Hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) episodes can be scary to people living with diabetes, but there are ways of preventing them through diet, exercise and medication. Terry Biggart was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in adulthood, and has since dealt with many lows.
Hypoglycemia: sweating, shaking and feeling alone
When the blood sugar of a person living with diabetes dips too low, it is called hypoglycemia, a distressing condition that without quick and proper treatment can turn serious. “One time I left the house, and while I was walking I felt like I was going to faint,” says Biggart. “Another time, I was on the subway and I was sweating and shaking. People were looking at me, and I looked completely out of it. I got off at the next stop and crawled up a staircase and asked for something from a snack booth, letting them know that I was a diabetic and was having an emergency. The guy at the booth gave me an Easter egg. It didn’t take too long for me to stabilize after eating it.”
To manage his risk of hypoglycemic episodes, Biggart always has a snack on hand as an emergency measure to spike his blood sugar. While he takes care to properly manage his medication, mistakes can happen.
“A recent episode I experienced had a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t adjust my intake of insulin to my eating. You have to eat something healthy with protein each morning, and check your blood sugar to make sure you are at a low number. Once the day unfolds, you can have a snack if you are moving around.” Protein helps to reduce blood glucose swings.
Exercise, healthy foods and regular doctor visits add up to fewer episodes
During his daily lunch break Biggart takes a brief jog around his office building. Before his jog, he checks his blood sugar and blood pressure to make sure he’s in the normal range, Inspired by his success, he now goes for longer runs on weekends, too.
Biggart also stays in close touch with his doctor. “I try to see my doctor once every three months,” he says. “There are times I wasn’t in touch with my doctor, where I fell into bad habits and had more episodes.”
Biggart’s diet includes whole grains, proteins and vegetables. He also carries nuts as a snack. In addition, he tries to be mindful of balancing his medication and food intake to further help avoid a drop in blood sugar and a hypoglycemic episode.
Reporting hypoglycemia to healthcare providers is key
Dr. Stewart Harris holds the Diabetes Canada Chair in Diabetes Management and is a professor at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at The University of Western Ontario. Dr. Harris says patients frequently underreport hypoglycemic episodes to their care providers, which can lead to further issues. “Your biggest risk for a severe hypoglycemic episode is a previous episode. Hypoglycemia begets hypoglycemia.”
Dr. Harris says when patients report their episodes to their care providers, they can get strategies for management and change medications if necessary. “This is not a minimal, irritating side effect – it is serious. Evidence is growing on the impact hypoglycemia has on the brain in terms of development and dementia. It also puts patients at risk of heart disease.”
Since recently reuniting with one of his sons after a long absence, Biggart is on top of the world. He hopes to stay that way with proper management of his diabetes and by helping his community as a volunteer with Diabetes Canada.