Hypoglycaemia, or blood sugar imbalance, is very common in the modern world – most people are familiar with the mid-afternoon energy slump which disappears after eating something sweet.
Sugar and carbohydrate cravings, accompanied by fatigue and swings in mood, concentration and energy levels, could be symptoms of mild blood sugar imbalance.
A more serious episode of hypoglycaemia may be signalled by
Heavy sweating – sometimes the perspiration will make the person feel very cold
Nervousness and irritability
Dizziness, feeling faint
Tingling in hands and feet
In people with diabetes, hypoglycaemic symptoms might also include:
Palpitations (rapid heartbeat)
Confusion, muddled feeling suggesting drunkenness
Unconsciousness, coma, or convulsions
Hypoglycaemia is caused when there is an abnormally low level of glucose in the blood. This is normally due to the over-secretion of insulin by the pancreas.
The role of insulin is to transport glucose from the bloodstream into the cells (especially the fat cells and muscle cells), and to initiate glucose production in the liver. When the pancreas secretes too much insulin, too much sugar is removed from the bloodstream and the blood sugar becomes low.
Symptoms occur when there is not enough sugar circulating in the bloodstream for the body to draw on to meet its energy requirements.
Hypoglycaemia is particularly of concern for people with diabetes, where insulin production by the pancreas is defective. Without insulin, the glucose circulating in the bloodstream cannot be absorbed into the body tissues for energy. It is common for people with diabetes to experience both hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) and hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar levels).
The principal cause of hypoglycaemia is the modern diet which includes high quantities of simple carbohydrates such as sugar, alcohol and refined flour products, and low amounts of fruits and vegetables, and whole-grain foods.
Foods high in simple carbohydrates are easily broken down into glucose by the body, causing the pancreas to abruptly increase the body’s insulin levels, which moves the glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells. Several hours later, the blood sugar levels will be relatively low, causing the energy slump and associated symptoms known as reactive hypoglycaemia.
By contrast, if we eat foods rich in complex carbohydrates (such as vegetables, whole grain bread, pasta and brown rice), the transport of glucose from the bloodstream into the cells occurs at a slower and more steady rate, and the hypoglycaemia is avoided.
Hypoglycaemia can also be brought on by other factors including:
Some types of cancer and liver disease
Allergic reactions to food or drugs
If you have diabetes seek the advice of your healthcare professional before adding natural remedies to your treatment plan.
Chromium helps the body to use glucose effectively, and supplementation can help to relieve the symptoms of hypoglycaemia, including sugar cravings; for best results use a chromium supplement that also contains magnesium and zinc
Licorice root can help to relieve symptoms of tiredness associated with hypoglycaemia (Licorice should not be taken for long periods of time unless under professional supervision)
Having a good breakfast will make it easier for your body to balance blood sugar levels throughout the day. Try to combine a small portion of protein with complex carbohydrates – for example unsweetened muesli and yoghurt, or whole grain toast and egg.
Eat small frequent meals throughout the day made up of whole grain foods and low fat protein (such as almonds, fish, and low fat dairy products).
Strictly avoid sugar in all its forms until you have your hypoglycaemia under control. In addition to the sugar found in soft drinks, sweets and biscuits, hidden sources of sugar include alcohol and breakfast cereals. (Hint: When reading labels, look for words ending in -ose, such as glucose, maltose, lactose as these are all forms of sugar).
Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and cigarettes, which can add to hypoglycaemic symptoms by creating large swings in your blood sugar levels.
A good diet can prevent hypoglycaemia. Eat a high-fibre diet rich in fruits and vegetables and other complex carbohydrates, and ensure that you are eating a small portion of protein every day. Don’t forget to eat breakfast!
Avoiding sugar, alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine will help keep your blood sugar levels stable.
Regular exercise improves many aspects of glucose metabolism including enhancing insulin sensitivity and improving glucose tolerance in existing diabetics. However, exercising when your blood sugar levels are low (for example first thing in the morning before breakfast) may induce hypoglycaemia – if possible have something to eat an hour or so before training.
Although it is not recommended on a regular basis, an attack of hypoglycaemia can be prevented by eating a glucose-containing food or tablet. It is best to have some protein at the same time, to slow the absorption of the sugar into the bloodstream and reduce the blood sugar fluctuation.
If you are experiencing such hypoglycaemic episodes on a regular basis, consult your healthcare professional, regardless of whether or not you are diabetic.