Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Glucose)

Definition

Hypoglycemia is defined as abnormally low blood sugar (glucose) levels. Glucose is needed for the body cells as fuel. Low blood glucose levels can cause mild-to-moderate complications. Prolonged hypoglycemia can result in loss of consciousness, seizures, or and even death.

The body is usually able to regulate the blood glucose levels within a narrow range, even with missing a meal. Hypoglycemia is more likely to occur in people with disorders of this regulating system like those suffering with diabetes mellitus and using medication that drops the blood glucose levels.

Symptoms

Very low glucose levels can affect the entire body, but its the effects on the brain that causes the most notable symptoms. This is largely due to the fact that the cells of the brain are the most sensitive to even slight abnormalities in glucose levels.

  • Abnormal behavior and confusion
  • Visual disturbances,like¬† blurred vision or double vision
  • Inability to perform routine tasks
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness

Hypoglycemia may also present with other non-specific symptoms like:

  • Sweating
  • Shakiness
  • Increased appetite
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Heart palpitations
  • Tingling sensation around the mouth

Causes

Glucose, obtained from food or produced in liver, is the main fuel for body cells. A pancreatic hormone, insulin, is needed to help glucose enter the cells. In the absence of insulin, or in the events of non-functional insulin, blood glucose rises to dangerous levels. In order to prevent complications associated with high blood glucose levels in diabetics, various measures are taken to control blood sugar. Sometimes, these measures can lower the blood glucose levels excessively resulting into hypoglycemia.

Diabetics

Taking too much insulin or other drugs designed to lower blood sugar levels relative to the amount of glucose in the bloodstream results in hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia may also result from skipping meals after taking the diabetes medication, or by exercising more (using up more glucose) than required.

Non-diabetics

Hypoglycemia in less common in people without diabetes, and can result from:

  • Taking diabetes medication or anti-malarial medication quinine
  • Consuming alcohol without eating
  • Critical illnesses like severe hepatitis, kidney disorders, eating disorder anorexia nervosa can cause hypoglycemia
  • Insulin overproduction¬† in pancreatic cancer patients or enlargement of insulin-producing cells
  • Hormonal deficiencies arising from disorders of the pituitary and adrenal glands

Reactive hypoglycemia

In patients with gastric bypass surgery, the body produces more insulin than is needed. This results in reactive or postprandial hypoglycemia.

Treatment

Treatment of hypoglycemia aims at raising blood sugar levels immediately to prevent further complications.

Consuming sugar (candy, fruit juice or glucose tablets) raises blood sugar level. In case of severe symptoms, glucagon injections or intravenous glucose is given. Glucagon is a pancreatic hormone that converts stored glycogen into glucose. This increases blood glucose concentration.

To preventing recurrent hypoglycemic attacks, the underlying conditions need to be identified and treated.

  • If hypoglycemia is resulting from some medications, the dosage or the frequency of that medication is altered.
  • Pancreatic tumors resulting in high insulin levels are removed surgically.

Prevention

Careful management of diabetes is must for diabetic patients. In other non-diabetic patients suffering from hypoglycemia, eating small meals frequently at regular intervals is an effective stopgap measure. This prevents blood sugar levels from getting too low. The underlying causes of hypoglycemia should be identified and treated. Alcohol should be avoided.

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