Hypoglycemia is a condition associated with abnormally low levels of blood sugar (glucose), which is the body’s main energy source.
Hypoglycemia is most commonly related to the treatment of diabetes. However, many rare conditions can also cause low blood sugar in people without diabetes. Hypoglycemia is not a disease but rather an indication of an underlying health problem.
Hypoglycemia may require immediate treatment to return the blood sugar level into a normal range with sugar-rich foods or medications. Long-term treatment focuses on treating the underlying cause of hypoglycemia.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
- Heart palpitations
- Pale skin
- Tingling sensation around the mouth
- Crying out during sleep
As hypoglycemia worsens, it can cause severe symptoms such as:
- Confusion, abnormal behavior or both
- Visual disturbances (blurred vision)
- Loss of consciousness
There are several possible causes for hypoglycemia, although the most common cause is side effects of medications used to treat diabetes.
Possible causes of hypoglycemia in people with diabetes
In diabetes, the effects of insulin on the body are impaired or diminished. As a result, glucose builds up in the bloodstream reaching dangerous levels. To manage this problem, a prescription of insulin or other medications that lower blood sugar levels are prescribed.
Too much insulin relative to the glucose levels in the bloodstream can cause the blood sugar level to drop too low leading to hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia may also occur if less glucose is ingested after taking diabetes medications or if there is more frequent exercise.
Possible causes of hypoglycemia in people without diabetes
- Medications: Taking diabetes medications accidentally or taking medications used to treat kidney failure.
- Excessive alcohol consumption: Heavy drinking without eating can block the liver from releasing stored glucose into the bloodstream.
- Insulin overproduction: A rare tumor of the pancreas (insulinoma) can cause overproduction of insulin, resulting in hypoglycemia. Moreover, enlargement of beta cells of the pancreas that produce insulin may result in excessive insulin release.
- Certain critical illnesses: Severe hepatitis, kidney disorders and long-term starvation can cause hypoglycemia.
- Hormone deficiencies: Certain disorders of the adrenal glands and the pituitary gland can lead to a deficiency in hormones that regulate glucose production.
Hypoglycemia after meals
In some cases, hypoglycemia occurs after meals as a result of the body producing more insulin than necessary. This form of hypoglycemia is called reactive or postprandial hypoglycemia and may occur in people who have had stomach surgery.
Left untreated, hypoglycemia can cause complications such as loss of consciousness. This is because the brain needs glucose to function properly.
Untreated hypoglycemia can lead to the following complications:
- Loss of consciousness
Unawareness of hypoglycemia due to lack of symptoms increases the risk of severe, life-threatening hypoglycemia.
- Hypoglycemia with diabetes: This requires following a strict diabetes management plan designed by a specialist. Any changes to medications, diet or additional activities should be advised by a doctor. Furthermore, carrying a fast-acting carbohydrate or glucose pills help to manage falling blood sugar.
- Hypoglycemia without diabetes: Recurrent episodes of hypoglycemia may be manageable with frequent small meals during the day to prevent sugar levels from falling. However, it is more important to identify the underlying cause of the hypoglycemia.