Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
Shaky. Fuzzy. Sleepy. Tired. Low. Crashing.
These are all words I used growing up as a type 1 diabetic, to describe how I was feeling when my blood sugar was low.
I was diagnosed when I was 5. So I came up with some interesting ways to describe how I was feeling to my parents and other adults in my life. I remember one time when I was in kindergarten, I was describing how I felt to a PE teacher, and she thought I was just trying to get out of having to do the activity. I nearly had a hypoglycemic seizure because I didn’t have access to proper attention or treatment. (In her defense, she was a substitute and hadn’t been told I had diabetes.)
So, what is the proper treatment for low blood sugar? To answer that question, we first need to know what’s considered low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) defines hypoglycemia as anytime your blood sugar is lower than normal. This can be different for each person with diabetes, but it usually means blood sugar less than 70 mg/dL. Symptoms to look out for include:
- increased appetite
- cloudy thinking
- blurry vision
- an inability to concentrate
- pale facial complexion
I’ve sometimes described it to my nondiabetic friends as an almost “out of body” experience.
Once you start to feel these symptoms, it’s important to immediately test your blood sugar to confirm if you are, in fact, experiencing hypoglycemia.
Some of these symptoms are also characteristic of high blood sugar levels, or hyperglycemia. You may also feel these symptoms anytime you experience a rapid drop in your blood sugar. For example: If your blood sugar is high, and you take insulin to bring it down, you may feel the symptoms commonly associated with hypoglycemia as your blood sugar dips, even if it isn’t actually low by definition.
Once you’ve confirmed your blood sugar is low — or lower than normal — how should you treat it? Essentially, you want fast-acting carbohydrates: simple sugars with little to no fiber. You also want to avoid high-fat foods. The fat that will often stabilize blood sugars after meals can actually delay how quickly your body absorbs those needed simple carbohydrates. In the case of low blood sugar, that’s the opposite of what you want.
The most commonly recommended treatment for low blood sugar is glucose tablets or glucose gel. And let me tell you, those glucose tablets aren’t the tastiest things in the world. Think chalky, super sweet, and fake fruit flavor all rolled into one… sounds appetizing, I know.
So, while these treatments are highly effective, they’re not exactly what this dietitian would call “nutritious.” Don’t get me wrong, nutrition isn’t our main goal when treating low blood sugar — raising your blood sugar quickly is the main goal. But what if you could properly treat low blood sugar and not have to resort to chalky tablets filled with processed sugar, food coloring, and artificial flavors?
Speaking from both professional and personal experience, here are 10 ways to treat low blood sugar with real food:
If your blood sugar is greater than 80 mg/dL, but you’re feeling symptoms of hypoglycemia:
1. all-natural peanut butter with no added sugar (I prefer this one)
If your blood sugar is greater than 80 mg/dL, it’s likely you’re experiencing these symptoms due to rapidly changing blood sugar levels, and aren’t in need of quick-acting carbohydrates. Peanut butter (or any nut butter) without added sugar is filled with protein and fat and can help alleviate these symptoms without raising your blood sugar more.
If your blood sugar is 70-80 mg/dL:
2. peanut butter and crackers
At this point, your blood sugar is still not technically low, by definition. However, this may be lower than you’re comfortable with. Any form of starch — in this case crackers — will help gradually raise your blood sugar just slightly, and the fat and protein in the peanut butter will sustain those levels.
If your blood sugar is 55-70 mg/dL:
4. medjool dates
All the foods listed above are fresh or dried fruit that have higher amounts of naturally occurring sugars than other fruits. While there’s some fiber present in these, the amount is minimal and will raise blood sugar quickly and effectively.
If your blood sugar is less than 55 mg/dL:
9. 100% grape juice
10. honey or maple syrup
If your blood sugar has dropped below 55 mg/dL, you need quick, rapid-acting liquid carbohydrates. There should be no fiber, fat, or protein present. Grape juice is one of the highest carbohydrate-filled juices and is my choice for myself and clients experiencing this severity of hypoglycemia.
Some people have trouble chewing and swallowing when blood sugar reaches this level, so we want to focus on concentrated sources of carbohydrates, like higher-carbohydrate juices, or sweeteners like maple syrup and honey.
Before implementing any of these suggestions into your hypoglycemia plan, make sure to check with your doctor or healthcare provider first.
Mary Ellen Phipps is the registered dietitian nutritionist behind Milk & Honey Nutrition. She’s also a wife, mom, type 1 diabetic, and recipe developer. Browse her website for yummy diabetes-friendly recipes and helpful nutrition tips. She strives to make healthy eating easy, realistic, and most importantly... fun! She has expertise in family meal planning, corporate wellness, adult weight management, adult diabetes management, and metabolic syndrome. Reach out to her on Instagram.