Hypoglycemia is a condition that occurs when the sugar levels in your blood are too low. Many people think of hypoglycemia as something that only occurs in people with diabetes. However, it can also occur in people who don’t have diabetes.
Hypoglycemia is different from hyperglycemia, which occurs when you have too much sugar in your bloodstream. Hypoglycemia can happen in people with diabetes if the body produces too much insulin. Insulin is a hormone that breaks down sugar so that you can use it for energy. You can also get hypoglycemia if you have diabetes and you take too much insulin.
If you don’t have diabetes, hypoglycemia can happen if your body can’t stabilize your blood sugar levels. It can also happen after meals if your body produces too much insulin. Hypoglycemia in people who don’t have diabetes is less common than hypoglycemia that occurs in people who have diabetes or related conditions.
Here's what you need to know about hypoglycemia that occurs without diabetes.
What are the symptoms of hypoglycemia?
Everyone reacts differently to fluctuations in their blood glucose levels. Some symptoms of hypoglycemia may include:
- a feeling of extreme hunger
- a headache
- an inability to concentrate
- blurred vision
- personality changes
You may have hypoglycemia without having any symptoms. This is known as hypoglycemia unawareness.
What are the causes of hypoglycemia?
Hypoglycemia is either reactive or non-reactive. Each type has different causes:
Reactive hypoglycemia occurs within a few hours after a meal. An overproduction of insulin causes reactive hypoglycemia. Having reactive hypoglycemia may mean that you’re at risk for developing diabetes.
Non-reactive hypoglycemia isn't necessarily related to meals and may be due to an underlying disease. Causes of non-reactive, or fasting, hypoglycemia can include:
- some medications, like those used in adults and children with kidney failure
- excess amounts of alcohol, which can stop your liver from producing glucose
- any disorder that affects the liver, heart, or kidneys
- some eating disorders, such as anorexia
Although it's rare, a tumor of the pancreas can cause the body to make too much insulin or an insulin-like substance, resulting in hypoglycemia. Hormone deficiencies can also cause hypoglycemia because hormones control glucose levels.
If you’ve had surgery on your stomach to alleviate the symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease, you may be at risk for a condition known as dumping syndrome. In late dumping syndrome, the body releases excess insulin in response to carbohydrate-rich meals. That can result in hypoglycemia and the related symptoms.
Who can develop hypoglycemia without diabetes?
Hypoglycemia without diabetes can occur in both children and adults. You’re at an increased risk for developing hypoglycemia if you:
- have other health problems
- are obese
- have family members with diabetes
- have had certain types of surgery on your stomach
- have prediabetes
Although having prediabetes increases your risk of diabetes, it doesn’t mean you’ll definitely develop type 2 diabetes. Diet and lifestyle changes can delay or prevent the progression from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes.
If your doctor diagnoses you with prediabetes, they’ll likely talk to you about lifestyle changes, such as following a healthy diet and managing your weight. Losing 7 percent of your body weight and exercising for 30 minutes per day, five days per week has been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 58 percent.
How is hypoglycemia diagnosed?
Hypoglycemia can occur in a fasting state, meaning you’ve gone for an extended period without eating. Your doctor may ask you to take a fasting test. This test can last as long as 72 hours. During the test, you’ll have your blood drawn at different times to measure your blood glucose level.
Another test is a mixed-meal tolerance test. This test is for people experiencing hypoglycemia after eating.
Both tests will involve a blood draw at your doctor's office. The results are usually available within a day or two. If your blood sugar level is lower than 50 to 70 milligrams per deciliter, you may have hypoglycemia. That number can vary from one person to another. Some people's bodies naturally have lower blood sugar levels. Your doctor will diagnose you based on your blood sugar levels.
Keep track of your symptoms and let your doctor know what symptoms you’re experiencing. One way to do this is to keep a symptom diary. Your diary should include any symptoms you’re experiencing, what you’ve eaten, and how long before or after a meal your symptoms occurred. This information will help your doctor make a diagnosis.
How is hypoglycemia treated?
Your doctor will need to identify the cause of your hypoglycemia to determine the right long-term therapy for you.
Glucose will help boost your blood sugar levels in the short term. One way to get additional glucose is to consume 15 grams of carbohydrates. Orange juice or another fruit juice is an easy way to get extra glucose into your bloodstream. These sources of glucose often briefly correct hypoglycemia, but then another drop in blood sugar often follows. Eat foods that are high in high complex carbohydrates, such as pasta and whole grains, to sustain your blood sugar levels after a period of hypoglycemia.
The symptoms of hypoglycemia can become so severe for some people that they interfere with daily routines and activities. If you have severe hypoglycemia, you might need to carry glucose tablets or injectable glucose.
What are the complications associated with hypoglycemia?
It’s important to control your hypoglycemia because it can cause long-term health problems. Your body needs glucose to function. Without the right level of glucose, your body will struggle to perform its normal functions. As a result, you may have difficulty thinking clearly and performing even simple tasks.
In severe cases, hypoglycemia can lead to seizures, neurological problems that may mimic a stroke, or even loss of consciousness. If you believe you’re experiencing any of these complications, you or someone near you should call 911 or you should go directly to the closest emergency room.
How to prevent hypoglycemia
Simple changes to your diet and eating schedule can resolve episodes of hypoglycemia, and they can also prevent future episodes. Follow these tips to prevent hypoglycemia:
- Eat a balanced and stable diet that’s low in sugar and high in protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates.
- It’s OK to eat good complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, but avoid eating processed, refined carbohydrates.
- Eat small meals every two hours to help keep your blood sugar levels stable.
Carry a snack
Always carry a snack with you. You can eat it to prevent hypoglycemia from happening. It's best to carry a quick source of carbohydrates to boost your blood sugar levels. Protein will help keep sugar in your system for a longer period as your body absorbs it.
Determine the cause
Meals and dietary changes aren't always long-term solutions. The most important thing you can do to treat and prevent hypoglycemia is to determine why it's happening.
See your doctor to determine if there’s an underlying cause for your symptoms if you’re having recurrent and unexplained episodes of hypoglycemia.