Also known as hypoglycemia, low blood sugar is a diabetes complication that needs to be treated quickly. Here’s what to munch on if your blood sugar dips — whether you’re at home or on the go.
Picture this: You’re in the mall, shopping with friends, chatting and having a great time when suddenly you start to feel a bit strange. You might become irritated or nervous, your skin may feel clammy or sweaty — and your vision may even seem blurred. If you have diabetes, you’ll recognize these as the warning signs of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.
“Hypoglycemia occurs when blood sugar levels in the body drop too low,” says Kelly O’Connor, RD, a dietitian and certified diabetes educator at LifeBridge Health’s Northwest Hospital in Baltimore. “Glucose [sugar] is your brain’s main energy or fuel source. If the level of glucose in the body is too low, it can begin to affect your brain’s functioning. The resulting symptoms are more or less your body’s warning system that you need to take quick action in order to correct the problem.”
Recognizing the Signs of Hypoglycemia
O’Connor says there are a number of warning signs that indicate you might have low blood sugar. “The symptoms can range from very mild — shakiness, clamminess, feeling irritable or jittery, and having temporarily blurred vision — to much more severe, such as [experiencing] seizures and loss of consciousness or passing out, although these are less common,” she says. These symptoms can occur because of many other circumstances, so if you are diabetic and are having symptoms that could be due to low blood sugar, check your sugar levels to see what’s going on, she adds.
Certain things can also put you at higher risk of hypoglycemia, especially if you skip or put off a meal or snack, take too much insulin, don’t eat enough carbohydrates, exercise more than you regularly do, or drink alcohol. In addition, people with type 1 diabetes experience hypoglycemia more often than those with type 2.
Glucose Tablets: A Quick Fix
“If your blood sugar has dropped too low, a quick-acting carbohydrate is needed to bring blood sugar levels back up,” says O’Connor. Glucose tablets are tailor-made to help. This inexpensive fix for low blood sugar is widely available at pharmacies and large chain stores like Walmart and Target.
Usually, three to four glucose tablets are needed to bring levels back up. “We recommend that patients who are prone to hypoglycemia carry glucose tablets with them and put them in several locations in their home and car,” says O’Connor. Glucose is also sold in gel form in small packets, and as a beverage.
Low Blood Sugar: Best Bites When You’re on the Go
Despite your best planning, you might find yourself experiencing low blood sugar when you’re out and about, with no glucose tablets in reach. Here are tips to keep in mind:
Best bites at work Smart foods to keep in a drawer at work are 4-ounce cans or cartons of any type of 100 percent juice; hard candy like peppermints or Life Savers (you’ll need to munch on four to seven pieces, depending on their size); and small boxes of raisins — the ones that contain about 2 tablespoons, says Hope Warshaw, RD, a certified diabetes educator and author of Diabetes Meal Planning Made Easy.
If you don’t have these items on hand, head to the nearest vending machine for any snack containing carbohydrates or sugary candy — but skip the chocolate. “We do not recommend using chocolate as a treatment for hypoglycemia, despite what you might have read,” says O’Connor. She explains that the fat in chocolate slows down how fast the sugar and carbohydrates in the candy can get into the bloodstream.
If you’re choosing foods to help treat hypoglycemia, you should also pay attention to where they fall on the glycemic index, or GI. The higher a food ranks on the GI, the more quickly your body breaks it down into sugar. Life Savers have a GI of 70, while raisins have a GI around 60.
Best bites at the mall If you’re going to be on a prolonged excursion at the mall, plan a stop at the food court for a meal to thwart low blood sugar, but be sensible in the decisions you make, says Cecilia R. Chapman, RD, a nutritionist and diabetes educator in Chandler, Arizona. “Sometimes hours can be spent walking from store to store, and losing track of time is common,” she says. Know where the food court is, because it’s your best bet to find a sugary soda or hard candy if you feel low blood sugar symptoms starting.
Best bites in the air When it comes to traveling, especially in the air, it’s essential to be prepared for the possibility of a blood sugar drop. Not having what you need can become a matter of life or death. “Never place your snacks or fast-acting glucose tablets in your suitcase — always carry diabetes supplies on board,” says Chapman. Find out if a meal will be provided or if food will be available for sale. If not, make sure to bring your own meal, or at least a snack, in case you’re stuck on the tarmac for longer than expected. If you start to feel the effects of low blood sugar, in addition to soda, orange juice is a good option; it’s usually available on board even when the barest beverage service is offered.