Blood sugar derived from carbohydrates works with insulin secreted by the pancreas to provide the body's cells and organs with the energy it needs to survive. When a person suffers from diabetes, either the pancreas no longer secretes insulin (type 1 diabetes) or the body is unable to utilize it effectively (type 2 diabetes). In either case, sugar accumulates in the bloodstream creating a condition known as hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar levels.
Although many people believe that diabetics cannot consume sugar, the reality is that diabetics should never be very far from a piece of candy or sugar-laden beverage. Diabetics must follow a heart-healthy diet, participate in physical exercise and take medication to counter the affects of the disease and take over the job of balancing blood sugar with insulin requirements. Occasionally, things get off balance and blood sugar levels dip precipitously low, resulting in a condition called hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Consuming the right type and amount of carbohydrates is critical when this happens, as hypoglycemia can quickly result in a medical emergency.
Causes of Hypoglycemia
The most common causes of hypoglycemia are simple: too much medication for the amount of carbs ingested, or too few carbs for the amount of medication taken. Other common causes of hypoglycemia include emotional stress and physical stress, including prolonged strenuous activity or exercise and chronic or severe illness. In women, hormonal changes can also set things off balance and bring on a bout of hypoglycemia.
Symptoms of Low Blood Sugar
Normal blood sugar levels are between 70 mg/dl and 120 mg/dl. Anything below 70 mg/dl is considered hypoglycemia. In many cases, the diabetic can feel hypoglycemia setting in before they can even read their blood sugar. Initial symptoms generally include shakiness, dizziness and hunger. If not treated immediately, blood sugar levels may continue to decline. The diabetic may have wild mood swings, a headache and sweat profusely. As the levels continue to decline, they may become unconscious, suffer a seizure and eventually fall into a coma.
What to Eat for Low Blood Sugar
When hypoglycemia sets in, the diabetic needs to consume carbohydrates as soon as possible. But carbohydrates are not all equal. Simple carbohydrates, like sugar or white bread, are absorbed by the body quickly. Complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, take longer to absorb and have a real effect on blood sugar levels.
Fiber, fat and protein can also slow down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. Despite the fact that ice cream contains sugar, it also contains fat making it a poor choice for someone suffering from hypoglycemia.
At the first signs of hypoglycemia, you should consume one of the following:
- 1/2 cup of regular soda or fruit juice
- One to two clear candies
- One to two glucose tablets (available over the counter at any pharmacy)
After 15 minutes, take a reading of your blood sugar level. If it continues to decline or has not risen at all, repeat. If you are several hours away from your next meal or snack, consume some complex carbohydrates or carbohydrates that contain fat or fiber, such as:
- Whole wheat or multi-grain bread or crackers
- Chocolate candies with nuts, peanut butter or grains
- Tortilla chips
- Ice cream
What to do for Severe Hypoglycemia
If the diabetic's blood sugar levels have declined to the point where he has lost consciousness and is unable to eat or drink, there are still treatments available. Dab some glucose gel (available at the pharmacy) or frosting on your finger and swab it onto the inside of his cheek. The sugar should be absorbed rather quickly and the patient should regain consciousness. Check blood sugar levels and follow the treatment outlined in the previous section.
If the patient does not regain consciousness, immediately seek emergency assistance.
National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse: Hypoglycemia
New York Times Health Guide: Hypoglycemia