Medically reviewed by Kelly Wood, MD
Low blood sugar levels, referred to as hypoglycemia in the medical world, is defined as blood sugar (glucose) levels below 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Hypoglycemia is most commonly seen in people with diabetes, especially type 1 diabetes.
Low blood sugar levels can lead to dizziness, fainting, anxiety, and even more severe symptoms, such as seizures. In most cases, low blood sugar can be treated by eating or drinking readily available sources of sugar, such as fruit juice or hard candies.
In this article, we’ll discuss how to manage low blood sugar levels, including the best foods to eat when your blood sugar is low.
Causes of Low Blood Sugar Levels
Every person's blood sugar fluctuates throughout the day, depending on factors such as dietary intake, physical activity, and more. While it’s normal for your blood sugar to increase and decrease, it can get too high or too low, negatively impacting your health.
Hypoglycemia occurs when your blood levels of glucose fall below 70 mg/dL. While this level is considered “low,” most people won’t experience hypoglycemia symptoms, such as shakiness, confusion, and blurred vision, until glucose levels fall below 55 mg/dL.
Though anyone’s blood sugar can fall into the hypoglycemic range, it’s much more common in people with diabetes who are taking diabetes medications, specifically people with type 1 diabetes. In fact, people with type 1 diabetes are three times as likely to experience low blood sugar levels than people with type 2 diabetes.
On the other hand, antidiabetic medications, such as insulin, meglitinides, and sulfonylureas, are the most common cause of hypoglycemia in people with diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes who use insulin are most likely to experience hypoglycemia.
Additionally, low blood sugar levels can be caused by accidentally taking too much insulin, injecting the wrong type of insulin, or injecting insulin directly into a muscle instead of under the skin.
Not eating enough calories, failing to adjust insulin levels based on carb intake and exercise, and incorrectly timing insulin injections around meals are other factors that can lead to hypoglycemia.
Less Common Causes
Your body constantly works to maintain safe blood sugar levels, regulating how much insulin is released from your pancreas and how much glucose is released from your liver. Though uncommon, hypoglycemia in people without diabetes is typically caused by factors like medications, alcohol, malnourishment, serious illness, and even some types of tumors.
Managing Low Blood Sugar
Though most people with type 1 diabetes occasionally experience hypoglycemia, it’s usually not dangerous and can be easily treated with high-carb foods, beverages, or glucose tabs. However, if left untreated, blood sugar can drop so low that it can be life-threatening. Continuous blood sugar monitoring and swift and proper treatment are crucial for preventing and treating hypoglycemia.
Part of managing type 1 diabetes is knowing how to quickly and safely treat low blood sugar levels.
When a person with diabetes is experiencing hypoglycemia, experts suggest following the 15-15 rule. The 15-15 rule is a treatment plan that involves consuming 15 grams of carbohydrates (one serving of carbs) to raise your blood sugar and then waiting 15 minutes to reassess. If your blood sugar is still below 70 mg/dL after 15 minutes, you’ll have another 15 grams of carbohydrates.
Sticking to 15 grams of carbs at a time is essential to ensure you’re not consuming too many carbohydrates. Eating more than 15 grams of carbs at a time can make your blood sugar levels climb too high.
You should repeat the 15-15 rule until your blood sugar reads at least 70 mg/dL, then eat a well-balanced meal or snack to ensure your blood sugar remains stable.
Remember that the 15-15 rule should only be used to treat low blood sugar between 55-69 mg/dL.
High Glycemic Index Foods
When treating low blood sugar, it’s important to choose foods that are low in fiber and protein and relatively high on the glycemic index. The glycemic index (GI) measures how slowly or quickly a food spikes blood sugar levels. The GI ranks foods on a scale of 0-100, with low-GI foods scoring less than 55 and high-GI foods scoring greater than 70.
Low-GI foods are higher in nutrients that slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. They aren’t the best choice when you need to get your blood sugar to increase quickly.
If your blood sugar is below 55 mg/dL, it’s considered severely low and should not be treated with the 15-15 rule. Blood sugar below 55 mg/dL should be treated with injectable glucagon. Sometimes, people with severely low blood sugar can’t treat themselves, so it’s important for friends and family members to know how to give a glucagon injection in an emergency.
Foods to Raise Blood Sugar
If your blood sugar is between 55-69 mg/dL, you can use the 15-15 rule to treat it.
The following foods and drinks are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Diabetes Association. Each food and drink contains around 15 grams of carbs and can rapidly increase blood sugar, making them a good choice for treating hypoglycemia.
Four Ounces (½ cup) of Juice or Regular Soda
Juice (like apple or grape juice) can quickly and effectively increase blood sugar. Juice contains little fiber and is free from protein and fat, making it a good choice when experiencing hypoglycemia.
Soda can also be used, as it’s very high in sugar.
One Tablespoon of Sugar, Honey, or Maple Syrup
Sweeteners, such as table sugar, honey, and maple syrup, can rapidly increase blood sugar levels and are usually kept on hand in most households.
Mix a granulated sweetener, like table sugar, into a half-cup of water so it’s easier to ingest.
Hard Candies, Jellybeans, or Gumdrops
Candies mostly made of sugar, such as hard candies, jellybeans, gum drops, and Skittles, can be a good option for treating low blood sugar.
Carb content varies depending on the type of candy, so you’ll need to read the back of the candy container to see how many you should take. For example, you’d need to consume four Lifesavers hard candies to reach 15 grams of carbs.
Glucose tablets are products that are specifically made for treating low blood sugar. They come in different flavors and can be purchased online or at drug stores.
Serving sizes can vary depending on the brand, so you’ll need to read the product label and follow instructions to treat low blood sugar.
Like glucose tablets, glucose gel is a product specifically designed to treat hypoglycemia.
Most glucose gel products come in individual tubes or packets, each containing 15 grams of carbs for easy use.
If you don’t have any of the foods or drinks listed above on-hand, you can use other high-GI foods, like certain fruits, to increase your blood sugar.
15 grapes, half of a banana, ½ cup of applesauce, and one small orange all contain around 15 grams of carbs.
Other Diet Tips
Hypoglycemia can be prevented by consistently monitoring your blood sugar and following a well-rounded diet.
Eating regularly is key to preventing episodes of hypoglycemia. This means fueling your body with consistent meals and snacks. It’s essential to understand the amount of carbohydrates required at each meal and snack and how different types of carbs impact your blood sugar and need for insulin.
Every person with diabetes is different, so it’s crucial to develop a personalized eating plan with a blood sugar expert, such as your endocrinologist or a registered dietitian who specializes in diabetes management.
They can help you build a blood sugar-friendly diet, teach you how to appropriately dose and time your insulin, and give you tips on treating and preventing low blood sugar.
A Quick Review
Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, is common in people with type 1 diabetes.
Blood sugar can usually be treated with the 15-15 rule, which involves consuming 15 grams of rapidly acting carbohydrates and then waiting 15 minutes before checking your blood sugar. Fruit juice, honey, hard candies, and glucose tablets are recommended to treat hypoglycemia between 55-69 mg/dL. However, severely low blood sugar usually requires a glucagon injection.
If you’re experiencing frequent episodes of hypoglycemia, speak with your healthcare provider to learn ways to prevent low blood sugar through diet, lifestyle, and medication changes.
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