabetes sometimes call the hypoglycemia that can occur after taking insulin an `insulin reaction’ or `being shaky.’ Insulin reactions are more common when intense efforts are made to keep the sugar levels in the blood as close to normal as possible.” Usually hypoglycemia is mild and can easily be treated by eating or drinking something with carbohydrate. But left untreated, hypoglycemia can lead to loss of consciousness. “Low levels of sugar in the blood interfere with the function of many organ systems,” the Merck Manual informs.

“The brain is particularly sensitive to low sugar levels, because sugar is the brain’s major energy source. If the sugar levels in the blood fall far below their usual range, the brain responds by stimulating the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (adrenaline), the pancreas to release glucagons (another hormone produced by the pancreas), and the pituitary gland to release growth hormone, all of which cause the liver to release sugar into the blood.” People who are losing weight or who develop kidney failure are more likely to have hypoglycemia. Older people are more susceptible than younger people to hypoglycemia resulting from sulfonylurea drugs. Many drugs other than those for diabetes, most notably pentamidine and quinine – used to treat pneumonia and muscle cramps, respectively – can cause hypoglycemia.

Two types of hypoglycemia can occur in people who do not have diabetes: reactive and fasting. Symptoms of both types resemble the symptoms that people with diabetes and hypoglycemia experience. Reactive hypoglycemia occurs in about 2-3 out of every 10 young women, more often in obese women and less often in people over age 45. Generally, reactive hypoglycemia occur as a reaction to eating, usually carbohydrates. “The body’s response to food is excessive, so the body produces more insulin than is needed,” points out the Merck Manual.

In some people, an autoimmune disorder lowers sugar levels in the blood by changing insulin secretion or by some other means. Certain severe diseases, such as kidney or heart failure, cancer, and shock, may also cause hypoglycemia, particularly in a person who is also being treated for diabetes. Fasting hypoglycemia is the rarest and most serious form. “In fasting hypoglycemia,” says the Merck Manual, “the body is not able to maintain adequate levels of sugar in the blood after a period without food. Prolonged fasting and prolonged strenuous exercise are unlikely to cause hypoglycemia among healthy people but they can do so occasionally.”

Several diseases or conditions cause fasting hypoglycemia. “In people who drink heavily without eating, alcohol can block the release of stored sugar from the liver,” says the Merck Manual. “In people with liver disease, the liver may not store sufficient sugar.”

Children Not Spared
Children rarely develop hypoglycemia. If they do, causes may include brief intolerance to fasting (often in conjunction with an illness that disturbs regular eating patterns), excessive production of insulin, enzyme deficiencies that affect carbohydrate metabolism (these deficiencies can interfere with the body’s ability to process natural sugars), and hormonal deficiencies (such as lack of pituitary or adrenal hormones).

The trick is to learn to recognize the symptoms of hypoglycemia. This way, you can treat hypoglycemia before it gets worse. If you think you have the condition, be sure to consult your doctor immediately.
“The symptoms of hypoglycemia are relieved within minutes of consuming sugar in any form, such as candy or of drinking a sweet drink,” the Merck Manual suggests. “Both diabetic and non-diabetic people with hypoglycemia may benefit from consuming sugar followed by a food that provides longer lasting carbohydrates.” Prevention of hypoglycemia while you are driving a vehicle is especially important. Checking blood glucose frequently and snacking as needed to keep your blood glucose above 70 mg/dL will help prevent accidents.

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