"I feel lightheaded" might be a complaint coming from a person who hasn't eaten enough or who is dehydrated. Yet feeling dizzy and lightheaded can stem from other causes as well.
If you feel lightheaded, try drinking some fruit juice or water.
What to Do
If you feel faint, lie down or bend forward, and put your head between your knees to allow more blood flow to the brain. Don't stand until you feel better, and when you do, rise slowly.
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In most cases, lightheadedness doesn't indicate a life-threatening condition, but in some people, particularly older adults, it might, warns Harvard Health. If you experience this problem, drink some fruit juice or water and lie down. If the symptom doesn't go away within 15 minutes, seek emergency medical attention.
Lightheadedness From Low Blood Pressure
Lightheadedness and feeling faint may stem from low blood pressure, a condition with a variety of causes, one of which is having underweight, reports the National Eating Disorders Association. When someone doesn't eat enough, their heart doesn't have sufficient fuel to pump blood, so blood pressure falls. If thinness is due to an eating disorder, the individual should seek treatment, because eating disorders can be deadly.
Another form of low blood pressure is called orthostatic hypotension. This means blood pressure falls and pools in the legs upon standing after sitting or lying down. Doctors may advise lifestyle changes such as drinking more water, limiting alcohol consumption and rising slowly from a seated or lying position, says the Mayo Clinic. If the condition is severe enough, it may call for compression stockings.
A common type of low blood pressure that affects up to one-third of seniors is postprandial hypotension, which refers to a drop in blood pressure after eating a meal, notes Harvard Health. Normally during digestion, extra blood goes to the stomach and small intestine, but the body usually compensates to keep enough blood supply to the brain.
When the system doesn't work well, the brain receives less circulation, which results in a drop in blood pressure and lightheadedness, states Harvard Health. Lifestyle changes for postprandial hypotension include eating smaller meals and drinking water 15 minutes before meals. Other beneficial dietary practices involve eating whole grains, beans, healthy oils and protein while avoiding carbohydrates that are quickly digested such as white bread, white rice and sugary beverages.
Anyone with low blood pressure should consult a doctor to have the cause identified. Regardless of the underlying cause, doctors usually recommend drinking 2 to 3 liters of water per day, in addition to avoiding triggers like heat and alcohol. Because having underweight is a risk factor, experts advise keeping weight within the normal range.
Lightheadedness From Low Blood Sugar
Feeling faint may be due to low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, which can occur in people with diabetes or in people who haven't eaten enough, says the American Academy of Family Physicians. It happens because insufficient blood sugar causes every body system to use as little energy as possible, including the brain, notes Harvard Health.
Other symptoms of low blood sugar are irritability, confusion, tiredness, nervousness, headaches and a fast heartbeat. When people with diabetes suspect they have low blood sugar, they should check it. If the reading is less than 70 milligrams per deciliter, they should drink a half cup of fruit juice or nondiet soda. Other choices include a tablespoon of sugar, honey or jam, states the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.
When people with diabetes experience symptoms of low blood sugar and are in a place where they're unable to test their glucose, it's important to consume one of the suggested options anyway. To prevent low blood sugar episodes, they should adhere to a regular schedule of meals and activities.
Read more: Hypoglycemia & Vegetarian Diet
Some cases of low blood sugar are unrelated to diabetes. According to the Endocrine Society, these individuals may benefit from eating small meals throughout the day and limiting intake of high-sugar foods. Their diet should consist of high-fiber foods, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, along with fatty foods, nonmeat sources of protein and meat.
Lightheadedness From Other Causes
Dehydration is another cause of lightheadedness. If you don't drink enough fluids, the volume of your blood decreases, which lowers blood pressure and prevents the brain from getting enough blood, explains Harvard Health.
The Mayo Clinic says lightheadedness from overheating may also occur if you don't drink enough fluids when engaging in physical activity in hot weather. A glass of water may help you feel better, but if you haven't eaten or drunk enough for several days, you might need an intravenous fluid infusion.
Anemia, or low iron levels, may cause lightheadedness, notes the Mayo Clinic. Associated symptoms include weakness, fatigue and pale skin.
Anxiety disorders, including panic attacks, may produce a lightheaded or woozy feeling. Other causes include neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease. Feeling faint or lightheaded is also a side effect of certain medications, such as antidepressants, tranquilizers, anti-seizure drugs and medicines for high blood pressure, states the Mayo Clinic.
Lightheadedness should be taken seriously because it could be a sign of a heart attack or stroke, cautions Harvard Health. Other signs of a heart attack include chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath, jaw pain or arm pain. Symptoms of a stroke are slurred speech, difficulty in walking, visual changes, numbness, weakness and the sudden onset of a headache.
Read more: Causes of Profuse Sweating and Dizziness
It's important to find the cause of lightheadedness. Even when causes aren't serious, it can lead to falls and injuries. The malady can also raise the risk of an injury when driving or operating heavy machinery. If the cause is serious, it can result in long-term health consequences when left untreated.
Causes of Dizziness
People tend to use the words "lightheaded" and "dizzy" interchangeably, but true dizziness, also called vertigo, is a feeling that your surroundings are spinning, says Harvard Health. Like lightheadedness, the condition has multiple causes. Things that make you dizzy include tumors, an inner ear disorder, a stroke in the back of the brain or Meniere's disease, a condition that attacks a key nerve needed for balance.
The Vestibular Disorders Association says that dietary modifications can help people with dizziness due to certain causes. Avoid foods high in salt and sugar. Eating foods with complex sugars, such as those in beans and whole grains, is better than eating foods high in simple sugars like table sugar. Foods that fit these guidelines could be considered dizziness treatment food.
To avoid dizziness, try to keep the amount of your food and beverage intake consistent from day to day. Drink plenty of fluids, but avoid caffeine. Limit or avoid alcohol consumption and tobacco use.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Lightheaded? Top 5 Reasons You Might Feel Woozy"
- National Eating Disorders Association: "Health Consequences"
- Mayo Clinic: "Orthostatic Hypotension (Postural Hypotension)
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Eating Can Cause Low Blood Pressure"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Fainting"
- Endocrine Society: "Non-Diabetic Hypoglycemia"
- Mayo Clinic: "Dizziness"
- Vestibular Disorders Association: "Dietary Considerations"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.