The Scary Signs Your Blood Sugar is Low (And What to Do)

Headache, crankiness and low energy. Are you hangry or is something more serious to blame? Oftentimes when we’re experiencing those symptoms, it’s a sign of low blood sugar, which can have more high-stakes consequences than you snapping at your BFF via text message. Fortunately, the issues can be easily prevented once you know what to look for. Read ahead for the most common signs of low blood sugar, how you can quickly combat it and what foods will have you saying “buh-bye” to the problem for good.

Signs of low blood sugar

Having your heart start to race isn’t just an indicator that you’ve run in your gym crush—it could also be a red flag about your health. According to David A. Greuner, M.D., surgical director at NYC Surgical Associates, rapid heart rate, as well as dizziness, headaches, ringing in the ears, cold sweats and other indicators of a “flight or fight” response are signs of low blood sugar. “This is because when your body feels like its sugar levels are too low, it releases ‘panic’ hormones in response in order to cause your tissues to break down other fuels, such as fats, proteins and a sugar storage molecule called glycogen in order to allow a quick spike in blood sugar,” he says. “This also causes cardiac stimulation, which can lead to rapid heart rate and nervousness as well as [an] overall unwell feeling.”

The dangers

In addition to salivating over food porn pics, having low blood sugar can lead to some other complications. “Dangers of low blood sugar, apart from the obvious issues such as feeling terrible, can range from passing out to lethargy, as well as overeating as a result,” Dr. Greuner says. “Overeating due to low blood sugar is typically followed by a sugar spike. This process, over the long term, results in fat deposition, and an overall very unhealthy physique.”

What’s more, because the brain relies on glucose, or blood sugar, for energy, this issue can make it difficult for your brain to function appropriately, says Mandy Enright, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the NJ Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. “Passing out or seizures can occur from low blood sugar and, in extreme cases, coma,” she says. “Frequent occurrences of events related to low blood sugar (such as passing out multiple times), can lead to brain damage over time.”

What to do if you’re experiencing it

Enright says the best way to battle low blood sugar is to “eat steady meals throughout the day, which provide a constant supply of energy to the body.” She suggests eating breakfast, lunch and dinner and adding in two to three small snacks per day, “aiming not to go longer than [four] hours without eating.” She adds, “Make sure there is some form of carbohydrate in all meals, as this is what provides energy to the body and keeps a steady supply of sugar in the blood. Healthy sources of carbs include fruits, veggies, whole grains and dairy.”  

Blood sugar and working out

When you’re dashing off after work to make your evening boot camp class, sometimes grabbing a bite can fall by the wayside. That said, according to holistic nutritionist Haley Parrent, “nourishing yourself well before a workout or physical activity is so important to keep your blood sugar levels in the clear.” Parrent recommends a small snack “composed mainly of carbohydrates” before a workout to keep energy levels high. She adds, “Having something to munch on shortly after is also key for recovery and for regulating your blood sugar.”

As extra motivation to hit up your yoga class, Alisa Cowell, a clinical nutritionist in Nederland, Colo., says that “exercise really helps to regulate blood sugar.” That’s because exercise improves your body’s process of getting glucose into cells in the future, which “prevents problems down the line.” Time to get back to boot camp!

Best foods to combat it

Put that candy bar down! Cowell says to crush this problem, “it’s really important to get some healthy carbs with a healthy fat” into your system to “sustain you longer and get your blood sugar [back to normal].” She suggests apples with almond butter, carrots and hummus, dried fruits or trail mix. Importantly, Cowell says it’s key to plan ahead to make sure you have snacks on hand to get ahead of a blood sugar crash, perhaps by meal planning or creating snack packs for yourself on a Sunday before a busy week. “Thinking ahead can be a really great preventative measure,” she says.

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Kelsey Butler is a reporter and editor living in New Jersey. She has written for health and lifestyle publications including Women's Health and Brides. A proud dog mom of one, you can find her skiing or on the bocce court in her spare time.