Hypoglycemia vs. Hyperglycemia

August 07, 2021 6 min read

Hypoglycemia vs. Hyperglycemia

Have you ever experienced feeling hangry [hungry and angry], lightheaded, dizzy, tired, trouble staying on task/concentrating, extreme fatigue or feeling anxious/heart palpitations? Well, that could be a sign of low blood sugar, which can actually be a dangerous condition if not addressed. 

There are two main concerns when it comes to blood sugar: Does your body have too much or too little? When it comes to hypoglycemia [low blood sugar] versus hyperglycemia [high blood sugar], do you know the difference? 

We have talked about the importance of stabilizing blood sugar before, but we want to dive into the specifics around high and low blood sugar. We will cover the common signs and symptoms of these conditions, how they are caused and how you can manage your nutrition to support blood sugar levels. Note: This is not just for those with diabetes as high and low blood sugar can impact those without diabetes, and it is not uncommon for healthy people to experience negative symptoms of highs and lows if blood sugar is not kept stable. 

What is Hypoglycemia? 

Hypoglycemia is low blood sugar. When your blood glucose levels drop, your body can no longer function normally and experiences a range of symptoms, which you can see below in the chart. As we have covered before, blood sugar, or glucose, is the body’s primary source of energy and when levels fall too low, the body does not have enough energy to function fully. The symptoms can range from mild in nature to very intense or even life-threatening. 

Everybody is different, so your normal blood sugar level may be slightly different from someone else’s. In general though, if your blood sugar is lower than 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), then your body is hypoglycemic. If blood sugar drops below that, this is when the more severe, life-threatening symptoms and neuroglycopenic symptoms set in. If your blood glucose level is less than 40 mg/dL, this can result in loss of consciousness, damage to the brain, and eventual death. When sugar is that low, the only relief of symptoms is glucose use, which is typically administered by medical professionals. (source)

Some people may not experience any symptoms and therefore may be unaware that they are hypoglycemic, while others may have symptoms so severe they need immediate medical attention. Symptoms appear quickly after your blood sugar drops below your normal range. Hypoglycemia can be very dangerous because if your blood sugar is too low, you risk seizures or loss of consciousness, and in extreme cases can lead to coma or death. 

What is Hyperglycemia?

Hyperglycemia is high blood sugar.  Hyperglycemia is blood glucose greater than 125 mg/dL while fasting and greater than 180 mg/dL 2 hours postprandial (aka post-eating). A patient has impaired glucose tolerance, or pre-diabetes, with a fasting plasma glucose of 100 mg/dL to 125 mg/dL. A patient is diagnosed diabetic with a fasting blood glucose of greater than 125 mg/dL. (source)

If you experience symptoms of hyperglycemia, it means that your body’s insulin is not capable of removing enough sugar from your blood to keep it in a normal range. This can be because your body isn’t producing enough insulin or because your insulin is not working properly due to insulin resistance. 

Staying in a hyperglycemic state for long periods of time can be severely damaging to the body. Health issues like kidney and eye disease, heart attacks, and even strokes can happen if your blood sugar is too high for too long.

Various factors can contribute to hyperglycemia without diabetes and cause high blood sugar, either suddenly or gradually. Two examples are medical conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome [PCOS] and Cushing’s syndrome. Additionally, if you have an infection, your body may release a high amount of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Too much of these hormones can interfere with your body’s ability to use insulin properly. As a result, your blood glucose level increases. (source)

Lifestyle factors such as eating highly processed foods, obesity, and a lack of physical activity can also lead to hyperglycemia without diabetes.

Here is a chart that shows the different symptoms of both Hyper and Hypoglycemia

How to prevent Hypoglycemia and Hyperglycemia

Both high and low blood sugar can be dangerous and cause health problems if left untreated. The most important thing to understand is that glucose is your body's main energy source and it works synergistically with insulin. After eating or drinking, insulin is excreted and allows sugar to enter your body’s cells to be burned off as energy. However, we need to maintain the proper levels of blood glucose to fuel your brain and your body. 

So we don’t want too much or too little insulin in the bloodstream. If you are skipping meals, or eating a lot of processed carbohydrates without protein and healthy fats, this can result in unstable blood sugar. Additionally, certain medications can lower blood sugar levels such as aspirin, birth control, steroids, blood pressure medication, some antibiotics and consuming too much alcohol. When we over consume alcohol, it can make it difficult for the liver to function and release glucose into the bloodstream and normalize blood sugar levels, which causes temporary hypoglycemia. (source)

How to support blood sugar are through your lifestyle behaviors and nutrition choices:

  • Eat balanced meals every few hours to prevent low blood sugar. We recommend pairing carbohydrates with a good amount of protein and healthy fat as that will help keep blood sugar stable and reduce spikes in blood sugar. If you need a quick and easy protein source to pair with carbohydrates you can always consider a protein supplement such as CLEAN protein powder. This would be great to make a smoothie with, pair with a piece of fruit post workout, or as a quick and easy snack.
  • If you’re running low on blood sugar or experiencing signs of low blood sugar, use the 15/15 rule to bring blood sugar up by having 15g of carbohydrates and wait 15 minutes to see if it improves, if not, more carbohydrates can be consumed until you feel stable. Note: it is important to test blood glucose with a blood glucose monitor to check your glucose range if using this tactic.
  • Balance your energy intake with energy output. One of the reasons people experience low blood sugar is because they are expending a lot of energy without enough fuel from food. 
  • Go for a walk 30 minutes after meals to help keep blood sugar stable. Research shows that a short walk after eating helps manage a person’s blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels.
  • If you struggle with high blood sugar, and you are not physically active it is important to incorporate exercise for at least 30 minutes 5 days a week to lower blood sugar levels. Research shows that exercise can help prevent or delay Type 2 diabetes. Exercise can be helpful for glucose control, insulin sensitivity, cardiovascular health and muscle maintenance for those who have Type 1 diabetes. (source)
  • Eat adequate fiber, not only to help regulate blood sugar but also to help with digestion. The general recommendations are to consume about 20 to 30 grams of fiber each day, but most Americans only get about 15 grams a day.
  • Regularly consumeomega-3 fats. We have talked about the importance of consuming adequate omega-3s before in our blog HERE. The best source of omega-3s are found in wild caught fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, sardines) and plants like flax seed, walnuts, chia seeds and soybeans.  
  • Test your blood sugar levels if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms related to high or low blood sugar levels. You can talk to your doctor about getting a continuous blood glucose monitor [CGM] to learn more about how your body responds to food and what lifestyle behaviors support keeping blood sugar within range. Everyone responds differently to certain foods, including healthy foods, and different types of exercise may also impact your blood sugar response. As we always say, the more you know the better you can do, so this may be something to consider as an experiment to see what exactly is spiking blood sugar or causing blood sugar lows. 
  • Talk with your doctor about the medications that you are on and how they may impact your blood sugar. It may be as simple as timing your medication right or taking it with a meal.
Hopefully you understand just how important it is to manage blood sugar levels as both hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia can be detrimental to health if left unmanaged.

Work with a certified health coach to help you understand more about how your lifestyle behaviors and nutritional choices impact your health, how to improve symptoms and prevent disease. If you are experiencing severe symptoms, or if you’re unable to keep your blood sugar within a normal range it is always important to seek out medical attention immediately.

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