Every cell in your body needs sugar (glucose) to function. When your blood sugar levels drop too low, your cells become starved for energy. Initially, that can cause minor symptoms, but if you don’t get your blood sugar levels up soon, you’re at risk of serious complications.
Effects of Low Blood Sugar on the Body
When your blood sugar (glucose) levels fall below the normal range, it’s called hypoglycemia, or insulin shock.
Low blood sugar can happen when you skip a meal. It can also happen if your pancreas releases more insulin than it should after you’ve eaten.
The most common reason for low blood sugar is diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can no longer produce insulin. In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t make enough, or your body can’t use it properly. To keep blood sugar levels from rising too much (hyperglycemia), you need the right amount of insulin. With insufficient insulin, your blood sugar levels rise. Too much, and your blood sugar levels can plummet.
Another possible cause of low blood sugar is drinking too much alcohol, especially on an empty stomach. This can interfere with the liver’s ability to release stored glucose into your bloodstream. Hepatitis and other problems with your liver can also lead to low blood sugar. Other causes include kidney disorders, anorexia nervosa, a pancreatic tumor, or adrenal gland disorders.
There are a variety of symptoms of low blood sugar, but the only way to be sure what your blood glucose levels are is by taking a blood glucose test.
Generally, blood sugar levels below 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are considered too low, according to the American Diabetes Association. If you have diabetes, it’s important to monitor your blood sugar levels often. Low blood sugar can come on quickly, but it can usually be treated easily. However, if you don’t take care of it, it can lead to severe complications and even death.
Digestive, Endocrine, and Circulatory Systems
After you eat, your digestive system breaks down carbohydrates and turns them into glucose to fuel your body. As your sugar levels rise, your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. The insulin helps glucose travel within your bloodstream to cells throughout your body. If you have insulin-dependent diabetes, you must take the right about of insulin to get the job done. Any excess glucose goes to your liver for storage.
When you go a few hours without eating, blood sugar levels go down. If you have a healthy pancreas, it releases a hormone called glucagon. That tells your liver to process the stored sugars and release them into your bloodstream. If everything works as it should, your blood sugar levels should remain in the normal range until your next meal.
Insufficient blood sugar levels can cause a rapid heartbeat and heart palpitations. However, even if you have diabetes, you may not always have obvious symptoms of low blood sugar. It’s a condition called “hypoglycemia unawareness.” This happens when you experience low blood sugar so often that it changes your body’s response to it. Normally, low blood sugar causes your body to release stress hormones, such as epinephrine. Epinephrine is responsible for those early warning signs, like hunger and shakiness. When low blood sugar happens too frequently, your body may stop releasing stress hormones (hypoglycemia-associated autonomic failure, or HAAF). That’s why it’s so important to check your blood sugar levels often.
Central Nervous System
Every cell in your body needs sugar to work properly. It’s your body’s main source of energy. Low blood sugar levels can cause a variety of problems within your central nervous system. Early symptoms include weakness, lightheadedness, and dizziness. You may feel nervous, anxious, or irritable, and you’ll probably be hungry. Lack of coordination, chills, clammy skin, and sweating are common. Tingling or numbness of the mouth may be a sign of low blood sugar. Other symptoms include blurred vision, headache, and confusion. You may have difficulty performing simple tasks. When blood sugar levels drop during the night, you may have nightmares, cry out during sleep, or other unusual behaviors.
Severe low blood sugar is sometimes called insulin shock. Untreated, it can be very dangerous, resulting in seizures, loss of consciousness, or death.