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Hypoglycemia - low level of blood sugar (glucose)


Hypoglycemia is a condition caused by an abnormally low level of blood sugar (glucose), your body's main energy source.

However, a wide variety of health conditions, many of them rare, can cause low blood sugar in people without diabetes. Like fever, hypoglycemia is merely an indicator of a health problem.

Among the underlying causes of hypoglycemia in people without diabetes are certain medications, alcohol, certain cancers, critical illnesses including kidney, liver or heart failure, hormonal deficiencies, and disorders that result in your body producing too much insulin. Insulin is the hormone secreted by your pancreas that regulates your level of blood sugar.

Treatment of hypoglycemia involves short-term steps to get your blood sugar level back into a normal range and long-term steps by your doctor to identify and treat the underlying cause.

Signs and symptoms

Your brain needs a steady supply of glucose. It neither stores nor manufactures its own energy supply. Hypoglycemia can have these effects on your brain:

  • Confusion, abnormal behavior or both, such as the inability to complete routine tasks
  • Visual disturbances, such as double vision and blurred vision
  • Seizures, uncommonly
  • Loss of consciousness, uncommonly

Hypoglycemia may also cause these other signs and symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Tremor
  • Anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Hunger

These signs and symptoms aren't specific to hypoglycemia. There may be other causes. The only way to know for sure that hypoglycemia is the cause is by having your blood sugar level measured.


During digestion, your body breaks down carbohydrates from foods such as bread, rice, pasta, vegetables, fruit and milk products into various sugar molecules. One of these sugar molecules is glucose, the main energy source for your body. Glucose is absorbed directly into your bloodstream after you eat, but it can't enter the cells of most of your tissues without the help of insulin — a hormone secreted by your pancreas.

Your pancreas is an organ located behind your stomach. When blood glucose levels rise, they signal tiny cells, called beta cells, in your pancreas to release insulin. The insulin, in turn, unlocks your cells so glucose can enter and also reduces glucose production by your liver. This lowers the amount of glucose in your bloodstream and prevents it from reaching dangerously high levels. As your blood sugar level drops, so does the secretion of insulin from your pancreas.

During digestion, the sugar (glucose) in the food you eat is absorbed into your bloodstream. Insulin from your pancreas escorts glucose into your cells, where it provides energy for your body. Excess ...

If your pancreas produces and releases too much insulin into your blood, you have a condition called hyperinsulinemia. Hyperinsulinemia isn't a disease; it's an indication of an underlying health problem. When your pancreas releases too much insulin into your bloodstream, even more glucose enters your cells, and your liver can't release glucose into your bloodstream. The result is low blood sugar. In someone without diabetes, the normal range for a fasting blood sugar level is between 70 and 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). A low fasting blood sugar for someone without diabetes is defined as a level below 50 mg/dL.

Insulin also influences your liver, which plays a key role in maintaining normal blood sugar levels. After you eat, when insulin levels are elevated, your liver accepts extra sugar and stores it in the form of glycogen. Between meals as insulin levels come down, your liver breaks down glycogen (glycogenolysis) and releases glucose into your bloodstream, which keeps your blood sugar level within a narrow and normal range.

Insulin isn't the only factor in the very complex process by which your body attempts to maintain blood sugar in a normal range. Your blood sugar levels can become too low if your body's production of glucose is disrupted. Aside from your liver breaking down glycogen into glucose, your body also has the ability to manufacture glucose in a process called gluconeogenesis. This process occurs primarily in your liver, but also in your kidneys, and makes use of various substances that are precursors to glucose.

The list of possible specific causes of hypoglycemia in people without diabetes is lengthy. Causes include the following:

  • Mistaken use. Taking someone else's oral diabetes medication accidentally is a common cause of hypoglycemia.
  • Some medications. Aside from insulin and oral medications used to control diabetes, other medications may cause hypoglycemia, especially in children or in people with kidney failure. One of the most commonly used medications that may have this effect is quinine, which is used to treat leg cramps and malaria.
  • Alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption can block the process of glucose production, depleting your body's stores of glycogen. This usually only occurs if you haven't eaten for about 24 hours.
  • Some critical illnesses. Severe illnesses of the liver, such as drug-induced hepatitis, can cause hypoglycemia because your liver is a key organ in glucose production. The kidney also is an important organ in glucose production, and conditions such as kidney failure affect glucose levels. Long-term starvation, as may occur in the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, can result in the depletion of substances your body needs in gluconeogenesis, causing hypoglycemia.
  • Excessive production of insulin. An excessively high blood insulin level (hyperinsulinemia) may be caused by a rare disorder of the beta cells in your pancreas, where insulin is released. One such disorder is a beta cell tumor, called insulinoma.
  • Endocrine deficiencies. Your endocrine system consists of glands that produce hormones that regulate processes throughout your body. They include the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, adrenal glands, pancreas, ovaries (in females) and testicles (in males). Certain disorders of the adrenal glands (Addison's disease) and the pituitary gland (hypopituitarism) can result in a deficiency of key hormones that regulate glucose production. Children with these disorders are more prone to hypoglycemia than are adults.
  • Other tumors (non-beta-cell tumors). Hypoglycemia may result from tumors other than a beta cell tumor of the pancreas. Some tumors don't cause an overproduction of insulin, but cause excessive utilization of glucose by the tumor or they result in an overproduction of insulin-like substances. Elevated levels of these substances cause hypoglycemia.

Most hypoglycemia occurs in a fasting state, but that's not always the case. Sometimes, hypoglycemia occurs after meals. This type of hypoglycemia is called reactive or postprandial hypoglycemia.

Hypoglycemia > 1 > 2 > 3 > 4

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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.

In no event will the be liable for any decision made or action taken in reliance upon the information provided through this web site.
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Last Modified : 17/06/09 11:10 PM