Snacking and Hypoglycemia
By Allan R. Handysides and Peter N. Landless
I hear many people talking about having low blood sugar and so they snack in order to avoid the problem. To prevent similar episodes, I have taken to snacking, but my weight is going up. What should I do? In general I feel and am well.
The condition of low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, is not uncommon in individuals who have diabetes and are on medication to reduce their blood sugar (insulin injections or tablets). The hypoglycemia occurs specifically when such patients take their medication and skip a meal. The easiest and best way to avoid these episodes is by eating regular meals and adjusting medications when meals need to be skipped.
In general, however, true hypoglycemia is an uncommon condition. There are many medical conditions that may lead to low blood sugar. Some of these include heart, liver, and kidney failure, severe infections, and hormonal imbalances especially related to cortisol and glucagon (chemical substances that are very important in glucose metabolism). Certain medications, including insulin injections and tablets used to treat diabetes, can cause hypoglycemia. Chronic alcohol use can also be associated with hypoglycemia.
The symptoms of hypoglycemia are the result of a decreased supply of glucose to the brain cells. When there is insufficient glucose for the brain to function efficiently, the patient may experience confusion, tiredness, loss of consciousness, and seizures. If the low blood sugar is prolonged and severe, the patient can die. Additional symptoms occur as well, such as palpitations (abnormal awareness of one’s heartbeat), shakiness (tremor), and anxiety. This latter group of symptoms is a nerve-and-chemical mediated response to the low blood sugar. Other symptoms include sweatiness, hunger, and “pins and needles” sensations in the limbs and body.
Part of the reason that the hypoglycemia in the generally well individual does not occur is that the body breaks down and digests the foods we eat, and carbohydrates are ultimately absorbed as glucose (biological sugar, one of the fuels for energy). The level of sugar in the blood is constantly monitored by specialized cells in the pancreas. As the blood sugar increases, the pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which drives the sugar into the cells, which then use this glucose to sustain the processes of life. As the blood glucose falls, the insulin-producing cells are “switched off” so that the blood sugar is maintained at a healthy constant. In diabetes either there is an absolute decrease of insulin (type 1 diabetes) or the tissues are resistant (fail to respond) to the insulin that is present (type 2 diabetes). In both these situations the blood sugar is uncontrolled and rises, resulting in many complications.
It’s essential to aim for your ideal weight. Your physician can help determine what that is at present. Eat regular meals two to three times a day and avoid eating (snacking) in between meals. Avoid refined carbohydrates—candies, cookies, white bread, and soda drinks. Have a hearty breakfast that includes whole-grain cereals and fruits. Make sure you have five to seven portions of vegetables and fruit per day. The plant-based diet is the most healthful approach, and use dairy and eggs judiciously to provide the needed vitamin B12 and adequate vitamin D. Sunshine in appropriate exposures also helps with keeping vitamin D levels at healthy levels. Breakfast is most important; lunch should be nutritious and regular as well, and supper should be light and taken early in the evening.
If you follow these basic suggestions and take daily exercise, you will notice improvement in your general health and well-being, your weight will come down, and hypoglycemia will not trouble you.
Allan R. Handysides, a board-certified gynecologist,
is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist,
is associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.