Q:When I was 18 years of age, I began suffering from a collection of symptoms which included chest pain and palpitations, breathlessness, faintness, weakness in my limbs, and a numbing feeling in my head, which felt like my mental processes were grin
My family doctor at the time prescribed Inderol, ostensibly to regulate my heart beats, but which in effect made me feel like a zombie (so much so that I actually fell asleep during a university exam!). During the ensuing six years, driven by desperation and genuine fear as to what was happening in my body, I visited various GPs and was given several ECGs (which were normal), and usually a hefty bout of condescension to boot.
When I was 24, a friend sent me a book called Hypoglycemia, The 20th Century Epidemic, which after six years of illness, was nothing short of a revelation to read.
As recommended in the book I sought out a private practitioner, who performed a six-hour glucose tolerance test to monitor my blood-sugar levels in response to imbibing glucose. The results showed a classic, and dramatic, case of low blood sugar as a reaction to eating simple sugars. The solution was to avoid all sugar, and refined carboyhydrates if possible, as they over-stimulate the trigger-happy pancreas into releasing too much insulin, thus causing the blood sugar dips. Instead, a regular intake of whole, unrefined foods is recommended to avoid the point of crisis altogether.
I am now 30 and still hypoglycemic, but at least understand how best to offset its effects. To date, I have come across little awareness of the condition by medics, and have met people who have had a similarly unhelpful response from GPs when complaining of the same symptoms. No only does this attitude lead to a great deal of suffering, but it also means the neglect of a situation which has been described as “pre-diabetic”. D P, London…….
A:No wonder you had a load of condescension from your doctor. The orthodox (and erroneous) method of treating hypoglycemia is to hand the patient a sweet drink, sweets or a glucose tablet. Of course, this only results in a yo-yo effect, causing the body to produce more insulin, lower blood sugar and ultimately make the problem worse.
The more enlightened in medicine who understand nutrition recommend, first and foremost, as your doctor did, that you cut out refined carbohydrates and sugars, including honey, entirely. This means eliminating sweets, biscuits, cakes and puddings completely until your body has rebalanced itself and is able to cope.
Instead substitute complex carbohydrates, such as whole wheat pasta and bread (if you’re not allergic to it), potatoes, rice, millet, barley and oats. Complex carbohydrates convert into sugar more slowly, allowing your blood sugar levels to remain steady. If you find you’re still not achieving equilibrium, follow a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, eating more meat, fish, eggs, cheese and vegetables (if you aren’t allergic to them, or good-quality vegetarian-protein equivalents).
If you don’t make progress on either diet, author and nutritionist Kathryn Marsden has found success in putting patients on food combining, where you avoid mixing proteins and carbohydrates at the same meal. For more information, consult her book The Food Combining Diet (Thorsons 1993).
Next in importance is to sort out any food allergies, which could actually be the root of the problem.
Don’t skip meals. This is another frequent cause of hypoglycemia. Instead make sure to eat small meals frequently, particularly if you’re eating a low-carbohydrate diet.
Cut out tea, coffee, alcohol and smoking. This is a tall order, if you indulge in one or more of these social poisons, but all of them can act as triggers for releasing insulin and so lowering your blood sugar.
Some nutritionists recommend that people with hypoglycemia take supplements of B complex (20-100 mg per day); niacinamide (not niacin) (500 mg), zinc (15-25 mg), last thing at night; chromium 200 mcg; manganese (5-10 mg); magnesium (200-400 mg); potassium (500-100 mg per day) and vitamin C (2 to 3 g). Note that if you are told to take much more niacinamide, it’s recommended that you have monthly liver function tests.
If you’re following a high complex carbohydrate diet, Dr Davies has found success with tryptophan supplements of 500-1500 mg daily. This amino acid supplement, used to treat insomnia, was at the centre of a controversy a few years ago, for allegedly lethal side effects, but was recently put in the clear when it was found that the problems had to do with contamination in the processing at the manufacturing plant, and not with the substance itself.
It’s also important to get regular exercise, which can help to regulate blood sugar, as can regular sleep. Since many hypoglycemics suffer from insomnia, they can be chronically tired, which exacerbates their problem. If stress is part of your problem, take a course in stress management (or alternative therapies such as yoga). Better yet, get rid of the source of stress if you can, so that you can enjoy yourself more, whether at work or home.
One final overlooked cause, notes Dr Davies, is hyperventilation, or over-breathing, which can also make symptoms worse and foil any management plans. This can get sorted through regular exercise, practising yoga with a trained practitioner or going to a therapist trained in correcting breathing disorders.