One of the major, and yet most common, health problems plaguing the world today is blood sugar variations. The moment we hear the term, we promptly associate it with diabetes. But blood sugar variation is a complex situation that needs better understanding. Read on to find out more:
What is blood sugar and why do we need it?
What we generally call blood sugar actually refers to the concentration of glucose in our blood at any given time. Glucose is a simple sugar that our body derives energy from. Every cell in our body needs an energy source to carry out its designated function and even to support itself. The primary sources of energy for our body are fats and carbohydrates, but these are complex molecules that the body must break down before it can absorb them. Glucose is what these are broken down into for immediate use or is stored away for later use. Because of its molecular structure, the cells in our body, especially the ones in our brain, find it easier to absorb glucose. Muscle cells require glucose to be able to produce movements. Cellular communication also requires glucose as does synthesis of hormones, and cellular division and growth. As you can see, glucose is a vital nutrient for our body. However, like anything in extreme is bad, glucose levels lower or higher than the optimum range may cause serious health issues.
What is the normal blood sugar level for your body?
Blood sugar levels are measured in terms of milligrams per decilitre (mg/dl) of blood. Therefore, 100 mg/dl blood sugar would mean that there are 100 milligrams of glucose in every decilitre of blood.
Blood sugar level differs throughout the day. In the morning after waking up and before having your first meal, the level of blood sugar in your body usually remains low. This is because when you were sleeping your body was in a temporary phase of fasting. At this point, your blood sugar level should ideally be between 70 mg/dl and 100 mg/dl. As you start eating, your blood sugar level gradually goes up. This is known as the post-prandial phase and here your blood sugar level can be more than 100 mg/dl but should be below 140 mg/dl. At no point in the day, under no circumstances should your blood sugar fall below 70 mg/dl or exceed 140 mg/dl. Anything less or more can create serious problems linked to hypoglycaemia and diabetes.
Health disorders related to blood sugar
Health problems linked to variations in blood sugar level can be broadly divided into two major categories – hyperglycaemia and hypoglycaemia.
Hyperglycaemia, also known as high blood sugar, is a condition where the glucose level in your body exceeds 100 mg/dl in the pre-prandial and 140 mg/dl in the post-prandial state.
Following are some common signs and symptoms that indicate the onset of hyperglycaemia:
i. Increased thirst: If you’re suddenly feeling more thirsty than usual for no apparent reason and for a prolonged period, chances are you have the beginnings of hyperglycaemia.
ii. Troubled eyesight: One of the early symptoms of hyperglycaemia is blurred vision which consequently leads to headaches. If you are experiencing these all of a sudden, a check-up is suggested at the earliest.
iii. Weight loss: Hyperglycaemia is also associated with sudden and drastic weight loss. If you’re eating well, there shouldn’t be any reason for you to lose weight. Yet if you do, it could be pointing at grave health problems.
iv. Problem concentrating: Hyperglycaemia also makes one fidgety and makes it difficult to concentrate. The effect is very similar to a sudden sugar rush.
v. Frequent urge to urinate: The most easily identifiable symptom of hyperglycaemia is the urge to urinate every now and then. If you’re experiencing such symptoms, you would want to get a check-up done as soon as possible.
Hyperglycaemia can be a result of many other medical conditions, but the most common one is diabetes mellitus. Diabetes mellitus is a very common and a very serious disease that affects almost one-fourth of the world’s population. At least five hundred million adults are diagnosed with diabetes every year and at least two million people’s lives are claimed by it, as per WHO reports.
The term ‘mellitus’ in Greek means ‘like honey’. Diabetes mellitus is characterised by excess sugar in the blood and urine for a prolonged period. In this disease, the level of glucose in blood rises beyond the normal limit either because the body is incapable of producing sufficient amounts of insulin or the body is incapable of using insulin properly even though it is available. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas and released into the blood stream after meals so that the cells can utilize glucose. In the absence of insulin, the body cannot absorb glucose. So you will be consuming your usual food, and your body will have plenty of food that it will break down into glucose but no available insulin to use it. As a result, the level of glucose will automatically increase in your blood stream.
There are three types of diabetes that usually affect people – type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes. Type 1 diabetes, often called juvenile diabetes, commonly affects children and teenagers, where the body does not produce insulin. This can happen because of two reasons – one, when due to a viral infection the immune system of the body suddenly wipes out insulin-producing beta cells from the pancreas, and two, if the beta cells are destroyed by something else like a disease or some injury to the pancreas. Though it is more common in children and teenagers, people above twenty years of age can also get it.
Type 2 diabetes usually affects adults and older people, and people with very high body fat concentrations have a higher risk of acquiring it. In type 2 diabetes the beta cells of pancreas either produces insufficient amounts of insulin or the other cells of the body have developed a resistance to absorbing it. Insulin resistance in overweight people is higher.
Gestational diabetes occurs among pregnant women. During pregnancy, women develop a certain amount of insulin resistance. In some situations, it may cause glucose levels in the blood to go up during middle or late pregnancy phases. Since blood sugar circulates in the body and in and out of the placenta, high levels of sugar can affect the growth of the foetus.
How is hyperglycaemia diagnosed?
Once you start noticing the aforementioned signs and symptoms of diabetes, you will need to get a check-up done. Your doctor will typically take two samples of your blood and one of your urine. One sample of blood will be from the pre-prandial state and one will be after two hours of consuming food. Your doctor will test your blood to understand the level of sugar. Urine, on the other hand, will be tested for chemicals that your body produces in the absence of insulin. This is done to determine the type of diabetes.
A typical lab report will indicate your blood sugar levels in the pre and postprandial states and also indicate levels of cholesterol in your blood. This information will help your doctor determine the type of diabetes you have and the kind of medication you will need. For example, high cholesterol is indicative of insulin resistance. The treatment of such a person will be different for someone who is not insulin resistant but has less production of insulin.
Treatment of Hyperglycaemia
For type 1 diabetes, you will have to take insulin injections all your life. The power of the dosage will, of course, depend on the severity of your condition. Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, can be treated with proper nutrition and exercise. Watching your weight, doing at least thirty minutes of cardio every day and eating clean are a few things that your doctor will recommend, along with medication. Your doctor will also strictly advise you against foods that have a high glycemic index as they spike your blood sugar levels.
Glycemic Index or GI is a relative ranking assigned to foods with carbohydrates depending on the effect it has on your blood sugar level. Glycemic Index of a food is usually determined by measuring the percentage of rise it causes in the level blood sugar within two hours of consumption.
Foods with low Glycemic Index are slowly digested and cause a gradual and sustained rise in glucose levels, as opposed to foods with high Glycemic Index that spike glucose levels in a very short time. The GI value has been standardized and if you are diagnosed with diabetes, your doctor will advise you to stick to foods with GI less than 55. You cannot measure GI of your food by yourself, but as a rule of thumb, any food that is sweet will typically have high GI. Watermelon, mango, corn, refined starch such as white flour products, sweets – all of these have high GI. Low GI foods include oats, green vegetables, mushrooms, beans and whole grains.
Hypoglycaemia arises when the body’s blood sugar level falls below the normal range. Hypoglycaemia can affect anyone, even people who were initially diabetic. Some of the common causes of hypoglycaemia are heavy illness such as malaria, strong medications like quinine, and other disorders like kidney problems, and the presence of insulin producing tumours.
Indications of hypoglycaemia are the same as those of hyperglycaemia, with frequent dizziness being the only addition. Diagnosis, too, is done in the same way, through blood tests.
In the case of hypoglycaemia, doctors will advise you to have fast digesting carbohydrates the moment you fill dizzy. Since in this condition, you need a sharp rise in blood sugar very quickly, foods with high GI index are beneficial. Mueslis, fresh and dried fruits, granola bars, cookies or even candy can help a great deal. Since hypoglycaemia is not exactly a sustained condition, it is triggered from time to time. Exercise does not help directly.
Both hypoglycaemia and hyperglycaemia are serious conditions that can cause further complications. That is why it is absolutely necessary that you seek medical attention the moment you suspect it.