Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is an uncommon but potentially serious complication for pregnant women with diabetes, according to Mott Children's Hospital. Hypoglycemia can occur due to preexisting type 1 or type 2 diabetes or the development of gestational diabetes.
Hypoglycemia is most common in pregnant women who are taking medications that lower their blood sugar, such as insulin or certain diabetes pills. Low blood sugar rarely affects pregnant women without diabetes.
What Does It Mean to Have Low Blood Sugar During Pregnancy?
Blood sugar, or glucose, is the body's main source of energy. The body gets glucose primarily by metabolizing the carbohydrates in food. The hormone insulin helps move glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells, where it is used for energy.
But people with diabetes either don't produce enough insulin or can't use it effectively, according to the Mayo Clinic. Without sufficient insulin action, glucose builds up in the bloodstream, causing high blood sugar. As a result, many people with diabetes need to take medications to bring their blood sugar back to a healthy level. But taking too much of this medication (or not consuming enough food, and therefore carbs) can cause blood sugar levels to drop too low.
Symptoms of Hypoglycemia
A blood sugar level of 70 mg/dL or less is considered hypoglycemic, according to Kaiser Permanente. The symptoms of hypoglycemia can progress very quickly. If untreated, hypoglycemia can result in a medical emergency. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
- Sudden hunger
- Feeling shaky
In very serious cases, hypoglycemia can cause seizures, loss of consciousness or, rarely, death.
Low blood sugar needs to be treated right away by eating what are known as "fast-acting" (aka "simple") carbohydrates. Fast-acting carbs are sugary foods and drinks such as candy and fruit juice. The body metabolizes these carbs very quickly, promptly raising blood sugars.
To treat hypoglycemia, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends following the "15-15 Rule" — that is, eat 15 grams of fast-acting carbs, then wait 15 minutes. Check your blood sugar again; if it's still too low, eat 15 more grams of fast-acting carbs, then wait another 15 minutes. If your blood sugar is still too low after an hour, call your doctor.
This process accounts for the fact that it takes the body about 15 minutes to convert carbs to glucose. You may still feel the symptoms of low blood sugar during the waiting time, but be patient and don't eat any more food until the 15 minutes are up. Consuming too many fast-acting carbs in a short amount of time can raise your blood sugar levels too much.
Here are some good choices for fast-acting carbs, according to the ADA:
- 4 ounces ( 1/2 cup) of fruit juice
- A few hard candies or jellybeans
- 1 cup of skim milk
- 1 tablespoon of sugar, honey or syrup
- 3 or 4 glucose tablets
- 1 glucose gel packet
Preventing Hypoglycemia When Pregnant
Preventing hypoglycemia is important for your health. But there's good news: Even if you do experience hypoglycemia during your pregnancy, your baby will be fine. "No evidence suggests [that] hypoglycemia affects the baby," Elizabeth Halprin, MD, clinical director of adult diabetes at Harvard's Joslin Diabetes Center, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
The best way to prevent low blood sugar is to keep your blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. According to the Joslin Diabetes Center's Guideline for Detection and Management of Diabetes In Pregnancy, pregnant women with diabetes should eat small, frequent meals throughout the day, typically three meals and two to four snacks. Eating small, well-balanced meals (meals that contain protein, complex carbs like whole grains and plenty of vegetables) provides a steady release of glucose throughout the day.
Never skip a meal: Taking blood sugar-lowering medications without consuming enough food can result in low blood sugar.
Make sure you monitor your blood sugar during and after exercise, too. Physical activity is especially important for pregnant women with diabetes: Exercise helps the body use insulin more efficiently, which lowers blood sugar, according to the Mayo Clinic. But too much exercise without proper food intake can also result in hypoglycemia.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you are taking diabetes medications and frequently experience hypoglycemic episodes, let your obstetrician know. He or she can help you modify your medications or meal plans. Do not stop taking any prescription medications without first consulting with your doctor.
Is This an Emergency?
- ADA: "Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Sugar)"
- Mott Children's Hospital: "Gestational Diabetes: Dealing With Low Blood Sugar"
- Kaiser Permanente: "Gestational Diabetes: Dealing With Low Blood Sugar"
- Mayo Clinic: "Gestational Diabetes"
- Mayo Clinic: "Diabetes"
- Joslin Diabetes Center: "Guideline for Detection and Management of Diabetes in Pregnancy"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes and Pregnancy