Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) is the “you won’t like me when I’m hungry” syndrome. It is a common dysfunction that involves a number of glands – primarily the pancreas, the adrenal glands and the liver. Consumption of concentrated sugars or sweets causes blood sugar to rise rapidly. The pancreas responds by producing insulin in order to bring blood glucose back to normal levels – which return may be rapid or slow, depending on the activity level of the pancreas. When the drop in blood sugar approaches what the body considers to be a lower safety level, the adrenal glands send hormones to the liver – and the pancreas also sends glucagon – both of which stimulate the liver to convert some of its glycogen stores back into glucose. If, however, the adrenal glands are weak, glycogen stores have been depleted, or the liver is overworked, the needed increase in blood sugar does not happen in time and ill-effects are felt.
Chronic hypoglycemia takes two forms: reactive and passive. In reactive hypoglycemia, the pancreas overreacts to the initial sugar challenge by producing more insulin than necessary, causing blood sugar levels to plummet quickly. In passive hypoglycemia, blood glucose takes several hours to descend into the alarm zone. Reactive hypoglycemia is a direct and immediate response to anything that causes a sudden increase in blood sugar. Passive hypoglycemia is a response to a gradually diminishing level of blood sugar – which is primarily a function of how long it has been since the last meal. What both forms of hypoglycemia have in common are exhausted adrenal glands and a sluggish liver.
Reactive hypoglcyemia is triggered by what is eaten. Passive hypoglycemia depends mainly on when one eats. It is possible, of course, for the same person to have both. In such cases, avoiding sweets bypasses the immediate hypoglyycemic reaction, but may result in a similar response much later if the next meal is delayed for too long.
It is not only concentrated sugars that cause untoward increases in blood sugar. Caffeine, tobacco, alcohol and many drugs tend to produce the same effect, by overstimulating the adrenals and liver into converting glycogen into excess levels of blood glucose. Allergies are also common provokers of hypoglycemic responses.
With passive hypoglycemia, it is not only going a long time without eating that can trigger symptoms – so may heavy exercise or unusual stress. Sometimes a hypoglycemic response does not happen unless more than one of these influences occur at the same time. For example, some hypoglycemics are fine when they haven’t eaten for hours and fine when they are rushing to meet a stressful deadline, but if both events happen together they can launch an otherwise mild mannered person into frenzied panic or uncontrollable outbursts of temper.
The brain and central nervous system are highly dependent on blood sugar. Although they comprise only about two per cent of body weight, they require over 20 per cent of the body’s glucose. For that reason, a person usually experiences agitation, mood changes, hyperactivity, brain “fog” or nervousness when blood sugar is too low.
Hypoglycemia also creates a condition of hypoxemia (too little oxygen) in the tissues, making cells vulnerable to invasion by viruses. This relationship was demonstrated during the polio epidemic of 1949 when North Carolinans reduced their intake of sugar by 90% and polio decreased in that state by 90%. The nervous tissue of the young is more vulnerable to low blood sugar than that of the adult, which is why polio was epidemic among children.
Hypoglycemia often leads to addiction. Many people have found that when they start to feel nervous or irritated, or their energy starts to lag – a “fix” of sugar, caffeine, alcohol or tobacco helps them to bounce them back quickly. But the “fix” is only temporary because it directly causes glucose levels to drop again, thus perpetuating the pattern. Some become so skilled at sensing when the crash is about to happen that they intuitively time their “fixes” to stave off symptoms before they become too severe. Unfortunately, this counterproductive pattern only masks the symptoms of the problem, all the while driving its cause deeper – by subjecting the adrenal glands to constant, relentless stress.
High sugar intake increases oxidation damage, stresses the pancreas and adrenal glands, produces free radicals in excess, and depletes our bodies of minerals such as chromium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and the B-vitamins. Sugar also inhibits immune processes and interferes with the transport of vitamin C.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
- nervousness, shaky feelings or headaches relieved by eating.
- irritable if late for a meal or miss a meal.
- irritable before breakfast.
- sudden, strong cravings for sweets, coffee, or alcohol.
- get hungry soon after eating.
- cold hands or feet.
- wake up at night feeling hungry.
- wake up in middle of night and can’t go back to sleep.
- asthmatic attacks.
The medical test for hypoglycemia is the glucose tolerance test (GTT). The person is given a solution of glucose to drink. Blood glucose is monitored at baseline and at periodic intervals to see how it responds to the glucose challenge. Medical interpretation of the readings, however, is inconsistent. Some doctors erroneously believe that as long as blood sugar readings stay within a prescribed “normal” range, there is no hypoglycemia present – no matter how much gluocose may fluctuate within that range – and not even if the test itself produces headaches, irritability, nervousness or worse. Also, a GTT taken over too short a time period may not be reliable. At least five hours is necessary to detect passive hypoglycemia. And a GTT performed in the quiet calm of a waiting room may not provoke the same hypoglycemic response that it would if the person were subjected to more of the stresses and strains of daily living at the same time.
Because of the above limitations, and for reasons of convenience, it is usually more reliable for each person to take his/her own glucose readings throughout the day – with the aid of a glucometer that can be purchased at any drug store. Start with a reading upon arising in the morning. Take readings throughout the day, before meals, after meals, between meals, before going to bed – and especially at any time that any mental symptoms may be experienced (e.g., brain “fog”, agitation, headaches, irritability, etc.). Plot these numbers on paper to see if you can determine a pattern and a baseline reading of what is normal for you. If either eating something sweet or going without eating for a long time causes your blood sugar to drop below your particular baseline, hypoglycemia is definitely at work. Another conclusive event is if mental symptoms occur only when your glucose is within a particular range.
Of course, you don’t have to take any blood sugar readings at all to find out if you have hypoglycemia. If you have any of the hypoglycemic symptoms listed above, try the hypoglycemic diet to see if they go away. Go off the diet to see if they come back. Repeat the process. If every time you are on the hypoglycemic diet you are symptom free and if every time you are off it the symptoms return, guess what – you have hypoglycemia. This is what doctors call a “therapeutic diagnosis”.
The hypoglycemic diet requires totally eliminating all refined and concentrated sugars, all caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate, colas), all alcohol and all tobacco. The diet needs to consist of protein foods (e.g., eggs, fish, poultry, tofu) plus complex carbohydrates (e.g., 100% whole grains, legumes, starchy vegetables), green vegetables, and low to moderate amounts of natural fats (e.g., butter, olive oil). All of these foods release their glucose into the bloodstream relatively slowly.
It is also necessary to avoid fruit juices and dried fruits, all of which are high in naturally occurring sugars. The occasional piece of whole, raw, unsweetened fruit, however, may be well tolerated by many hypoglycemics – provided it is eaten shortly before a significant meal. Avoid the temptation to use natural fruits as a substitute “fix” that perpetuates the hypoglycemic cycle.
Passive hypoglycemics may also need to have four or five small meals spread throughout the day rather than the three traditional large ones. These people usually feel hunger in their head before they feel it in their bodies. They often wake up at 2 or 3 AM (when blood sugar levels are at their very lowest) and can’t get back to sleep. Solution: before going to bed, have a light protein snack.
Everyone with hypoglycemia has adrenal glands that are overworked or exhausted. It is therefore necessary to support the adrenals by supplementing with generous amounts of vitamin C, the B-complex vitamins (especially pantothenic acid), chromium, calcium, magnesium and zinc).
See also the chapter, “Hypoglycemia”, in NUTRITIONAL SOLUTIONS FOR 88 CONDITIONS (available at Amazon.com)