Foods that contain sugar or carbohydrates provide the body with blood sugar, also known as blood glucose, which is vital to good health. The pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin that bonds with the blood sugar and allows it to be converted to food for our brain and energy for our body. It continually monitors the level of sugar in the bloodstream and produces sufficient levels of insulin to prevent the blood sugar level from raising too high.
Normal Blood Sugar Levels
Normal blood sugar levels are between 70 mg/dl and 120 mg/dl (milligrams of glucose to deciliters of blood). Healthy people may experience mild fluctuations occasionally. Persistent or severe blood sugar levels outside of this range are almost certainly an indicator of an underlying medical condition.
Any instance of high blood sugar is called hyperglycemia. Otherwise healthy people may experience mild episodes of hyperglycemia as a result of routine activities such as strenuous exercise or eating a meal. It is not uncommon to see blood sugar levels as high as 140 mg/dl for up to two hours after eating, particularly if the food was loaded with sugar or carbohydrates.
Recurring blood sugar levels between 130 mg/dl and 200 mg/dl could signal a condition known as pre-diabetes, a precursor to diabetes. Persistent hyperglycemia with blood sugar levels higher than 200 mg/dl indicate the presence of type 1, type 2 or gestational diabetes, impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) or other severe medical conditions and should be treated by a physician. The American Diabetes Association estimates that 8 percent of the United States population has some form of diabetes.
Hyperglycemia with a blood sugar level of 400 mg/dl or above should be taken very seriously. It could indicate a condition called ketoacidosis which can quickly cause coma or death.
A blood sugar level below 70 mg/dl indicates a condition known as hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia is fairly uncommon in adults and children over 10 years old unless it is caused by an underlying medical condition. It is not uncommon to see an episode of transient hypoglycemia in newborns, particularly if the mother is a diabetic. A condition known as hyperinsulinism is the leading cause of severe and persistent hypoglycemia in newborns and children.
Diabetics, particularly those with type 1 diabetes, are prone to hypoglycemic episodes. A missed or delayed meal, intake of too much insulin, drinking alcoholic beverages, severe stress or exercising without adjusting insulin and food intake can all cause hypoglycemia in diabetics. The blood sugar level can drop quickly or slowly depending on the cause of the hypoglycemia. Warning signs usually present before the blood sugar level gets dangerously low, such as sweating, weakness, shaking, a headache or feeling tired.
A low blood sugar level that is considered dangerous can vary. Once unconsciousness or seizures set in, the condition is dangerous and can quickly result in coma or death regardless of what the actual blood sugar level is.
There are two types of tests used by physicians to test blood sugar levels for diagnosis: a fasting blood glucose test or an oral glucose tolerance test. Both tests are usually performed at a certified laboratory or physician's office.
Diabetics and people with other conditions use a blood glucose meter to test their daily blood sugar levels. At a minimum, testing should be done before each meal and at bedtime.
Diabetics will have a blood test done every few months to test their A1C levels. They usually experience ongoing spikes and dips in their blood sugar levels, and the A1C test gives them a measure of how well their blood sugar has been regulated over a period of time.
While there are medications that can control hyperinsulinism for some time, the eventual removal of part or all of the pancreas is normally required.
Treatment for diabetes includes a diet low in carbohydrates and sugar, and a good exercise regimen. Type 1 diabetics also take daily injections of insulin while type 2 diabetics are frequently treated with oral medications.
Hypoglycemia is treated by the introduction of sugar into the body. A glucose tablet or beverage high in sugar, such as juice or soda, should be ingested first followed 10 to 20 minutes later by a solid food that contains carbohydrates. Blood sugar levels should be tested every 15 minutes until it reaches 70 mg/dl.
If the person is unconscious or unable to eat or drink, cake icing or glucose gel can be swabbed on the interior of their cheek. If this does not help, an injection of glucagon may be called for. In any case, if a person is unconscious due to hypoglycemia, an ambulance should be summoned immediately.