It can happen more quickly than you’d think. One minute everything seems fine, then suddenly an instinctual twinge deep within your gut suggests otherwise. Maybe it’s hunger or perhaps just fatigue. Maybe it’s nothing at all.
Feeling slightly shaky and light-headed, cognitive confusion begins to set in as beads of sweat form on the back of your neck. They slide down your spine as you fumble through your bag for your glucometer and test strips. With hands that suddenly can’t keep still, you prick your finger and watch the drop of blood get sucked away to be tested. How many milligrams per deciliter will it be?
Your lips are tingling, the feeling of pins and needles explodes like electricity across your body, and your heart feels as if it’s beating abnormally. The unexplainable anxiety and tightness in your chest say what the meter will prove. The numbers on the screen count down until the answer is revealed. You are LOW. The sensations you are feeling are the result of your body’s fight for survival. Each and every cell within your flesh and bones is screaming for more sugar and you need to act fast.
Hypoglycemia, otherwise known as low blood sugar, is the result of having too little glucose in the blood stream. Our bodies perform their basic functions with the assistance of glucose. Too little glucose and the consequences could be dire, too much glucose and you run the risk of contributing to the development of diabetic complications down the road. That’s what makes having diabetes so much fun (not)! You’re essentially on a constant and relentless seesaw ride. It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out.
There are several contributing factors as to why a person with diabetes may experience low blood sugar:
- Too much insulin
- Eating less than normal/skipping a meal or snack
When diagnosed, a person with diabetes must assume the role of scientist and mathematician. Sometimes the observations and calculations we make regarding food intake, physical output, and insulin administration can be off! Not to mention the endless other possible variables that could influence the end result. As with a high blood sugar reading, it can often feel as if there is no explanation for the occurrence of the low. We do the best we can with the information that we have and sometimes our bodies just don’t cooperate.
If you do have diabetes and are physically able to predict and feel an oncoming low, consider yourself blessed. There are many out there who suffer from hypoglycemia unawareness. They do not feel the uncomfortable sensations nature has provided us to warn of the danger zone we may be heading into. This can be a very scary thing.
I happen to be someone who does not always feel when my blood sugar is low. Sometimes I do, but more often than not, I either don’t feel it at all, or I start to feel it when it’s nearly too late. I’ve had situations where I’m having perfectly normal conversations, unaware that my body is slipping into a scenario that could potentially be life-threatening. Times like these, I’ve tested and had numbers so low, most others would be unconscious or worse. Experiencing the physical symptoms of a low can be unnerving but not having even an inkling that something is wrong is one of the most frightening things imaginable.
Being diagnosed in 2005, I’ve always had access to the proper tools needed to help me succeed in caring for my illness. I can’t imagine having to boil my urine to check my levels like they did in the past! I am thankful for the technology and advancements of the diabetes world today. I spent many years on MDI (multiple daily injections) and though some diabetics thrive following that course of action, I find using an insulin pump is the best option for me. I’ve used both the Omnipod system and the Animas Vibe (which is what I’m currently using). Most people wonder why I switched from Omnipod’s wireless, tubeless system to being “hooked up” with the Animas Vibe (a decision that is certainly out of the norm). It’s simply because I had been experiencing a bit of diabetes burnout, and when I had the choice to switch, I chose a pump that was integrated with the DexCom CGM . I knew that by adding this novel element into my life with diabetes, I could trick myself into shaking the feelings of the funk I fell into. Seeing all the data right before my eyes made me care more and it excited me to take on the challenge of tighter control.
CGM’s, or Continuous Glucose Monitors, offer a deeper understanding of our blood sugar levels throughout the day. Testing the glucose levels through a hypodermic sensor every five minutes, with careful calibrations being considered and in conjunction with actual testing of the blood, CGM’s like the DexCom system are revolutionizing the care people with diabetes receive. The more tools we can utilize to help us collect and analyze data, the better prepared we can be going forward.
Many of us are familiar with the classic scene from Steel Magnolias where Julia Roberts is forced fed juice by Sally Field (SHELBY DRINK THE JUICE) while having her hair styled for her wedding day. The other women in the salon scramble to help, as the character Shelby becomes incoherent, body trembling. Though slightly dramatized for the silver screen, it shows the grim reality of how fast a low can set in and how quickly action must be taken. Shelby drinks the juice and within minutes shows signs of improvement. Tears in her eyes, she apologizes for ruining her hairdo during the fuss. I so understand her in that moment. This was my first glimpse of a hypo, an iconic scene I had witnessed years before my diagnosis, and it continues to serve as a poignant example from Hollywood. It is yet another reminder of our immortality and the need for a healthy level of respect for the dangers surrounding diabetes. Though the entirety of the film does not always depict Type 1 diabetes in a way that I would have approached, I’m grateful to have moments where the harsh realities of this condition are featured and serve as an opportunity for others to gain a better sense of understanding.
Making sure you are well prepared for a hypoglycemic episode is one of the most vital parts of having diabetes and taking insulin. One of my favorite things to use to treat a low are SMARTIES. One roll of “America’s favorite candy” is 5 grams of FAST ACTING carbohydrates. How perfect is that since the recommended amount of carbs to treat a low is 15 grams? Three sleeves of Smarties and it’s typically smooth sailing back to the safe zone.
I’ve definitely found myself in scenarios where I have been less than equipped to handle a low. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve stopped at a coffee shop only so that I can steal a bunch of sugar packets. In more desperate times, I have gulped down a two-week old bottle Gatorade that I found in the back seat of my hot car. I’ve even briefly contemplated the carb content of dog treats when the feeling of a low has crept up on me unexpectedly while on a walk in the woods. When it’s life or death on the line, there’s little you would rule out if it could potentially save you.
Lows are a bummer. They leave you drained and exhausted. They remind you that you’re simply one miscalculation from doom. Lows make it scary to fall asleep at night, since it’s not a guarantee that you will even wake up in the morning. Lows are behind my fear of going to the gym alone – constantly anxious that if something were to happen, the people around me wouldn’t know what to do. I’ve tattooed my body to prevent this. I wear yet another device that must be plunged into the skin of my body in hopes that it will help. I am even working with my mini Australian Shepherd, Hawkeye, continuing the scent training he’s had since puppyhood, to detect my lows by recognizing the changes in the chemical composition of my saliva. I will stop at nothing to make sure that I do what I can to prevent the worst imaginable as a result of a hypo. It’s not easy. Diabetes is time consuming and preventing and treating lows is only one fraction of this complicated condition. But by practicing preparedness and utilizing all the options that are out there, we can feel comforted knowing that we are doing what we can to stay alive and thrive.