Every diabetes management plan focuses on keeping your blood sugar, or glucose, levels stable throughout the day, with much attention paid to avoiding high blood sugar. But low blood sugar, known as hypoglycemia, can also wreak havoc on your body.
If you've gone through diabetes education, you learned about the perils of high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia. It can lead to a host of diabetes-related complications, including kidney disease, nerve damage and blindness, according to the American Diabetes Association.
While high blood sugar symptoms tend to be insidious, symptoms related to low blood sugar come on fast and furious. And when it happens, you need to take quick action to protect your health.
When your blood sugar levels dip below 70 milligrams per deciliter of blood, it's important to get your blood sugar back in the normal range ASAP, says Gerald Bernstein, MD, program coordinator at the Friedman Diabetes Institute of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Recognizing Low Blood Sugar
According to the American Diabetes Association, mild to moderate symptoms of low blood sugar include:
- Blurry vision
Because low blood sugar leads the body to release adrenaline, you also might experience symptoms associated with anxiety, like sweating, heart-thumping and tingling.
Severe symptoms, which can easily become life-threatening, include:
- Inability to eat or drink
"Most people know that their blood sugar is dropping because they get a signal, whether they shake, sweat or become confused," Dr. Bernstein says. Still, he adds, the only sure way to know if you are experiencing low blood sugar is to check your blood sugar.
Orange Juice for Low Blood Sugar
If you need to quickly bring your blood sugar back to a normal level, drinking orange juice is a good option, Dr. Bernstein says. Not only is it often available at home, but it's palatable, easily digested and works fast.
In general, 1/2 cup (4 ounces) of orange, or even another fruit juice, can help raise blood sugar levels, according to the American Diabetes Association. The juice should not be reduced calorie or low in sugar — the idea is to use a high-sugar food to bring your level back up.
There are other ways to raise blood sugar, Dr. Bernstein says, including:
- Glucose tablets or gels, which are available in most drug stores
- 1/2 can of soda, as long as it is not low-calorie or reduced sugar
- 1 tablespoon of sugar, honey or corn syrup
- 2 tablespoons of raisins
His favorite? A spoonful of sugar. "It's a good idea to carry small sugar packets with you in case your blood sugar gets too low," he says. Be prepared: "Keep them in every coat pocket and briefcase."
At least one study found that glucose tablets helped raise blood sugar levels faster than other options, including orange juice. The findings were published in February 2017 in Emergency Medical Journal.
The key is to act fast. "If whatever is around has a reasonable amount of sugar, it will work within 10 minutes," Dr. Bernstein says. "If you jump on hypoglycemia as soon as you sense something isn't right, you can abort the reaction."
The American Diabetes Association recommends the 15-15 rule. Consume 15 grams of carbohydrates to raise your blood sugar and check it after 15 minutes. If it's still below 70 milligrams per deciliter, you should have another serving. Keep doing this until your blood sugar is at least 70. The reason to take this slow approach is to avoid consuming too much, which can cause blood sugar levels to spike.
If you often experience low blood sugar, talk to your doctor about what you can do to prevent this, Dr. Bernstein suggests. You may need to have your medication schedule or doses adjusted or make changes to your meal frequency or the balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates at each meal.
Is This an Emergency?
- Gerald Bernstein, MD, director, Diabetes Management Program, Friedman Diabetes Institute, New York City
- American Diabetes Association: “Blood Glucose Testing and Control”
- American Diabetes Association: “Should I Drink Fruit Juice?”
- American Diabetes Association: "Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Sugar)”
- Emergency Medical Journal: “Dietary Sugars Versus Glucose Tablets for First-Aid Treatment of Symptomatic Hypoglycaemia in Awake Patients with Diabetes: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”