Have you ever gotten a headrush from standing up too fast after sitting or sleeping? Started getting cold sweats or patchy temporary blindness from hunger? Or maybe you’ve even fainted for real (hopefully not in public, but it happens to the best of us).
All of these could be symptoms of either dehydration or hypoglycemia (low blood glucose level), sometimes even a combination of the two. And while hypoglycemia is typically a symptom of diabetes, non-diabetics can also experience the discomfort and potentially dangerous side effects of inadequate blood glucose levels.
Carbs and sugars are close cousins – in fact, they’re almost one and the same, except in conversation we typically use the term “sugar” to refer to refined sugars and syrups. When you eat too-sugary things, or simple carbohydrates that break down into “sugar” almost instantly, your body has trouble regulating the level of insulin in your blood in accordance with sustaining energy. Too much glucose, too fast, will get quickly used up by your body as energy, and afterward, leave you with that “crashing” feeling you’re probably attributing (wrongly) to caffeine.
[Note: This post is simply a PSA to be aware of your carb & sugar intake, and is not meant to be taken as medical advice! My story may be different from yours; I have always been highly sensitive to sugar and have had multiple frightening episodes as a result. If you are not already experiencing symptoms like these, it’s quite likely you have nothing to worry about 🙂 ]
The first time I had to re-evaluate my sugar intake, I was only 8 years old. Looking back on it now, this story seems messed up, but that’s Catholic school for you.
It was the start of the school day, and I stood with the rest of my 3rd grade class to recite prayer as we did every morning. Except this time, some classmates were fidgeting and fooling around during the prayer. Teacher didn’t like that, and ordered us all to remain standing at our desks so we could be properly lectured. I’m not sure how long we were all standing, because pretty soon my skin crawled, my vision went completely gray, and I collapsed on the floor in front of my whole class (really cool kid, can’t you tell?).
So what caused a healthy little kid to keel over and go nearly catatonic first thing in the morning? Maple syrup, of course. I had smothered my morning waffles with it, causing my blood glucose to spike sharply, only to crash just as quickly after standing up for a long period of time.
Since that first time, I’ve had dozens more hypoglycemic “episodes” of varying severity, and they never get easier, or less scary. A couple of times I’ve been lucky, and been inside my own home where somebody could help me (though once I laid completely paralyzed on the rug for minutes, waiting for my boyfriend to find me because I couldn’t make a sound).
My worst one was during high school – I had an ambulance called on me at In-N-Out Burger, where I collapsed just after handing over my credit card to the cashier (embarrassing). I hadn’t eaten yet that day, it was hot and I was dehydrated as well, creating the perfect storm for me to pass out. EMTs thought I was seizing when they arrived, and it took them forever to “wake me up” as I barely had a pulse, was shallow breathing and fading in and out of consciousness. After I’d woken up and been revived by some free fries and soda (score), I barely got my mom on the phone to clear me from the ambulance ride, as I was a minor but it was a known medical issue I’d had for some time. Ultimately I ended up with some scary but minor consequences from this episode, including short-term memory loss from oxygen not reaching my brain, and lowered blood pressure that lasted a few months until my physician “cleared” me.
Being careful with my sugar is simply a way of life now. I eat my pancakes/waffles with butter only, or just a bit of honey instead of syrup. I’ve always been a soda fiend, but I stick to diet soda and sugar-free energy drinks to avoid the “danger zone” (I know – they’re still bad!). Fruit seems harmless, but I do have to be careful eating some kinds for breakfast, as even a healthy orange juice or some berries could easily cause me to crash and burn without complex carbs in my stomach to digest. Making small dietary sacrifices is nothing compared to laying on the ground in a pool of sweat, blinded and unable to move.
It’s hard to see sometimes just how destructive sugars can be for our bodies, because in the United States, we are fed TONS of low-glycemic foods from a very young age simply because they are tasty, inexpensive and popular. White breads, sugared cereals and maple syrup are all horrible things to eat in the morning, yet some of America’s most cliche’d breakfast fare. Just know…if it doesn’t make you feel good, you’re not alone!
Limiting carbohydrates and simple sugars during every meal is a surefire way to avoid unexpected symptoms of hypoglycemia. Foods that fit the criteria are called low glycemic foods, and sometimes are even labeled (look at the small print on your favorite healthy snack or protein bar). These types of foods typically have fiber, little to no refined sugars and digest very slowly, allowing you to feel stronger for longer.
Even for people with normal sugar levels, a major benefit of eating a low glycemic diet is that your stomach will feel fuller for longer, making you less prone to snacking or splurging on unhealthy foods throughout the day. It’s also a great way to avoid getting diabetes later in life.
Here’s a list of some of the very best, most common low glycemic foods – you can calculate any food’s position on the glycemic index by perusing this awesome database tool from the University of Sydney.
- Hummus, most beans/legumes as well.
- Nuts, especially peanuts and cashews.
- For sweeteners – choose Pure Agave Nectar or Honey.
- Whole milk or yogurt.
- Anything made out of rice.
- Starchier fruits like apples, bananas, apricots or pears.
- Specialty low glycemic snacks, like Glucerna shakes, Belvita biscuits (I actually try to carry these around in case of emergencies) and most protein/energy bars like Clif Bar, ThinkThin or Powercrunch.
Sorry if I scared anyone with this post 🙂 – like I said, if you have never had a fainting spell or other symptoms, you probably have nothing to worry about, but getting off refined sugars could still make you feel a lot better, weight- and energy-wise.