What is low blood sugar? As the name suggests, it refers to sugar in the blood that is lower than normal levels. Hypoglycaemia is the medical term for low blood sugar. Hypo = below normal and glycemia = the presence of glucose (sugar) in the blood.
Hypoglycaemia, or more commonly “hypo”, is one of the common conditions in people with diabetes. While many of us consider diabetes as being a problem of high blood sugar, some medications used to treat diabetes and certain lifestyle factors can cause blood sugar levels to go too low, and this can be dangerous.
How Low is Low?
Low blood sugar or hypo is sparked when blood sugar levels fall below 4mmol/L (70mg/dL if you’re in the US).
How to Detect Low Blood Sugar?
Low blood sugar is usually accompanied by certain signs and symptoms. However, let’s not jump to conclusions by only looking at the signs and symptoms. Checking your blood sugar level with a glucometer is always the most accurate way to detect low blood sugar.
What is Low Blood Sugar – The Signs and Symptoms
The common signs and symptoms associated with low blood sugar and their level of severity are:
Mild Hypo (Little or no interruption of activities, able to self-manage symptoms)
Weakness, headache, shakiness, rapid heartbeats, sweating, tiredness, dizziness, blurred vision, feeling hungry, tingling around mouth or lips
Moderate Hypo (Some interruption of activities but still able to self-manage symptoms)
Personality change, irritability, confusion, poor coordination, difficulty in concentrating, slurred speech
Severe Hypo (Unable to self-manage symptoms, needs medical attention)
Loss of consciousness, coma, seizure
Good to Know
Each person reacts to low blood sugar differently; it is important to know your own signs and symptoms. Repeated episodes of low blood sugar can cause hypoglycaemia unawareness. This is when the brain has already gotten used to the frequent occurrence of hypo and ceases to detect mild low blood sugar, making physical symptoms not showing. Hence, there may be no warning of low blood sugar in its early stages.
What is Low Blood Sugar – The Common Causes
A person with diabetes will have problems producing sufficient insulin and using insulin properly. What is insulin? Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas (an organ located behind the stomach). Insulin facilitates the movement of sugar out of the bloodstream and into the body’s cells. Our body’s cells are the powerhouse, they use sugar to generate energy. People with diabetes use a variety of treatments to manage their blood sugar. Among these are oral medications that increase insulin production, and insulin injections.
Below are the common causes of Low Blood Sugar:
Too much insulin injected
This is one of the most common causes for low blood sugar among people who are on insulin therapy. Injecting too much insulin (you are supposed to inject 12 units but you injected 20 units) will move the sugar out of the blood into the body’s cells rapidly, leaving little sugar in the blood, leading to low blood sugar.
Diabetic patients who are on sulphonylureas are at risk of developing low blood sugar. This class of oral diabetic medication stimulates the production of insulin in the pancreas. Taking too much of these medications will stimulate the pancreas to overproduce insulin. Too much insulin will cause blood sugar to drop too low. Some examples of sulphonylureas class are Diamicron (Glicazide), Diamicron MR, Amaryl (Glimperide) etc. With a consistent and appropriate amount of carbohydrate food intake, low blood sugar caused by medication and insulin injection is preventable. If low blood sugar persisted despite taking the right amount of carbohydrate food, you should talk to your doctor to review the medication/insulin.
Talking about not eating enough, we are referring to the carbohydrate food. Digestion breaks down carbohydrate into sugar and our body uses these sugar as fuel. Skipping meals or skipping carbohydrate in meals, eating less than normal, or not eating at the proper time, while taking your medication, can cause too little sugar in the bloodstream for the insulin to act on, leading to low blood sugar.
The liver is very important in regulating blood sugar in the body. The liver stores sugar in the form of glycogen and liver can also convert glycogen into glucose, releasing them into the bloodstream throughout the day if it gets too low. Drinking alcohol will hinder the liver’s ability to release sugar into the bloodstream. For people who are on diabetic medications or insulin, this means that the liver may not be able to release enough glycogen to keep the blood sugar from going too low.
The body uses sugar as one of the fuels during exercise. Excessive or long hours of exercise will cause depletion of sugar in the blood causing low blood sugar. Unplanned or spontaneous exercise makes it difficult or sometimes impossible to adjust the meal time and medication which can cause low blood sugar too.
After reading through this blog post, I guess you already have an idea about what is low blood sugar. It is very crucial to treat low blood sugar as soon as possible once confirmed with a glucometer. Delaying treatment can lead to severe low blood sugar which is associated with life-threatening consequences like unconsciousness, coma, and seizures. Do stay tuned for future blog posts if you would like to know more about how to treat and prevent low blood sugar!