(Illustration by Beth Evans)
We know the feeling all too well: that mid-afternoon crash that creeps up slowly, and then suddenly has us snapping at co-workers and losing patience with our kids.
Many of us refer to this mental state as “hangry.” But what exactly is it? Are we experiencing low blood sugar, or are they two entirely different things?
“Having low blood sugar can certainly cause you to feel ‘hangry.’ But just because your stomach is rumbling doesn’t always indicate that your blood sugar has fallen below a normal range,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. “You can experience ‘hanger’ when you’re hungry even if you have normal blood sugar levels.”
So how do you know if your blood sugar is low? Our body maintains a blood-sugar level within a set range throughout the day. When levels dip below the normal range, you may experience certain symptoms like lack of energy, headache, shakiness, or irritability. “This means that a less-than-normal level of sugar is available in the blood stream. Sugar is the main source of energy for our body’s cells, especially the brain,” says Palinski-Wade. “When levels are low, the cells cannot get the energy they need. You may feel hungry, unable to concentrate, or just overall irritable or anxious.”
Low Blood Sugar and Diabetes
“For someone without diabetes, low blood sugar can be uncomfortable, but rarely dangerous,” says Palinski-Wade. “For a person with diabetes, it can be life-threatening if not corrected promptly.”
Those living with conditions such as hypoglycemia and diabetes can experience dangerously low drops in blood sugar. People taking medications to lower blood sugar, such as insulin, are especially susceptible. In these cases, if low blood sugar is not treated correctly, it can lead to unconsciousness, coma, and even death in very severe cases, Palinski-Wade warns. It’s vital that these individuals consult with their care teams and learn how to properly manage their blood-sugar levels, as well as establish an action plan for getting levels back on track if a dip does occur.
How to Prevent Low Blood Sugar
Eat every 4 hours. “What is important for healthy blood sugar control, and to avoid ‘hanger,’ is to eat well-balanced meals at regular intervals,” says Palinski-Wade. “Aim to eat a small meal or snack every four or five hours. Going much longer than that with no nourishment can result in low blood sugar and ‘hanger.’”
Have snacks on hand. Having easy-to-munch snacks like nuts on hand, as well as portable fruit like apples, oranges, and bananas — or single-serving Greek yogurts — will ensure that you never go more than a few hours without eating. Even if meetings, errands, or family obligations fill up your calendar, you’ll have something to hold you over until you can eat a proper meal.
Recognize the signs. “If you listen to your body and notice cues, you’ll start to identify the subtle signs that blood sugar is starting to dip,” says Palinski-Wade. For those without diabetes, you may notice a feeling of fatigue, fogginess, a slight headache beginning to develop, or notice you’re becoming irritated at things that don’t normally bother you, advises Palinski-Wade. “For individuals on medication that can lead to rapid drops in blood-sugar levels, like insulin, symptoms may come on rapidly, including dizziness, shakiness, cold sweats, extreme fatigue, or even fainting,” she adds.
How to Reverse Low Blood Sugar
So you went too long without eating, missed the warning signs, and are now spiraling into hangry territory. Now what? “In order to raise blood sugar levels, you need to eat,” says Palinski-Wade. She recommends a well-balanced meal or snack that contains a combo of fiber, carbohydrates, and a healthy protein or fat, such as a handful of nuts or a scoop of low-fat cottage cheese topped with berries. “Generally you will start to feel better within a few minutes, and within 15 minutes of eating, blood sugar should be back to a healthy range,” she adds.
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For those with diabetes, you’ll want to follow the 15/15 Rule. “Eat 15 grams of quick-acting carbohydrates (such as 4 ounces of juice), wait 15 minutes and check blood sugar levels,” says Palinski-Wade. “If levels are still below normal, eat another 15 grams of carbs, wait another 15 minutes, and retest. Continue to repeat this process until blood sugar is within a healthy range.”
This article originally appeared on EverydayHealth.com: Is it ‘Hanger’ or Low Blood Sugar?
By Brianna Steinhilber, Everyday Health Editor
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