Lots of people wonder if they have hypoglycemia (pronounced:
hy-po-gly-SEE-mee-uh), but the condition is not at all common in teens. Teens who
do have hypoglycemia usually have it as part of another health condition, such as
What Is Hypoglycemia?
Hypoglycemia happens when a person's blood sugar levels are abnormally
low, and it's a potentially serious condition. If you know someone who has diabetes,
you may have heard them talk about "insulin shock," which is the common name for a
severe hypoglycemic reaction.
The body's most important fuel is glucose, a type of sugar. When you digest most
foods, sugar is released, and that sugar ends up in your bloodstream as glucose. Your
body, particularly your brain and nervous system, needs a certain level of glucose
to function — not too much, and not too little. If your blood glucose level
isn't right, your body will react by showing certain symptoms.
People with diabetes may experience hypoglycemia if they don't eat enough or if
they take too much insulin — the medicine most commonly used to treat diabetes.
What Are the Symptoms?
Some symptoms of hypoglycemia are caused when the body releases extra adrenaline
(epinephrine), a hormone that raises blood sugar levels, into the bloodstream to protect
against hypoglycemia. High blood levels of adrenaline can make the skin become pale
and sweaty, and a person can also have symptoms such as shakiness, anxiety, and heart
palpitations (a fast, pounding heartbeat).
Other symptoms of hypoglycemia are caused when not enough glucose gets to the brain;
in fact, the brain is the organ that suffers most significantly and most rapidly when
there's a drop in blood sugar. These symptoms include headache, extreme hunger, blurry
or double vision, fatigue, and weakness. At its most severe, insufficient glucose
flow to the brain can cause confusion, seizures, and loss of consciousness (coma).
Who Gets Hypoglycemia?
Almost all teens who take blood sugar-lowering medicine for diabetes get hypoglycemia
from time to time. Insulin moves sugar out of the blood and into the body's cells,
where it's used as a fuel. Someone with diabetes who takes too much insulin or doesn't
eat enough food to balance the effects of insulin may have a drop in blood sugar.
Hypoglycemia related to not eating rarely happens in teens and adults unless the
starvation is severe, as in anorexia.
Poisoning or overdoses of some substances, such as alcohol,
or certain drugs, like insulin or other diabetes medicines, can cause some otherwise
healthy people to develop hypoglycemia. People with certain types of cancer
or severe chronic illness also can get hypoglycemia. There are also rare genetic forms
of hypoglycemia, but the symptoms are severe and almost always begin in infancy.
If hypoglycemia is so rare among people in their teen and adult years, why do a
lot of people think they have it?
There are a couple of reasons. For one thing, the symptoms that happen with hypoglycemia
overlap with those that people can have for many other reasons — or no reason
at all. It's normal to feel very tired or weak, or have a headache periodically, especially
if someone has had a stressful
day or too little sleep. And drinking
a lot of coffee, cola, or other caffeine-containing
beverages can certainly make a person feel a bit shaky or jittery.
Also, it seems that some people's bodies react differently to eating high amounts
of sugar than others. When these people eat meals that contain lots of sugar and starch,
the rise and fall of blood sugar that results can trigger hypoglycemia-like symptoms.
This can happen even though the blood sugar doesn't actually drop to below-normal
How Is Hypoglycemia Diagnosed?
A doctor who thinks a person might have hypoglycemia will ask about the patient's
medical history and diet, in particular about the timing of the symptoms, whether
they tend to happen after eating high-sugar meals, and if the symptoms go away quickly
with eating sugar.
The only way to tell for sure whether someone's symptoms are related to hypoglycemia
is to test the blood sugar while the person is having the symptoms. If the test
shows that the blood sugar is truly low, the doctor may do other tests to diagnose
specific diseases that can cause hypoglycemia.
How Is Hypoglycemia Treated?
The treatment of hypoglycemia depends upon its cause. If you're otherwise healthy
and you notice occasional hypoglycemia-like symptoms, try eating a diet that's lower
in simple sugars and/or try cutting down on your caffeine intake. If this doesn't
make the symptoms go away, be sure to talk with your doctor.