Hypoglycemia occurs when blood glucose levels drop below normal levels.
This drop can occur for a variety of reasons, including a higher than needed dosage of insulin, stress or even a skipped or delayed meal after an insulin dose. There are certain illnesses, like liver disease or even tumors, which can cause hypoglycemia to occur as well.
Reactive hypoglycemia (also known as postprandial hypoglycemia) is a sudden drop of blood sugar levels that occurs within one to four hours of consuming a meal.
How Does Reactive Hypoglycemia Occur?
There are a variety of functions the body performs as it digests food. All parts of the digestive system contribute to the breakdown of food into nutrients and waste. As these processes occur, other parts of the body are reacting to the receipt of these nutrients.
For most of us, an average meal might take about two to three hours to clear the stomach. Of course, the size and makeup of the meal might influence that time frame.
For a small number of people, digestion is rapid, flooding the body with a large amount of glucose all at one time. This stimulates the body’s response mechanism to overreact and flood the body with insulin, to deal with all that glucose. The result is that the person is now feeling the effects of hypoglycemia – too little glucose. This overreaction is the cause of reactive hypoglycemia.
When the body becomes hypoglycemic, another hormone surges – adrenaline. This is the “fight or flight” hormone that shows up when the body believes it is in danger. Because hypoglycemia can be an emergency, that is an appropriate reaction.
With adrenaline surging through the body, the symptoms of hypoglycemia can include sweating, trembling, feeling shaky, nausea, blurred vision, confusion, dizziness, hunger, headache, pale skin, irritability, weakness, anxiety, pounding heart and racing pulse.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Reactive hypoglycemia is difficult to diagnose. Taking a glucose tolerance test might be helpful, but not always. For those who suffer reactive hypoglycemia, they rarely experience it after every meal. Sometimes it is the composition of the meal that triggers it.
To avoid experiencing the symptoms of reactive hypoglycemia, it is important to include elements in each meal that slow digestion. Whole grains, high-fiber fruits, complex carbohydrates and proteins should be part of each meal. Limit sweets and sugary foods (simple carbohydrates), as these are the quickest to digest and have the highest levels of carbohydrates.
It is also important to manage the size and timing of one’s meals. Three smaller meals and a snack, spaced evenly through the day, will allow the body to steadily process intake of foods.
Caffeine should be avoided, as it enhances the effects of adrenaline. Alcohol can cause hypoglycemia all by itself, and should also be avoided.
If you are still concerned about your hypoglycemia, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor for a complete workup.