The literal meaning of hypoglycemia is low blood sugar. In the holistic health world, the various faces of hypoglycemia are known as hyperinsulinemia, insulin resistance, and glucose intolerance. All of these terms describe an insidious condition that has been linked to high blood pressure, diabetes (Type II), atherosclerosis, ADHD, food allergies, infertility, chronic fatigue, obesity and even cancer, to name a few. As prevalent and debilitating as hypoglycemia is, it is totally manageable and even preventable.
Maintaining an optimum blood glucose level is essential for a healthy metabolism and a foundation for good health. The general consensus among health professionals today is that hypoglycemia, if left unmanaged or untreated, is a precursor to the more chronic conditions mentioned above, most commonly to Type II diabetes. The connection is logically explained.
When we eat a meal or snack that is high in refined carbohydrates or simple sugars relative to proteins and fats, our pancreas releases a hormone called insulin in an attempt to deal with the sudden and dramatic rise in blood sugar (glucose). Insulin has two primary functions. It enables the cells in our body to take in and use the glucose for energy, and it tells the body to store any excess glucose away as glycogen or fat. The problem here is that the cells have a limited need for glucose (depending on your level of activity) and the liver and muscles have a limited capacity for glycogen (stored energy). The excess glucose that results from that high carbohydrate meal is converted and stored as body fat and the excess insulin drops the blood sugar to below normal – hypoglycemia. When this hypoglycemic response is triggered repeatedly and becomes a chronic occurrence, the pancreas eventually gets burned out and the insulin response becomes insufficient. This leads to hyperglycemia or diabetes. The incidence of this Type II diabetes has increased by more than 70% among 30-39 year-olds in the past ten years. This epidemic can be directly linked to our increased consumption of refined and processed grains and sugars.
Another very strong connection has been made between hypoglycemia and weight management challenges. The reason for this is that when your blood sugar drops and you do not address it immediately (i.e., we go hungry), by the time you do get around to satisfying our hunger it is more typically with processed carbohydrates, such as bread or pasta or foods that are high in refined sugar. The body is unable to metabolize all of this sugar and the excess is consequently stored as fat. Additionally, the liver eventually becomes overwhelmed and less able to break down the sugars and eliminate the body’s toxins — two of its primary functions — and it becomes fatty and sluggish. This series of events will also contribute to fatigue, very often at a chronic level.
So how do you know if you have hypoglycemia and what do you do about it if you do? Some of the early signs of hypoglycemia are extreme hunger, weakness, fatigue, anxiety, nervousness, severe mood swings, brain fog, disorientation, and trembling. Most of us have experienced one or more of these symptoms after going several hours without food. This is what your body feels like when your blood glucose levels fall below normal. What is considered normal is a matter of context and is very individual. For instance, a healthy blood glucose level after 8 hours of fasting should be between 85 and 90 (mg of glucose per 100 ml of blood). Anything below that will likely produce one or more of the symptoms mentioned above. However, these same symptoms may be experienced with a sudden and dramatic decrease in blood sugar levels (a drop of 40-50 points within 30-60 minutes), which may be brought on by eating a high carbohydrate meal or snack as described above. This reactive hypoglycemic response is really what we are more concerned with to the extent that it promotes more serious and debilitating conditions.
There are several methods of testing for hypoglycemia. Probably the most accurate method, if conducted and interpreted by a competent health practitioner who is experienced with the protocol, is the glucose challenge test. Here, blood sugar levels are tested at specific time intervals after the subject has consumed a glucose solution. A failure of blood sugar levels to rise as they should would indicate faulty absorption or overproduction of insulin by the pancreas. Hence the term hyperinsulinemia. An excess elevation of blood sugar levels may indicate a pre-diabetic or diabetic state. A drop in blood sugar of more than 20 points below fasting level would indicate reactive hypoglycemia.
A much simpler and slightly less reliable method calls for testing blood sugar levels just prior to breakfast and again 45 minutes to an hour after a normal breakfast. If the blood sugar has not risen several points by the second measurement, you are probably hypoglycemic. Incidentally, blood glucose levels may be measured using a glucometer, which may be purchased at most pharmacies.
While these two methods and many other clinical tests are commonly used by physicians and nutritional consultants, the more reliable method to question the presence of hypoglycemia, according to Carlton Frederick, PhD (a pioneer in this field), is by treating it rather than testing for it. In other words, if you experience the symptoms associated with hypoglycemia after eating a high carbohydrate meal or snack and the symptoms disappear after eating a meal or snack that is higher in protein and fats, then the diagnosis is confirmed. No one has ever been harmed by the good nutrition of a hypoglycemic diet. And a good hypoglycemic diet is not a whole lot different than the healthy lifestyle nutrition plan recommended for everyone else — a diet consisting of whole, fresh, unprocessed foods with a good balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and natural fats.
If you have been diagnosed with or you suspect you may have hypoglycemia, the following recommendations will help you to manage the problem and keep you on the road to a healthy vibrant lifestyle. These guidelines are listed in order of priority:
1. Eat adequate protein with every meal or snack. Another way to look at this is to never eat any form of carbohydrates without protein and fat to balance out the meal or snack. Adequate protein may be described as at least 30% of the calories coming from a complete protein, such as eggs, fish, meat, yogurt, or whey.
2. Avoid refined grains or foods containing refined sugars. These would be any foods containing any kind of flour, sucrose, cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, corn syrup, raw sugar (it’s not really raw), or dextrose. There are other names for these types of sugar, but hopefully you get the idea. They are not natural and they cause blood sugar spikes.. Flours provoke a similar blood sugar response. Remember, a blood sugar spike is almost always followed by a sharp blood sugar drop. And that spells trouble in the long run.
3. Avoid fruit juices. Fruit juices are like concentrated sugar. And even they are consumed with good quality protein, the effect it has on the insulin response is typically problematic. Eat the whole fruit, and eat it with some form of protein.
4. Eat small, frequent meals. Eating frequently (every 3 hours) keeps your blood glucose levels balanced. And eating smaller meals prevents you from binging on carbohydrates to satisfy your hunger. Since we are all biochemically individual, the three-hour rule does not necessarily apply to everyone. It is much more important to eat whenever you are hungry. From the moment you begin to feel hungry, your blood sugar begins to drop. On the other hand, if three hours has gone by since the last time you ate and you are still not hungry, eat anyway. You are trying to train your metabolism to stay active and eating one way to control that.
5. Drink plenty of water. This recommendation will appear on just about any healthy diet because water is such an essential nutrient for every metabolic process, including blood sugar balancing.
6. Exercise at least 30-40 minutes per day, six days a week. Exercise promotes healthy blood sugar levels and prevents improper insulin response.
7. Limit your sugar intake to 20 grams per meal or snack. One way to manage this one is to read your labels. If the amount of sugar per serving exceeds 20 grams, don’t eat it. Incidentally, most yogurts are sweetened with sugar or fruit juice and typically contain more than 20 grams of sugar per serving. Another way to manage this is to limit your intake of fruits and vegetables that are higher in sugar, such as bananas, raisins, corn, potatoes, and carrots.
8. Avoid artificial sweeteners. Unfortunately for many hypoglycemics, your body knows that anything that tastes sweet probably is sweet. Consequently, sugar substitutes are treated just like sugar when it comes to the insulin response. One exception to this may be a natural sweetener called stevia. Stevia may actually help to normalize blood glucose levels.
9. Avoid fat-free and low cholesterol foods. These foods are typically overly processed and too high in sugar. Besides, your goal is not to avoid fat. Naturally occurring fats, such as extra virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut butter, or raw nut butters are essential to hormone production, healthy joints, and a strong immune system.
10. Reduce you stress levels. Chronic stress or even repeated stressful responses can burn out your adrenal glands, which play a key role in the balancing of your blood sugar levels and your overall metabolism. Practice meditating, yoga, or other forms of deep breathing.
There are other ways to keep your blood sugar in check, but these are the most important. Remember, hypoglycemia is a serious condition if left unmanaged or untreated. Consult with your holistic health professional or nutritional consultant and find out if you suffer from this chronic condition and learn how to handle it. One great resource for more information on hypoglycemia and helpful nutrition tips is http://www.mercola.com
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