Whether you forgot to eat breakfast or have experienced the dreaded "sugar crash" after a high-carb meal, you may have encountered the shakiness, light-headedness and weakness that come with low blood sugar. When these symptoms hit, it's time to reach for carbohydrate-rich foods.
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The word "hypoglycemia" may sound very clinical, but it's actually quite simple: "Hypo" means low, and "glycemia" refers to the amount of sugar (called glucose) in your blood. Hypoglycemia is typically defined as a blood sugar level of less than 70 milligrams per deciliter, states the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
An episode of low blood sugar can happen to anyone, but there are some situations in which it's most common. For instance, people with diabetes are more likely to experience hypoglycemia, often as a result of a change in eating habits or when diabetes medication needs adjusting.
However, in both people with diabetes and those who don't have diabetes, two types of hypoglycemia can occur. Fasting hypoglycemia can be brought on by going too long without eating. Reactive hypoglycemia is somewhat different. According to the Mayo Clinic, it occurs when the body reacts to a meal by raising, then dropping blood sugar — sometimes to a dangerously low level.
In all instances — whether related to diabetes or not — symptoms of hypoglycemia can include nervousness, shakiness, sweating, a rapid heart rate, lightheadedness, irritability, hunger or feeling cold or clammy, says Harvard Health Publishing.
Because hypoglycemia often comes on from a lack of eating, it's important not to go too long without food if you have diabetes or a known tendency toward dips in blood sugar. According to the Mayo Clinic, to avoid hypoglycemia, you should try to eat about every three hours throughout the day.
"For example, if you have breakfast at 6 a.m. but then don't eat again until 1 p.m., that is too long for most people with diabetes-related or any kind of hypoglycemia," says Brittany Modell, RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian/nutritionist based in New York City.
To make hypoglycemic-friendly meals, focus on balancing macronutrients. "It is most important to consume balanced meals that include complex carbohydrates, protein and fat," says Modell. "Food that is high in fiber is also great for glucose control. Foods that are high in fiber include raspberries, artichokes, whole grains and avocado." Fiber and complex carbs can also be found in beans, lentils and veggies like leafy greens, broccoli and peas.
If you're prone to hypoglycemia, it's smart to keep wholesome snacks close at hand, too, whether in your purse, at your desk or in your car. These foods should also have a mix of carbohydrates, protein and fat. "Ideas of balanced snacks include banana with peanut butter, Greek yogurt with berries, a handful of nuts, veggies and hummus, roasted chickpeas, popcorn or half a peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread," Modell suggests.
Foods to Combat Low Blood Sugar
Sometimes, as prepared as you may try to be, a dip in blood sugar may catch you off guard. When diabetes-related hypoglycemia leaves you feeling shaky, the ADA recommends following a "15/15 rule": Eat 15 grams of carbohydrate, then wait 15 minutes to see if your blood sugar rises. If you don't have the ability to test your blood sugar, you can judge by your symptoms.
According to the Endocrine Society's Hormone Health Network, the 15/15 rule applies to non-diabetes hypoglycemia as well.
A dip in blood sugar, such as below 70 milligrams per deciliter, warrants a dose of high-sugar, high-carb food like candy, fruit juice or honey, notes the ADA. These foods deliver a dose of glucose that can bring your numbers back into the normal range. Whole foods like raisins, pineapple, bananas, cherries and mango all contain at least 15 grams of carbohydrates per serving, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Is This Prediabetes?
Because hypoglycemia is a blood sugar issue, you might wonder if hypoglycemia is a sign of a bigger problem like prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. In most cases, prediabetes has no symptoms, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC notes that signs of type 2 diabetes typically include increased urination, increased thirst, excessive hunger and blurred vision.
Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about any of your symptoms.
Is This an Emergency?
- Brittany Modell, RDN, CDN, registered dietitian/nutritionist, New York, New York
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Handling Hypoglycemia”
- Mayo Clinic: “Reactive Hypoglycemia: What Can I Do?”
- Mayo Clinic: “Hypoglycemia”
- American Diabetes Association: “Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Sugar)”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Prediabetes: Your Chance to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Diabetes: Symptoms”
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: “FoodData Central”
- Hormone Health Network: “Non Diabetic Hypoglycemia”