Diabetic Hypoglycemia

What is Diabetic Hypoglycemia?

Diabetic hypoglycemia occurs when a diabetic patient’s blood sugar levels drop, essentially depriving the body of its main source of energy. A common condition, it is also known as insulin shock due to the fact that is most frequently seen in those who take insulin as part of their treatment plan. However, people can also experience hypoglycemia when it is triggered by other factors, such as not eating enough food, waiting too long between meals, and excessive alcohol use.

On average, a person is considered to have low blood sugar when it drops to under 70 mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter). Every patient is different, and a doctor can determine what number is considered too low for each individual. With this information on hand, diabetic hypoglycemia can often be prevented through regular monitoring of blood sugar levels.

What are the Symptoms of Diabetic Hypoglycemia?

Every diabetic patient experiences hypoglycemia in a different way. After a while, most learn to recognize how they react and when they need treatment.

Symptoms include

  • Confusion
  • Shakiness
  • Anxiety
  • Heart palpitations
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Fainting
  • Excessive hunger
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Dry mouth
  • Blurred vision
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Pale skin
  • Sleepiness
  • Slurred speech

Left untreated, diabetic hypoglycemia can lead to more severe symptoms like poor concentration, passing out, lack of coordination, nightmares, numbness in the tongue and mouth, and coma. Some cases may result in death.

Diabetic Hypoglycemia Causes

Healthy individuals and most people with type 2 diabetes can naturally regulate their blood glucose levels. When blood glucose levels get too high, the body produces insulin which removes glucose from the bloodstream. When blood glucose gets too low, the body releases counterregulatory hormones such as glucagon and epinephrine, which break down body tissue and convert it into glucose.

However, not only do people with type 1 diabetes not produce enough insulin naturally, but these counterregulatory mechanisms are also impeded. This means that if too much insulin is taken, or if blood glucose falls by some other means, the body has no means of bringing it back down to safe levels.

The most common cause of diabetic hypoglycemia is the use of insulin in people with type 1 diabetes, but it can be caused by skipping meals, exercise and drinking alcohol. Other medications given for diabetes can trigger hypoglycemia, such as sulfonylureas in people with type 2 diabetes. This is rare, however, since counterregulatory processes are generally still intact in type 2 diabetes sufferers.

How is Diabetic Hypoglycemia Treated?

Hypoglycemia, diabetic or otherwise, can easily be managed through modification of a person’s diet. Whenever blood sugar levels drop, consuming foods and drinks with high sugar levels like regular soda or orange juice is an effective way of quickly treating the immediate symptoms.

For more long-term management, medications or insulin injections may be prescribed to regulate blood sugar levels. Doctors will also recommend other treatments to help manage the underlying diabetes that causes the condition.

Diabetic Hypoglycemia Prevention

If you experience episodes of hypoglycemia, try to identify patterns in when they occur, such as the time of day, the activities you had just been taking part in, and when they occur relative to your eating habits. A blood glucose monitor can be instrumental in helping you understand what impacts your blood glucose levels.

Once you have identified patterns, you can adjust your habits and medication as needed. For example, if you experience hypoglycemia before your evening meal, you could try taking a mid-afternoon snack to prevent your blood glucose level from falling. Or if you experience hypoglycemia after exercise, you could try eating more carbohydrates beforehand. You can also adapt by adjusting your insulin doses, for example reducing them before exercise.

It is very important that you discuss your self-care of hypoglycemia with your doctor before proceeding.

Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 14, 2017