By Eileen B. Wyner, NP
Bulfinch Medical Group
When you have diabetes, regulating your blood sugar is a full time job without any time off for good behavior. Good control of your blood sugar is necessary to prevent potential complications but sometimes, regardless of how hard you’re working, it may seem that outside forces conspire to ruin your good control. One of these issues can be hypoglycemia.
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is defined as a measured blood sugar that is less than 70 mg/dL. It may occur if you haven’t eaten enough, had unplanned strenuous activity, or taken too much medication. It may be accompanied by many symptoms including (but not limited to) feeling sweaty, shaky, extremely hungry, agitated, or experiencing blurry vision. If blood sugar reading is less than 70 mg/dL the recommendation is to have some fast acting carbohydrate like orange juice or glucose tablets at once and check again in about 15 minutes.
Hypoglycemia is a very serious complication of diabetes and left untreated can result in seizure, coma, and even death. When the sugar level gets too low, the body releases two hormones: glucagon and epinephrine. Epinephrine is responsible for the early warnings signs of low blood sugar, such as the hunger and sweating mentioned earlier. It also signals the liver to start making more glucose. Glucagon signals the liver to release this stored glucose into the circulatory system to correct the low blood sugar. However, people living with diabetes may also experience another type of hypoglycemia that is extremely dangerous: hypoglycemia unawareness. Someone with hypoglycemia unawareness does not feel the early symptoms of low blood sugar. People who have had diabetes for a long time are at risk for developing this condition, as are those with a history of frequent low blood sugars, frequent and extreme fluctuations in blood sugar values, and people who have very tightly controlled blood sugars.
The most important way to address this condition is AWARENESS. Check your blood sugar frequently so you’re aware of your patterns. Medication changes, activity changes, and illness are a few situations when checking your blood sugar can really pay off. Sometimes it’s necessary to check in the middle of the night on a regular basis if nocturnal or fasting hypoglycemia is happening to you. This way you can identify the exact timing of the low and not only treat it, but take steps with your health care provider (HCP) to find a way to manage your medications or diet to avoid these episodes. Targets for your blood sugar goal may need to be adjusted. Not every person, especially the elderly or people with a history of severe hypoglycemia, needs an A1C between 6.5 and 7 so discuss this with your HCP.
It’s important to work with your CDE to identify any issues you may have with managing stress, diet factors, or even recognizing what your low blood sugar reaction is. I’ve told you some of the common symptoms, but no two people have the same experience when it comes to low blood sugar. I like to compare low blood sugar symptoms to poker: everyone has their own “tell.” I’ve had people tell me “I know when I’m getting low. I see black spots/my tongue tingles/I get jumpy inside like I have bugs on me/I can’t hear clearly.” This is also an opportunity to incorporate your support network (spouse, family, and friends) into the education about low blood sugars. Remember, some people get low so fast they’re not aware of the symptoms but a coworker or spouse can quickly pick up that they’re speaking without making any sense or sweating profusely. It’s also important to curtail your alcohol consumption when low blood sugars are an active problem.
I hope this information gives you the chance to start a conversation with your HCP about hypoglycemia AWARENESS so your full time job of diabetes management can be as successful as possible.