Can Low Blood Sugar Cause Bad Behavior in Children?

Crying child
Bad behavior can be caused by low blood sugar levels. (Image: katkov/iStock/Getty Images)

Bad behavior in children has a variety of causes, although dietary factors may play a larger role than traditionally thought. In addition to food allergies and negative reactions to food additives, blood sugar levels can have a dramatic impact on mood and behavior. Low blood sugar can be caused by not eating enough food or eating too much sugar at a time, which triggers inappropriate insulin secretion from the pancreas gland. Consult with your doctor about how dietary factors can affect children’s behavior.

Low Blood Sugar

Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, is a relatively common condition in children that’s usually triggered by skipping meals, although binging on sugary, high-carbohydrate foods can eventually have the same result, according to the book “Human Metabolism.” The tissues of the body, especially the brain, need glucose to function properly. Skipping meals causes blood glucose levels to fall because there is no food to digest and absorb. On the other hand, binging on sugary treats or readily metabolized carbohydrates, such as pasta and white bread, trigger an abnormally large insulin release from the pancreas, which quickly shuttles virtually all of the glucose into the cells. The result is a “sugar crash,” which is a sudden burst of energy followed by various symptoms due to hypoglycemia.

The Brain and Glucose

Glucose is a simple sugar that all digestible carbohydrates get metabolized into. It is absorbed into the bloodstream and circulates throughout the body. Cells use glucose to build energy molecules called ATP, which can be used immediately or stored for future use. Some cells can use alternative forms of energy, but the brain relies almost exclusively on glucose for fuel. Consequently, the brain is very sensitive to fluctuations in blood glucose and is quickly disturbed by hypoglycemia, according to the book “Human Biochemistry.” Brain dysfunction, which manifests as changes in mood, behavior and cognition, is the first sequela of low blood sugar.

Early Warning Signs

As blood sugar falls, there are warning signs prior to a hypoglycemic state. Hunger, weakness, fatigue, dizziness, headache, shakiness or other odd sensations may be experienced by your child, although he may not know how to communicate the changes. Your child may also become pale and sweaty with an increased pulse rate, according to “Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine.” These warning signs can be readily resolved by giving your child something easily digested such as orange juice, apple juice, honey or a piece of bread.

Advanced Behavioral Symptoms

As hypoglycemia develops and the brain is deprived of sufficient glucose, your child’s behavior may quickly deteriorate. She may become irritable, bad tempered, depressed, lose concentration, get suddenly sleepy or easily cry. If your child binges on candy or carbohydrate-rich foods instead of skipping a meal, then these symptoms may occur after about 30 minutes or so of hyperactivity, aggressiveness and loud yelling or noise making.

Recommendations

Although each child reacts uniquely to low blood sugar levels, they tend to have similar symptoms each time they experience hypoglycemia. Consequently, parents quickly come to recognize when their children have low blood sugar levels. To reduce the risk of hypoglycemia, make sure your children eat regular meals that contain lean protein, whole grains and lots of fresh vegetables. Fresh fruits can be used in moderation for snacks. Avoid sugar crashes by choosing water or milk instead of soda pop or sweetened juice from concentrate.

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