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Mind-Body Connection: Low Blood Sugar and Mood Swings

Tuesday, 01 September 2015 00:00  by Amanda P.

There are over 100 million adults in the United States that suffer from diabetes or prediabetes. For the rest of the population that does not live with this condition, being aware of their own blood sugar levels may not be a priority. What many people don't know is that the headaches, fatigue, restlessness or other uncomfortable symptoms they experience throughout their day may be attributed to low blood sugar. In fact, many people may experience low blood sugar symptoms multiple times a day without realizing it.

Your blood sugar levels fluctuate throughout the day. Everything from your diet, activity and stress levels can impact your blood glucose at any given time. It is more than a sudden loss of energy. Low blood sugar is a serious event that could result in a number of consequences ranging from light-headedness to unconsciousness, coma or worse.

What Exactly Is Low Blood Sugar?

To understand how low blood sugar occurs, it's important to know how sugar is broken down and stored in our bodies.

As carbohydrates get digested, they are metabolized by the liver into a type of sugar called glucose, which is the primary source of energy for the body. Glucose is stored in the liver and gets released into the bloodstream if levels begin to get low.

Nondiabetic hypoglycemia is the condition in which blood glucose levels are drastically low. The two types of nondiabetic hypoglycemia — reactive hypoglycemia and fasting hypoglycemia — have different causes that stem from an increased level of insulin in the blood leading to low glucose levels. Hypoglycemia can, in turn, have a direct effect on a person's mood and mental health.

Hypoglycemia can affect your mood and mental health

How Does Low Blood Sugar Affect Your Mood and Mental Health?

Hypoglycemia can affect your mood, ability to focus and other mental and emotional functions.

One significant problem with hypoglycemia is the inability to recognize when you're experiencing a low-blood-sugar episode. Once blood sugar drops below the normal range of 70-120 mg/dL, there is cause for concern. Drops in blood glucose levels can affect your brain in ways that make it difficult to recognize the problem or seek a solution.

Low blood sugar affects your brain

Improper diet can cause hypoglycemia in virtually anyone. Excessive intakes of carbohydrates or a lack of sufficient protein will cause blood sugar levels to become unstable. Unfortunately, the mood swings caused by hypoglycemia can sometimes be misdiagnosed as other mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder or ADHD. It's been found that once blood sugar levels stabilize, often mood stabilizes as well.

The Brain's Need for Glucose

If you imagine your brain as a vehicle, then glucose is the gasoline it needs to continue running.

Our brains depend on glucose for energy, with the tight regulation of glucose being critical for our brain physiology. Low blood glucose levels can lead to a loss of energy, which then affects proper cognitive functioning. Since our brain's executive functions are used in daily activities, including organizing thoughts, prioritizing tasks, managing time efficiently and decision-making, a disruption of normal glucose metabolism can form the basis for various brain complications.

Why Being 'Hangry' Is Dangerous

The colloquial term "hangry" refers to a person's ill-tempered or irritable mood resulting from hunger. It has grown in popularity over the last half-century and is now officially recognized as a word in the English language. Although being hangry is often employed in a humorous or light-hearted manner, it's important to know the physiology of hanger and how it relates to drops in blood sugar.

Hangry definition

During a drop in glucose levels, our bodies react and kick into gear. A glucose counter-regulatory process initiates by releasing the hormone adrenaline into the body. Because adrenaline is critical in "fight or flight" scenarios, it can make you react with intense emotions, such as anger. Even though your body is simply low on glucose, the adrenaline can make you emotionally respond in the same manner that you would during a life-threatening situation — and get hangry.

However, hanger can also be attributed other factors. The neuropeptide Y gene controls physiological triggers like hunger, anger and aggression. Those with high levels of neuropeptide Y in their cerebrospinal fluid tend to show high levels of impulse aggression.

What's more, psychosocial factors, including cultural influences of whether or not it is acceptable to express verbal agitation when hungry, can also influence hanger.

Though the go-to solution for dealing with hanger is to immediately consume more food, this is not necessarily a wise option. Easily accessible foods high in sugar can cause glucose levels to spike only before they quickly re-fall. Plus, if your blood sugar is not low, you could be increasing your glucose level by too much.

The opposite scenario can also be dangerous: Assuming your irritable mood is hunger based and you refrain from eating can cause your blood glucose levels to remain below the normal range.

Depression and Blood Sugar Levels

While studies show consuming excessive amounts of sugar correlates with depression, major depression has also been linked to severe hypoglycemia. This research cites that poor mental health is often associated with poor glycemic control and that severe hypoglycemia and depression are risk factors for morbidity and mortality, especially in individuals who have diabetes.

Some research has even explored how medications for depression may also affect hypoglycemia. Antidepressants like SSRIs have been shown to increase insulin sensitivity in nondiabetic and diabetic individuals. An SSRI may impair the mechanisms that mediate hypoglycemia-induced hormonal counterregulatory responses and cause a hypoglycemic episode. If glucose counter-regulation systems are compromised, an individual may experience hypoglycemic unawareness and not realize that their blood sugar levels are low. It may be difficult to determine whether a person is experiencing SSRI-induced hypoglycemia because symptoms could be misattributed to another health condition.

If you have any concerns about medications that you are taking, you should consult your doctor so that they can help you accurately diagnose any issues.

Hypoglycemia and Other Mental Health Disorders

Because of its relationship to adrenaline increases, hypoglycemia may also contribute to other mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or poor self-image, which can lead to eating disorders and other issues.

By addressing the low blood sugar issue, you can eliminate any symptoms that may be caused or worsened by hypoglycemia, which will make the root cause of the issues easier for a professional to diagnose.

Hypoglycemia's Effects on Relationships

The negative consequences of low blood sugar are not limited to an individual's suffering. The changes in mood and behavior while experiencing a hypoglycemic episode can also have damaging effects on interpersonal relationships. Because glucose levels can shift drastically at any given time, professional, social and romantic relationships can be adversely affected during periods when blood sugar drops.

Hypoglycemia can negatively impact relationships

Without the correct amount of glucose, the brain will not operate properly. This can cause diminished inhibitions which may lead to behavior that is considered inappropriate or offensive. The likelihood of an increased emotional response can suddenly make a person feel exceptionally happy, silly, worried, frightened, paranoid or angry. Such drastic mood swings can make those in your life feel scared, concerned or frustrated. Family members may find themselves distressed and anxious when anticipating or confronting a hypoglycemic episode.

Without the correct amount of glucose, the brain will not operate properly. This can cause diminished inhibitions which may lead to behavior that is considered inappropriate or offensive. The likelihood of an increased emotional response can suddenly make a person feel exceptionally happy, silly, worried, frightened, paranoid or angry. Such drastic mood swings can make those in your life feel scared, concerned or frustrated. Family members may find themselves distressed and anxious when anticipating or confronting a hypoglycemic episode.

There are many typical symptoms of hypoglycemia that nondiabetics experience. Affecting you mentally and physically, these symptoms can appear in isolation but will often overlap. These symptoms are displayed not only from hypoglycemia itself but also from glandular imbalances like high adrenaline that result from the drop in blood sugar. Individuals suffering from low blood sugar may especially feel these symptoms at their worst early in the morning.

Mental and emotional symptoms include:

  • Anxiety ranging from constant worry to panic attacks
  • Phobias like claustrophobia, agoraphobia and acrophobia
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Depression, especially in females
  • Violent outbursts, especially in males
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviors
  • Forgetfulness (this could also be a choline or inositol deficiency)
  • Forgetfulness (this could also be a choline or inositol deficiency)
  • Unsocial, asocial or anti-social behavior
  • Crying spells
  • Nightmares and night terrors that continue after you wake up, especially if you wake in a cold sweat with chest pressure or difficulty breathing

Physical symptoms include:

  • Headaches, especially if a meal is missed
  • Tachycardia, which is a racing pulse due to high adrenaline
  • Fatigue, weakness or "rubbery" legs
  • Tremors or trembling of the arms, legs or whole body, inside or out
  • Twitching, jerking or cramping of leg muscles, which could also be an allergic reaction to food or a calcium or magnesium deficiency
  • Waking after two or three hours of sleep
  • Tinnitus, a ringing in the ear due to high insulin in seventy percent of cases
  • Abnormal weight, either too high or too low
  • Compulsive cravings for sweets, sodas, coffee or alcohol
  • Lack of appetite
  • A diagnosis of mitral valve prolapse
  • Crawling sensations on the skin
  • Fainting
  • Blurred vision
  • Smothering spells in which you grasp for breath
  • Red skin blotches or circular arcs of red skin
  • Lack of sex drive
  • Severe chest pain that does not appear negatively on an EKG
  • An aversion to bright lights or loud sounds
  • Joint pain

Hypoglycemic symptoms are common for many Americans. Some will experience mild discomfort while others can become completely incapacitated.

Remember, hypoglycemia is not a disease, but rather a condition that can be controlled and potentially reversed. If you believe your mental or physical ailments could be symptoms of hypoglycemia, consult a medical professional as soon as you can.

Could Stress be Affecting Your Blood Sugar Levels?

Although stress can be a beneficial response that assists us in accomplishing necessary goals, chronic and harmful levels can result in health complications.

When the body experience stress, the hypothalamus sends signals that cause the adrenal glands to release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate and blood pressure while cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream. Cortisol suppresses the digestive system and enhances the brain's ability to use glucose.

Cortisol counters insulin by promoting the increase of glucose production. It also stimulates glycogen synthesis in the liver, which can decrease net blood-sugar levels. When chronic stress is experienced for long periods of time, the body continues to produce cortisol. Without insulin efficiently moving the glucose into cells, higher amounts remain in the bloodstream. These consistently high levels of stress can continue to raise the glucose levels in the blood which can result in hyperglycemia and even sometimes diabetes after prolonged periods.

Preventing stressful situations

Ways to Reduce Mental Stress

Stress is an unavoidable part of life that will impact us in physical, mental and emotional ways. Though it is impossible to eliminate all sources of stress from our lives completely, it is possible to make positive adjustments that can alleviate or prevent the stressful situations we endure.

There are stressors in your everyday life that you may be able to control. For instance, if you are easily frustrated when traffic interrupts your commute, you could adjust your route or leave for work early. If someone is behaving in a way that upsets you, try having an honest and constructive conversation about this behavior's effects on you.

Although there are situations you may have no control over, there are other strategies you can use to handle stress:

  • Add positivity to your life: Find a hobby or activity that acts as a catharsis. Joining a sports team, getting involved with a club or spending time volunteering with a charitable organization can keep your mind occupied on positive activities that allow you to interact with others in a stress-free environment.
  • Adopt a healthy coping mechanism: Instead of becoming overwhelmed by stress, ask yourself if the problem is worth reacting strongly over. Calm yourself down if you're making a mountain out of a molehill. If the problem is something that needs your concern, talk yourself through the problem and try to change the situation to become less stressful.
  • Learn to relax: Progressive relaxation techniques, like practicing quick and easy breathing exercises at least once a day, can help you manage your stress. Exercise is another excellent way to relax your body. There are plenty of small exercises you can do at home to relax, including stretching and light strength training.
  • Replace negative thoughts with positive ones: Finally, getting in the habit of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones will help you reduce your mental stress. When a negative thought enters your mind, try to counter it immediately with a positive thought or memory. Imagine a funny, happy or proud moment in your life or think of a song, movie or television show that lifts your spirits.

If you believe stress is having an adverse effect on your blood sugar and overall wellbeing, make an appointment with your physician.

Other Issues Related to Blood Sugar

Stress is not the only factor that can affect blood sugar levels in nondiabetics.

In fact, your glucose levels can fluctuate throughout the day because of diet. An excessive intake of carbohydrates can raise sugars to dangerous levels while simply waking up with an empty stomach can cause you to experience the symptoms of low blood sugar.

Aside from the more general hypoglycemia described above, changes in glucose levels can result in reactive hypoglycemia, fasting hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia and even diabetes.

Experiencing low blood sugar symptoms

1. Reactive Hypoglycemia

Reactive, or postprandial, hypoglycemia refers to low blood sugar after eating a meal. This typically occurs within four hours of eating and may include symptoms of hunger, weakness, shakiness, sleepiness, sweating, lightheadedness and anxiety. Reactive postprandial hypoglycemic people are sometimes confused with those facing an underlying psychiatric illness. People may either require medications or can be treated with a diet that restricts refined carbohydrates.

Low blood sugar after eating

Three possible causes of reactive hypoglycemia include having pre-diabetes or being at risk for diabetes, which can cause your body to have trouble making the right amount of insulin. Stomach surgery can also cause low blood sugar if it makes food pass too quickly into the small intestine. Finally, rare enzyme deficiencies can make it difficult for your body to break down food and retrieve glucose.

2. Fasting Hypoglycemia

This type of hypoglycemia is classified as a blood sugar level less than 50mg/dL. Symptoms manifest when a stomach is empty and may include an inability to concentrate, a lack of energy or headaches.

Lack of energy or headaches

These symptoms will normally occur when awakening from a night of sleep, after exercising or between meals. However, five additional factors could cause or affect fasting hypoglycemia.

  • Medications
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Liver, heart and kidney diseases
  • Hormonal deficiencies
  • Insulin-producing tumors in the pancreas called insulinomas (very rare cases)

3. Hyperglycemia

Opposite of hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia involves prolonged states of high blood sugar. Hyperglycemia results when the body decreases its production of insulin or the decrease in the usage of insulin. This occurs when the body cannot use or store glucose efficiently and when the liver increases its production of glucose in the intervals between meals.

Hyperglycemia can be caused by an excessive intake of carbohydrates, a lack of physical activity, illness, high levels of stress and not receiving the right dosage of a glucose-lowering medication.

Symptoms can include excessive thirst or urination, increased urination at night, blurry vision, sores that won't heal and fatigue. Major cases of hyperglycemia may cause complications including retinopathy, neuropathy and cardiovascular disease. Extreme changes in blood sugar levels can cause significant mood changes. People with hyperglycemia are more likely to feel nervous, have less energy, prone to make more mistakes and not think as quickly.

4. Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic condition. It results from the increased levels of glucose remaining in the bloodstream because of the pancreas' failure to produce enough insulin to move the glucose into the cells.

Diabetes can take on different forms, including gestational diabetes, monogenetic diabetes and cystic-fibrosis diabetes. However, most are familiar with diabetes' Type 1 and Type 2 forms.

  • Type 1 diabetics generally have an immune system that attacks and destroys pancreatic cells that produce insulin. As a result, the pancreas stops trying to produce insulin. This form of diabetes is thought to be caused by both genetic and environmental factors like viruses.
  • Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes. Those with Type 2 diabetes have a pancreas that does not make enough insulin, or their bodies simply cannot efficiently utilize the insulin that is produced.

Diabetes can take a toll on your emotions. Glycemic variability — or frequent changes in blood sugar levels — can affect mood and quality of life for those with diabetes. Diabetes can put you at an increased risk for depression and even drastically affect your mood from minute to minute.

When experiencing a low blood sugar episode, you can become irritable and combative. During a high blood sugar episode, you may become grouchy and confused.

Low Blood Sugar and Mood Swings

The reality is that mild, moderate and severe blood-sugar fluctuations can affect the overall mood and behavior of nondiabetics.

Regardless if the levels drop too low or rise too high, any disruption of normal blood glucose levels can result in significant mental afflictions that include anxiety, depression and irritability.

Being aware of your blood sugar levels and maintaining steady amounts through diet and lifestyle changes can help decrease the chances of experiencing a hypoglycemic episode — and improve your quality of life.

Better quality of life

Last modified on Wednesday, 16 May 2018 17:27

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