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Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is a very common problem and cause of symptoms in those with environmental illness.
Blood sugar levels are usually carefully controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain (a major control centre) which through a series of steps causes the release of two hormones from the pancreas; insulin, which lowers blood sugar by increasing uptake by cells, and glucagon, which increases blood sugar by releasing stored glucose (as glycogen) in the liver and increasing the generation of new glucose from substances such as amino acids (the building blocks of protein).
Unfortunately for those of us who experience hypoglycemia this intricate system of balance is disrupted so blood sugar levels vary more than they should and often dip too low. It is well known in chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) for example that the hypothalamus which controls the whole system does not function correctly. This results in hypoglycemia and a whole host of other problems such as poor thyroid and adrenal gland function.
What happens when we lose efficient control of blood sugar is that when we eat meals high in carbohydrate (sugary and starchy foods) our blood sugar rises rapidly and higher than usual so the pancreas pumps out large amounts of insulin to get the blood sugar level back to normal. Unfortunately it may overshoot the normal fasting level leaving blood sugar too low (hypoglycemia). This is technically known as 'relative hypoglycemia' and is typically what is seen in those with ME/CFS and other environmental illnesses.
What symptoms will I have if this is happening to me?
Initially because blood sugar levels are rising quickly and often reach levels that are higher than is normal you will likely experience sympoms such as:
- Boost in Energy
- Mood Improvement
This stage may actually feel very good, like a high. Those with environmental illnesses may be particularly susceptible to feeling the effects of high blood sugar due to what I will unscientifically call 'sugar sensitivity'. Research has shown that ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), Gulf War syndrome (GWS), autism and others are neurological in origin. Due to damage from toxins such as heavy metals and free radicals those of us with these conditions may feel exaggerated brain related symptoms from high blood sugar.
As a result of blood sugar being too high the pancreas secretes ever more insulin to get it back down to normal levels. This results in levels dropping rapidly and often dipping below the level required to maintain proper functioning of the body's cells. Because the brain relies almost exclusively on glucose (blood sugar) for its fuel the first symptoms to become apparent in this situation are related to the brain and include:
- Cold Sweats
- Weak Spells (especially weak/wobbly knees)
If the symptoms of both stages, but particularly the second, appear familiar to you (especially a couple of hours following a meal) then hypoglycemia may be a problem for you.
You can have this confirmed for you by your doctor by asking for a glucose tolerance test (GTT). This involves drinking a sugar solution then having your blood sugar level measured every hour. This test is also used to diagnose diabetes mellitus where the blood sugar level increases to a very high level and remains there for hours (because insulin is not being produced or cells are resistant to its effects).
What can you do if you have hypoglycemia?
The most important factor is the carbohydrate content of your diet, particularly sugars and refined carbohydrates such as white rice and white bread. These raise blood sugar rapidly and cause the chain reaction described above. Choose whole foods instead such as brown rice and whole grain breads which contain fibre which slows down the release of sugar into the blood. Eat these in moderation however. The ideal diet for hypoglycemia would consist mainly of low saturated fat animal products (fish, chicken, turkey), vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Other foods which need to be avoided include candies/sweets, cookies/biscuits, baked goods, cakes, fast food, packaged foods containing added sugar, sugary soft drinks.
Alcohol and stimulants such as caffeine in coffee and soft drinks also cause blood sugar imbalances.
It may be that as time passes you can introduce carbohydrate-rich foods in moderation and not suffer ill effects. Listen to your body and symptoms to find out what works for you as an individual.
Other tips to combat hypoglycemia:
- Eat small meals
- Eat regularly
- Eat protein with every meal
- Eat lots of high fibre foods
- Exercise regularly (improves insulin action and blood sugar control)
- Avoid Stress/Use Stress Management Techniques
There are many nutrients that are required to maintain efficient blood sugar control. These can be obtained through diet or supplements if necessary:
- Chromium - liver, whole-wheat bread, green pepper, spinach
- Vitamin B3 (Niacin) - brown rice, liver, sword fish, sunflower seeds
- Manganese - pecans, brazil nuts, almonds, split peas
- Zinc - pumpkin seeds, lima beans, walnuts, green peas
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) - lentils, buckwheat, hazelnuts, avocados
- Magnesium - almonds, cashews, brown rice, tofu
- Omega 3 & Omega 6 Fatty Acids - fish, sea vegetables, nuts, seeds
- Biotin - peanuts, barley, oatmeal, cauliflower
Using the above measures I have been able to control my own hypoglycemia so that I no longer experience the major symptoms listed but just the occasional fluctuations in energy levels and concentration.
The adrenal glands are a vital component of the blood sugar control mechanism and those with environmental illness also suffer from poor adrenal function (adrenal fatigue) so it is important to address this issue as well. See the adrenal fatigue page for more information on this.