Why do I need glucose products to treat lows?
Paris Roach, MD, responds
Eating glucose tablets or gel is the fastest way to raise your blood glucose. And when you have low blood glucose (hypoglycemia), which can happen if you take insulin or certain oral diabetes medications, you want to get your blood glucose back to normal fast.
What to Know
Your body—and especially your brain—uses glucose, a type of carbohydrate, to keep all of its processes operating normally. If your blood glucose begins to fall below normal, early warning signs such as shaking, sweating, and a pounding heart kick in. These symptoms alert you to eat something to keep your blood glucose from going dangerously low. When it falls much below 50 mg/dl and isn’t corrected quickly, confusion and abnormal behavior—and, in extreme cases, seizures, coma, and even death—can occur.
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If you have symptoms of hypoglycemia, you’ll need fast-acting carbohydrate, which is quickly absorbed into the body, to raise your glucose level. When possible, check your blood glucose level to confirm a low. At 70 mg/dl or lower, you’ll need to treat. If your symptoms are severe or consistent with your typical hypoglycemia symptoms and your meter isn’t handy, go ahead and treat as if you’re low.
The type of fast-acting carb you eat makes a difference. It needs to contain enough glucose to raise your blood glucose level back to normal. A minimum of 15 grams is recommended. The ideal treatments for lows are glucose tablets, gels, or liquids designed specifically for people with diabetes. They contain exactly what your body needs: pure glucose, in the proper amount. They’re easy to eat, absorbed quickly, inexpensive, widely available, and portable.
A piece of hard candy or a mint, on the other hand, isn’t going to contain nearly enough glucose to treat your hypoglycemia. And because certain candies take a long time to dissolve in your mouth, they aren’t rapid acting enough to treat a low. Your chosen treatment should be free of fat, which delays carb absorption from the digestive tract. Glucose products don’t contain fat, but snacks such as peanut butter crackers and candy bars do.
Wait 15 minutes after treating, then check your blood glucose again. If your blood glucose remains low, eat another 15 grams and check again in 15 minutes. Repeat this cycle as necessary until your glucose is normal, a process known as the 15–15 Rule. When your blood glucose level is no longer too low, record the event in your glucose log, then eat a snack with a mix of carb, fat, and protein—such as peanut butter crackers and a cup of milk—to keep your blood glucose from falling low again before your next meal.
To be effective, your glucose product has to be where you need it when you need it, so keep a supply in your pocket or purse and in other locations, such as your car, nightstand, and workplace.
When faced with low blood glucose, opt for glucose tablets, gels, or liquids instead of candy or food items. They are inexpensive insurance against severe lows, and may even save your life.
Paris Roach, MD, an associate professor of clinical medicine in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at Indiana University School of Medicine, is editor in chief of Diabetes Forecast.