Last semester I had six female students in different classes who all had rather serious forms of hypoglycemia. Since I have never had any male students medically identified as hypoglycemic over 15 years of teaching, this article will focus on female hypoglycemics, though I am certain males must suffer as well.

Hypoglycemia means low blood sugar and it is a serious medical state that, if allowed to continue without direct intervention and behavior modification, can lead to a coma and even death. Many long-term hypoglycemics become full-bore diabetics.

Sustained hypoglycemia, therefore, is a marker for a much more serious health problem lurking along the future. Signs of someone who is actively in a hypoglycemic state include slow response time, grogginess, the inability to focus and lots of sleeping.

Those signs identify probably 97% of high school seniors and first year college students. Not all of them are undiagnosed hypoglycemics but the symptoms of youthful melancholia can mirror the signs of hypoglycemia.

It was strange to have a core of medically certified hypoglycemic females clustered together in Newark and none of them previously knew each other before arriving on campus. I suppose the women could be an oddity — a statistical hiccough — but I wonder if something more menacing is creeping in the lives of smart, bright, beautiful and winning women.

I also wonder if women like them may have their hypoglycemia misdiagnosed as depression or PMS or some other more common anomaly that shares the same indicators with hypoglycemia. None of the women were bone-thin and that’s a good thing because the first cause for hypoglycemia that crosses your mind is that the women were not eating and that lack of food was lowering their glucose levels and making them groggy. All the women were well-built and healthy looking.

They were obviously eating something but perhaps not the right food? Perhaps they were eating carbohydrates that were simple and not complex? When I saw the women in the hall, or chatted with them after class, I always asked how they were doing with their hypoglycemia. When I asked when they last ate, few could tell me. I asked when they planned to eat again and their answers were vague and non-committal.

I am close with my students and we have a lot of fun in class so wishy-washiness on their part concerning their health bothered me. Finally, to get me off their backs, they would say something like they were on their way to have a slice of pizza or a candy bar. “Pizza?! Candy?!” I was right back on them again.

Had their bodies taught them nothing? I understand getting rid of pop (“soda,” if you were not born in the Midwest), snack chips, pizza, chocolate, coffee, French fries, caffeine and a ganglion of other foods must be hard if you are hypoglycemic, but the long term consequences of ingesting those killers now against the betterment of your health later must, at some point, outweigh the instant oral pleasure of junk food.

Is this sort of female hypoglycemia common among first year college students? Does it strike men in the same manner but it is misdiagnosed as something else? One student was so severely affected she had to be hospitalized twice because she would “forget” to eat for an entire day.

Not eating creates a vicious Mobius strip of bad behavior and involuntary reaction: You don’t eat; your blood sugar drops; you get groggy; you don’t remember to eat; repeat; coma; death. I am curious if hypoglycemia in young people is more common than previously thought and if it is especially prevalent in females who may worry more about putting on the “Freshman 15” than in eating enough protein and complex carbohydrates to curry up their health.

19 Comments

  1. I’ve had hypoglycemia since I was in high school. Sometimes there just isnt enough time to sit down for a good meal. I try to eat regularly now but it doesnt always work and hence have some sort of hard candy around just in case I start feeling dizzy which is a tell tale sign for me that my BS is too low.

  2. Hi hterry —
    I am glad you posted!
    Can you explain what you mean about not having enough time for a good meal? What are you doing that is more important that properly feeding your body? 🙂
    If you’re in a hypoglycemic state because you didn’t eat right, doesn’t that ruin what you’re doing?
    I understand candy is a quick fix but it doesn’t last long before you crash again, does it?

  3. I work at a hospital and things just happen where you don’t have time to go eat a meal much less a good one.
    Being hypoglycemic for me means I haven’t either 1. Eaten enough good carbs to keep me going or 2. Just have a small meal because I wasn’t hungry and/or I was too busy to begin with that surely won’t last.
    Yes candy is a quick fix but by that time, it’s not a question of whether I can stow away to grab something, it’s a necessity by then because candy WONT last long. It’s just a quick boost.
    Some people have the luxury of having a regular slow paced job but I don’t :/

  4. hterry, you are setting a terrible, albeit real life, example by aligning yourself with the bad behavior in my article! 🙂
    Gosh, I hope you are not in a critical care role at the hospital where patients are relying on you to not be dizzy.
    Can you imagine the lawsuits for hypoglycemic workers at hospitals, firehouses and police precincts who may not be able to perform because of low blood sugar?
    Soon lawyers will be on the scene demanding blood tests for everyone involved in the accident! 🙂
    I appreciate your post. I hope others will learn from it.

  5. Throughout my life I have been comparatively low energy, non-athletic, scrawny, and prone to not eating enough. (I am female.) As a child I was diagnosed with iron deficency (sp?) / anemia and high arches (requiring good arch support). The anemia is gone now, and the arches aren’t a big deal with good shoes, but I’ve recently been diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma.
    A few years ago when I started graduate school I found myself continually falling asleep in classes. I had “full blood tests” (whatever that means) and that’s when they found I no longer had anemia, and I hadn’t yet noticed signs of asthma. They concluded it wasn’t biological and sent me to a shrink who tried to teach me breathing exercises.
    I know there’s good psychologists out there and he may have been one, but he certainly wasn’t working for me. And anyway, I was sure it was biological. Maybe it was hypoglycemia from stress and not having the time to eat! But if it were, you’d think the blood tests would’ve found that? Maybe they didn’t test everything after all.
    But whatever it was, it’s not an issue for me now. If it ever comes back, I’ll be sure to consider hypoglycemia!

  6. Hi zandperl —
    Thanks for sharing your history! I am so glad you are in the stream of doctors and getting checked even if it doesn’t always work out.
    The fact that you have gone to a doctor throughout your life is a wonderful indicator that anything nasty can be caught before it becomes a disaster.
    Testing for hypoglycemia can be a tricky process. You usually can’t catch it in a simple blood test. If there is a suspicion for hypoglycemia a good doctor will order a battery of glucose tolerance stress tests where, under strict instruction and supervision from your doctor, you starve overnight, then go to the hospital and drink a sugar/water concoction, then get on a treadmill. Blood samples are taken throughout the process to measure how your body reacts to, and handles, sugar intake under stress conditions.
    Sometimes they need to do this over a series of days because people do not handle the induced sugar high in the same way. Some people crash later than others and that can be deceiving that things are okay when, in reality, they are not.
    Students regularly say, “I’m tired” or “I’m feeling down” or “I can’t seem to get going” and the initial reaction is to help pep them up with encouragement and psychological positivism.
    However, from now on, the first question I’ll ask after those statements will be, “When was the last time you ate and what did you eat?”
    I have a feeling that will tell a lot more than just playing cheerleader. 🙂

  7. My 12 year old son has juvenile diabetes and I’m familiar with hypoglycemia and how to avoid it and how to treat it. The best way to avoid a hypo is to eat a complex carb combined with a protein since the protein grabs on to the glucose and holds a steady blood sugar.
    It’s strange that you should see so many people who experience hypos that are not diabetic and on insulin. My son’s endo has told me that it’s extremely rare for someone not on insulin to have true hypoglycemic episodes and what most people think is a hypo is actually extreme hunger but when tested do not show a low blood glucose reading.’Low’ blood sugar as we’ve been taught being anything below 60.
    Perhaps what these students are experiencing is lack of sleep combined with lack of food that would cause similar symptoms?

  8. Hi Jeni —
    I appreciate the real world advice of your experience.
    I know these women went to the health center and were somehow diagnosed because I was officially informed through channels of the issue with these students.
    I had never experienced such an explosion of diagnoses before and it made me wonder if there was some new thinking afoot in clinics that cater to young people to do more intervention and testing for habitual hypoglycemic states instead of just brushing it off as teenaged angst? None of them were diabetic — yet — but diabetes did run in many of their families.
    I hope the issue is as you suggest — bad eating habits mixed with lack of sleep.

  9. The system of hypoglycemia (copied and paste) seems interested to me. I know I have sleep disorder. Just today, I woke up 4am and can’t sleep well. I know sometime I have problem in responding fast enough in certain situation. Can’t really focus longer then 5 mins. I worry that I’m going to have diabetes. My grandfather just died of diabetes. I hate getting sick and I’ll hate to have diabetes if all this point to me having one.
    Anyway, thank you for writing this informative article. It makes me more wary of the way I live.

  10. Bloghead —
    Thank you for sharing your life with us.
    The fact that you are so self-aware of your health is excellent. If you are concerned about your health, keep a written log of how you are feeling and share it with your doctor.
    The best thing to do is regularly meet with your doctor to make sure everything is okay and if there is a problem you can work together on creating a plan to get you healthy. Don’t wonder about what might be happening with you. Go to your doctor to find out what is really happening.
    Even if you are diagnosed with diabetes you can still have a great life. One of my good friends has a young son who was diagnosed as severely diabetic at 2 years old and now, 10 years later, the lad is doing really well and managing his condition.

  11. I am a student at Univ Bridgeport studying for MS Nutrition and trying to find out more about why more women than men have hypoglycemia-can you point me to any research you have found on this subject or further insight?

  12. Hi Kathleen —
    I think your research study will be interesting. I don’t have any hard research to share here I was just making an observational wonderment to see if anyone else had discovered the same vein of experience.

  13. To Whom It May Concern,
    I have just been diagnosed with Hypoglycemia. A few days ago, I went through a 4 hour glucose tolerance test and I was unaware of my low blood sugar until the 3 drawing of blood, I stepped out of the lab and walked to the gift shop. I began to feel a flush of heat in the back of my neck and face and I began to feel jittery and everything around me was amplified. I felt I needed to sit down because I could not control the tremors and the heart palpitations. That is when the nurses stopped the test and sent me home.
    For over 18 years, I always related this feeling to food. I have become unaware of my low blood sugar and I have requested a glucose monitor to monitor my sugar levels. I don’t see my doctor until February 2006 and I have called in for this monitor prescription, but the nurse told me to just eat frequent meals when I feel very weak. The problem is that I have LUPUS and I sometimes suffer from anemia. I am unaware of my low sugar. I guess my body has adapted to not letting me know. I don’t know. This is why I am writing to you for a suggestion or advice on this matter. Your expedience is greatly appreciated. The glucose monitor over the counter is about $28.00 out of pocket, but I have Medicare A & B. Therefore, I needed my doctor’s prescription. Thank you for kind attention.
    Sincerely,
    Debbigrace.

  14. Hi! I just stumbled onto your blog. I’m a senior in high school and I was diagnosed with hypoglycemia a few months ago. I’m also a volunteer EMT, so I have the same problem as hterry. I only work on Sundays, but it is definitely the most exhausting day of the week for me. When I’m not on calls I’m supposed to be constantly training, and I often forget to ask for breaks when I need them. I’ve stopped getting shaky when my blood sugar is low, so instead I get extremely confused, which also makes me look incompetent at work (thankfully it hasn’t happened on a call). I don’t have a glucose monitor, but this week I’m going to try and use glucose tablets for when I can’t stop to eat. Hopefully it will work.

  15. At age 12 I learned that my slimness contributed to my worth to others and lost 30 lbs. At 15 I got a job, so I was working and going to school. That is when I started getting hypoglycemic episodes. Hearing goes away, tunnel vision, knees give out. Once it resulted in a brief seizure. My mother had the same thing happen at a similar age and was diagnosed as hypoglycemic, so I think I can assume I have it.

    I think that hypoglycemia is more common in women because we grow up eating way too much sugar as kids up to age 13 or so, then start dieting at a young age, and everything goes haywire. Perhaps men who have a genetic predisposition to it never aggravate the condition because they are not as prone to restrictive dieting.

    For very busy women, the best solution is sugar-free non perishable snacks we can keep in a bag. Try to find them! Granola bars and meal replacement bars? Full of sugar. Beef jerky? Sugar. Peanut butter crackers? Peanut butter has sugar added.

    I am still on the hunt for my perfect pocket snacks that are high protein and high fat and zero sugar.