Hypoglycemia: A Not So Sweet Problem
by Steven Horne, RH(AHG)
Last week we discussed diabetes, a condition involving hyperglycemia or high levels of sugar in the blood stream. This week we’ll look at the opposite problem, hypoglycemia or low blood sugar.
When I first got involved in natural healing, everybody talked about hypoglycemia. It was one of those “fad” diseases that got blamed for just about everything, like some people blame candida or yeast infections for everything. You don’t hear as much about hypoglycemia today because the major health issues that get talked about are metabolic syndrome X and obesity. However, all four of these conditions are related, because they all center around eating too many refined carbohydrates.
This past weekend, millions of children became fussy and irritable little “monsters” after getting bags of sugar, so it’s the perfect time to discuss how excess sugar consumption actually winds up causing low blood sugar. An odd paradox, but it’s exactly what happens.
As we discussed last week, cells consume sugar for energy. High sugar levels lead to an agitated, hyper state, while low blood sugar tends to result in fatigue, cold and mental confusion. So, while too much sugar in the blood is a bad thing, so is too little sugar.
Hormones and Sugar Regulation
The pancreas is the key organ that governs the amount of sugar in the blood and tries to keep your blood sugar level stable. When blood sugar is high the pancreatic tail releases insulin to move sugar out of the blood. When blood sugar is too low, this same gland releases glucagon to mobilize sugar from storage in the liver and raise blood sugar levels.
These two hormones are part of a hormonal axis, a kind of chemical teeter-totter. As levels of insulin rise, glucagon production drops. As levels of glucagon rise, insulin production drops.
Under the influence of insulin, the liver stores sugar in the form of glycogen (a starch-like substance). When sugar levels get low, glucagon from the pancreas causes the liver to convert glycogen back into sugar and release it into the blood stream.
The adrenals also play a role in keeping blood sugar levels stable. When we are under stress, the adrenals release hormones called glucocorticoids (like cortisol) which convert protein into sugar to raise blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, glucocorticoids also cause the body to store more sugar as fat, which is why stress can cause us to gain weight in the form of fat and lose muscle mass and that’s not good!
Symptoms of Hypoglycemia
When you suffer from hypoglycemia, it’s because your insulin levels are too high and/or your liver isn’t storing sugar properly. Either way, as your cells use up the sugar in your blood, sugar levels drop too low and don’t rebound quickly enough.
When blood sugar levels start to dip below normal, the body gives certain subtle clues that it needs help. These may include suddenly feeling cold (such as getting a cold nose or cold fingers), strong craving for sweets or caffeine, sudden fatigue or mental confusion, the inability to concentrate, a mild headache and/or sense of pain around the eyes. If not dealt with soon, the symptoms may worsen into irritability, severe fatigue, dizziness or shakiness.
As the above symptoms suggest, hypoglycemia affects the mind far more than it does the body. This is because the brain consumes more sugar than any other organ in the body. This is why irritability, depression, mental confusion and severe behavioral problems like ADHD, hyperactivity, juvenile delinquency and even mental illness may have their roots in blood sugar problems.
Hypoglycemia and Mental Illness
A person who has a severe problem with hypoglycemia may become very irrational or “crazy” under stress. When a person is startled, worried or upset the demand for sugar increases dramatically. Hence, the hypoglycemic may experience a sudden drop in blood sugar levels in stressful situations. If the drop is severe enough, the higher functions of the brain tend to shut down.
I call this tendency to mental shutdown from severe blood sugar drops “reactive hypoglycemia,” because the person can appear normal and then suddenly switches into “crazy mode” under stress. I watched it happen to my mother many times when I was growing up. She would start talking nonsense and become extremely irrational.
You won’t find the term “reactive hypoglycemia” in books because I invented it to describe what I observed in people with mental and emotional problems. The sudden drop in blood sugar causes the person to descend into the “animal” mode of fight or flight behavior. That means they are no longer in a rational state. The only options perceived are fight or flee.
In this state, they may lash out in uncontrolled rage, retreat into a shell or even babble in an irrational manner. I believe this highly reactive hypoglyemica is a big factor in mental illness, especially schizophrenia.
I’m not alone in this belief, either. Orthomolecular psychiatrists have found that a diet to correct hypoglycemia can improve the mental health of many patients. Dr. Micheal Lesser testified before the United States Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in the 1970s, saying that 82% of previously uncontrollable schizophrenics showed improvement when put on a diet and supplements to control hypoglycemia. Other psychiatrists have reported that about 40% of all mentally ill persons are hypoglycemic.
I have personally worked with several people diagnosed with schizophrenia and used a diet to control hypoglycemia as my basic therapy. It has always resulted in tremendous improvement. I have even seen a person in a full blown “mental breakdown” babbling nonsense, come out of that state within two to five minutes after being given a dose of liquid licorice root, an herb which elevates blood sugar levels.
Therapy for Hypoglycemia
The first and best thing to do for hypoglycemia is to quit eating refined sugar, white rice and white flour. Replace these with whole grains and use more natural sweeteners such as xylitol, raw honey, blackstrap molasses, real maple syrup, barley malt or date sugar.
The second important thing to do is to start the day with protein for breakfast and eat small snacks that contain protein and fat (a few nuts for example) at regular intervals throughout the day. Small, frequent meals are best. This can also help with weight loss.
Licorice root is the most beneficial herb I’ve found for hypoglycemia, especially in children. It helps to balance blood sugar and reduce the craving for sweets. My standard recommendation is two capsules of the regular licorice root (or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of the liquid extract) at breakfast, lunch and mid-afternoon. Many people with hypoglycemia experience fatigue and mental confusion about 3:00-4:00 in the afternoon.
If this isn’t enough, use the ATC concentrate and take 1 ATC Licorice capsule at breakfast and another at lunchtime. You can also take one again in the late afternoon.
Another supplement that helps is Super Algae which supplies amino acids (the building blocks of protein). This can stimulate glucagon production. Take two capsules of Super Algae at the same time you take the licorice root.