The Emotions of Low Blood Sugar

This post was originally published on Hugging the Cactus on October 8, 2018. I’m sharing it again today because as I sat down to write a new post, my blood sugar tanked…frustrating the hell out of me by taking away any and all creativity. But it did remind me of the timelessness of this post, and how the emotions of a low blood sugar can be so varied. Read on for more…

Previously, I’ve written about what it feels like to have low blood sugar. While many people with T1D feel the same symptoms as me when they experience a low, there are even more who experience a wider variety of emotions and sensations.

Renza, a T1D Twitter friend of mine, did a little investigating into how others would describe what it’s like to have a low blood sugar. She sent a tweet that read:

#Diabetes friends. I’m crowdsourcing (again). If you had to use ONE WORD to describe how hypos/lows feel to you, what would it be. Go!! #Hypoglycaemia

She received nearly 100 responses, which I’ve compiled into the below graphic.

Looking at this word collage is a bit startling because it represents the vast array of feelings associated with low blood sugar. Most of them are negative. A handful of them start with the prefix “dis”, which describes something with an opposing force. A couple of them relate to feelings associated with eating. And just about all of them can be summed up as sensations that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

To me, this graphic serves as a stark reminder that diabetes is more than just a chronic illness that affects the body: It affects the mind, too.

The Inconvenience of Low Blood Sugar

Blood sugar drops (and spikes, for that matter) are never convenient, per se. They often take my attention away from the moment or experience that I’m in, and it just so happens that there are times when it’s a bigger deal than others.

Case in point? The blood sugar plummet I dealt with in the middle of reactive dog class for my pup.

Let me set the scene: It was a warm October evening in New England – perfect weather for walking a dog around the neighborhood. That’s exactly what my classmates and I were doing: We had about a dozen dogs that were only just outnumbered by humans getting walked in repetitive loops. The challenge was to test the dogs for their reactivity and correct them whenever they tugged too hard on their leashes or got too excited by another dog, person, or squirrel that was also out and about.

The training exercise itself wasn’t difficult; in fact, it was nice to watch the sun go down and chat with the other dog owners in the class while I kept my dog by my side. But what made it a challenge was when all that walking in circles finally caught up with me and my blood sugar and I started to feel an oncoming low.

I was stressed about it, because I was feeling the shaky/dizzy symptoms of a low, but was struggling with finding a good time to correct it. After all, it would’ve been kind of weird for me to randomly start gobbling down some fruit snacks in the middle of a conversation with the other dog owners, and I really wasn’t up for explaining diabetes to everyone and taking attention away from the training. I thought I was in the clear when it was my dog’s turn to be walked by another trainer – my hands were free and I totally could’ve eaten something quickly – but I balked at it because again, I found myself engrossed in conversation as I was given pointers for walking Violet.

In hindsight, I probably should’ve excused myself from the training exercise to sit down and eat my fruit snacks, but I simply wasn’t in the mood for dealing with my stupid diabetes at this point in time. This is the one hour per week that I’ve got with my dog that is solely focused on training her, and I wanted to be present in the moment. But I’ve got to acknowledge that I can only take good care of my dog if I take care of myself first, and I neglected to do that as soon as I should’ve in this situation.

Ah, well. It was what it was, and luckily the low happened towards the end of the class so I was able to eat my fruit snacks in the privacy of my car without having to explain myself to anyone. Next time, I’ll be better prepared with a sugary drink (like Gatorade) that will be much easier to consume without explanation while walking my dog.

What Happened When My Blood Sugar Crashed in the Grocery Store

I knew something was wrong when the walls of the soda and seltzer aisle felt like they were closing in on me, Star Wars-trash-compactor style.

You would think a blood sugar is no sweat (pun intended) in a place where food is so easily accessible, but this experience was far from it.

On a recent trip to the grocery store, I went low. And when I say low, I mean low – I wasn’t just shaky, I was sweating literal bullets and having a hard time seeing straight in front of me.

My boyfriend – thank goodness he was there – knew something was wrong just by looking at me. He suggested that I grab some fruit snacks from my backpack and I heeded, tearing open the small foil packet and tossing the contents back as quickly as I could. I chewed, grimacing as I tasted the strangely saccharine, perfume-y gummies, but I barely cared about the taste. I just wanted to feel better. That’s when my boyfriend placed a hand on my back, noting my clammy state, and escorted me over to the dining area at the front of the store.

“Just stay here, I only have a few things left to grab. Maybe you’ll be feeling better by checkout time,” he said, before asking me if I was okay to be left alone.

I was. I hated that he was seeing my like this, in this vulnerable, sweaty state that seemed impossible in the chilly air of the grocery store. I told him I would sit and wait there for him, fighting the feeling that I was a small child waiting for a parent to finish up some boring adult task. As I nearly collapsed onto a chair, all I wanted to do was shrink so nobody could see me: It seemed as though all sets of eyes in the vicinity were locked on me, the perspiring wonder who looked quite unwell.

I was only on my own for about 5 minutes, but time dragged as I anxiously awaited my boyfriend’s approach to the checkout line. I thought I’d wanted to be alone as I let the fruit snacks kick in, but turns out the opposite was true. I clung to his side as I slowly registered that I felt safer around someone who knew exactly what was wrong with me and how to handle it if things got worse.

As we exited the store and loaded the groceries into the car, I noted that my shakiness was dissipating, as was the beads of sweat on my body. This low episode was over and I was relieved to be on the other side of it. I was also relieved that I didn’t have to go through it alone: turns out lows are a bit more bearable when you have someone else with you to help you through them.

What It’s Like to Wake Up in the Middle of the Night with Low Blood Sugar

You stir suddenly from a dreamless sleep, knowing that something must’ve disturbed your slumber but not quite sure what it may have been.

This blog post was inspired by a recent middle-of-the-night low that went…well, exactly as I wrote it here. I wrote in the second-person perspective so you might be able to imagine what it’s like, if it’s something you’ve never experienced before.

Reflexively, you reach over to where your phone is perched on your nightstand. You check your notifications and confirm what you’d been hoping wouldn’t be a problem tonight: Your blood sugar is low and you must do something to fix it.

You unroll a couple of Smarties from their package, almost surprised at how dexterously you do so. After all, it’s an odd skill to have honed over the course of your life to be really good at opening up packages of the food just moments after you were sleeping soundly, but you’re accustomed to it. You chew up the Smarties as quickly as you can, grimacing slightly as their sweet-sour taste mingles with traces of toothpaste from when you brushed your teeth before bed. You sink back against your pile of pillows, sighing, as you wait for your blood sugar to come back up.

You wait. You wait some more. You scroll mindlessly through various apps on your phone. You’re not feeling better. You wonder to yourself, how much more do I have to do to fix this? You wish you weren’t alone right now. Low blood sugars are scary to deal with on your own, especially when they sneak up like this in the middle of the night.

Your mind begins to spiral as those nasty “what ifs” enter your thoughts. What if you plummet further? What if you lose a lot of sleep over this one pesky low? What if you don’t recover from this low and…?

Just as you begin to think of the most unpleasant scenario, you realize that your shakiness has subsided. The sweat on your skin has dried and your vision seems to be less foggy – it’s hard to tell in the dark, but not wanting to turn on anymore lights, you settle back into bed more comfortably and close your eyes.

You hope you can go back to sleep quickly. You hope that you don’t have to wake up again for the rest of the night for any blood sugar-related issues. You hope that you aren’t exhausted because of this one tomorrow.

You hope that tomorrow night is different, but with diabetes, you never know.

My “New” Low Blood Sugar Treatment of Choice

The concept of a “low blood sugar treatment” makes me giggle, because it implies that the glucose (sugar) needed to bring levels back within range is basically medicinal. Sugar? As medicine??? Kind of, sort of, pretty much when it comes to fixing a low.

Over the years, my preferred low treatment has taken many forms. In the early days of my diabetes, it was usually glucose tablets or orange juice. In most of my youth, juice boxes were number one, but as I got older I felt ridiculous carrying those around, so I switched to fruit snacks and kept glucose tablets around as an old reliable. In college, I loved mini boxes of yogurt-covered raisins (they were great for less urgent lows, with roughly 10 grams of carbs in one teensy little portable package). And in my adulthood, I’ve rotated through a mix of all the aforementioned items, but with a brand-new one entering the forefront for me as of late.

And that new one is…Smarties!

One of the many Smarties stashes I’ve got scattered around my home.

Yup, Smarties, the classic candy that just might be the most ideal low blood sugar treatment I’ve used in recent years. There’s solid grounding behind that logic: For starters, Smarties come bundled up in tiny rolls that are easy to slip just about anywhere – a pocket, a glovebox, a nightstand, and the list goes on. Smarties don’t melt and withstand just about any weather condition. They’re also perfectly portioned, with one roll containing 6 grams of carbs so it’s convenient to eat just one for a slightly low blood sugar or 2-3 for more stubborn lows. There are even giant Smarties rolls that are great for when I need a quick blood sugar boost before a workout – I just eat one or two individual giant-size Smarties and I’m good to go. And despite being reminiscent of chalky glucose tabs, they do taste significantly better and I swear they dissolve faster compared to their drugstore counterpart.

All those pros and nary a con for me to nitpick…I think I’ve finally found the best low blood sugar treatment for myself – for now, anyways.

3 Nighttime Lows in a Row

The night of the first low, I was “good” and treated with glucose tablets.

The night of the second low, I shamelessly treated with a leftover Halloween candy blondie (okay, two of them) that I had made earlier that day.

The night of the third low, I was exhausted. And feeling nothing other than a desire to sleep, I treated with both glucose tablets AND sour patch kids, because my body decided it needed that many carbs in order for my blood sugar to level out for the rest of the night.

By that third night, I was so dang tired. I’d had to go downstairs to get the sour patch kids, and by the time I was done eating them, I couldn’t fathom walking all the way back up the stairs to get into my big, comfy bed. So I just crumbled onto the couch, pulling a blanket over me, and snoozed there for a bit. I probably could’ve curled up into a ball on my carpet and slept just as soundly, even if only for awhile, because I was so spent from being woken up in the middle of the night for the third evening in a row to treat a low blood sugar.

I wish that people knew that diabetes is truly a 24/7/365 condition.

I hate having my sleep – which seems harder and harder for me to get enough of as I get older – interrupted by something as stupid as a low blood sugar.

I hate having to eat in the middle of the night and ruining the minty taste leftover from my brushed teeth prior to bedtime.

I hate that sometimes, the low is bad enough that I get woken up one or two or even three more times in the same night because I’ve got no choice but to consume more carbs.

It seems fitting to write about this – how disruptive my diabetes has been to my sleep over the course of three nights, let alone my entire life with diabetes – during National Diabetes Awareness Month. Because I don’t think the rest of the world really understands that diabetes truly does not have an “off” switch. People who live with diabetes don’t have the luxury of sleeping peacefully without having a single worry about diabetes: It can and will disturb the soundest of sleeps, and it’s frustrating, inconvenient, and annoying every time it does.

The 1 A.M. Cupcake

Zzzzz…huh? What’s that? I was sleeping so deeply…

Oh, I’m low.

Dazed, I roll out of bed and suddenly become aware of how hot I am. Beads of sweat are rolling down my back, making my pajamas stick to my skin. I look at the number on my Dexcom – there isn’t one.

It just says LOW.

I grow more alert and turn to my test kit to do a fingerstick check and verify my Dexcom reading. My meter says that I’m 44.

And suddenly, I’m feeling that low. I need sugar, stat. I could open the bottle of glucose tabs conveniently perched on my nightstand, chew 5 or 6, and then get settled into bed and fall back asleep relatively quickly. But the desire to get downstairs and eat the contents of my kitchen strikes, even though it’s 1 A.M. and eating too much at this time of night wouldn’t be good for either my blood sugar or my sleep hygiene.

Ignoring my more rational side (as well as my glucose tabs), I grab my phone, my meter, my PDM, and my bathrobe and stumble down the stairs in the dark. I turn on the ceiling fan in my living room in a desperate attempt to cool down faster before I walk into the kitchen.

My eyes fall on a cupcake sitting innocently on the counter.

This isn’t a picture from this particular incident – nobody wants to see me when I’m this low – but this is one of the cupcakes that I’d made. Violet always wants me to share.

I don’t think twice – I tear the wrapper off and three bites later, it’s gone.

I collapse on the couch, directly under my ceiling fan. I am a sweaty mess. This low is hitting me hard. I put the TV on in a futile attempt to distract myself while I wait for the cupcake to kick in, but instead of paying attention to what’s on the screen, all I can feel is gross for choosing to eat a damn cupcake at 1 in the morning instead of doing the “right” thing and treating my low from the comfort of my bed with glucose tabs.

20 minutes later, I start to feel chilly. I’m no longer perspiring and I feel all of my low symptoms subside. I’m better, so it’s time to head back upstairs and try to fall back asleep.

I toss and turn for a bit, cursing diabetes and its middle-of-the-night low blood sugar curveballs, and the stupid 1 A.M. cupcake that my diabetes somehow convinced me to eat to treat a low instead of waiting to have it at a time that I could actually enjoy it.

Diabetes strikes again, I think as I drift back to sleep.

Trying to Outwalk a Low Blood Sugar

I was a mile into my regular morning walk when the beeps started.

Dammit.

The beeps were coming from my Dexcom app on my phone and they were alerting me to a low blood sugar. Rather than correcting the low, though, or even opening up the app to dismiss the alarm, I just kept walking.

Outwalk the low blood sugar, Molly.

Outwalking a low blood sugar is easier said than done.

I really couldn’t understand why my blood sugar was low in the first place considering that I had no food in my system or insulin on board (other than my standard basal rate). Fasting workouts tend to virtually guarantee stable blood sugars for me, which is wonderful because otherwise exercise tends to make me crash. But what was different about this morning? I was utterly befuddled. My Dexcom alarm chimed a second time.

Outwalk the low blood sugar, Molly.

Even more confusing was my complete and utter determination to not treat the low blood sugar until I got home. I had glucose tablets on me, so it’s not like it was a matter of lacking a treatment. Rather, I think I was more focused on maintaining my fasted state for as long as possible, since I almost always do an exercise circuit (weight lifting, cardio training, HIIT intervals, etc.) when I return home from my morning walks. My low alarm rang a third time, just as loudly as it had before.

Outwalk the low blood sugar. You’re only 15 minutes from home.

I was deaf to my Dexcom’s persistent alarms for the next 15 minutes as I somewhat floundered down the road home, letting my impatient puppy tug me along. It’s almost like she knew that I was low and was trying to hurry me home, and I was 100% okay with that because my brain was starting to get fuzzy.

Outwalk the low blood sugar…

At long last, nearly half an hour after my first low alarm sounded, I was crossing the threshold of my front door and fishing my phone from my bag. I tapped through my notifications and cleared the low alert, noting that I was 66 mg/dL and definitely needed to eat something before continuing on with my morning routine. I sighed, set my sight on the kitchen (where a low blood sugar food stash awaited me), and resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t outwalk the low blood sugar this time.

5 Things That Make My Blood Sugar Crash Quickly

Have you ever noticed that certain activities have a swift and obvious impact on your blood sugar levels?

Well, if you aren’t a person with diabetes, then the answer to that is probably “no”…but I digress! Recently, I realized that there are five things that absolutely, definitely, without-a-doubt make my blood sugar plummet before long. Here’s my list – what’s on yours?

1 – Vacuuming. I live in a fairly small condo – less than 900 square feet total – but when it comes time to vacuuming the floor, it takes me a good chunk of time to do a thorough job. Maybe about 30 minutes total. So it shouldn’t be surprising that by the time I’m done, I’m normally a little sweaty and often in need of a snack because all that moving around has made my blood sugar drop.

Who else “celebrates” vacuuming their entire home by cracking open a fresh…juice box??

2 – Baking. This might be surprising because I’m the type of baker who must lick the spoon and sample the finished product as soon as it’s done, so you might assume that this activity makes my blood sugar go up. Not so. And this is because I am also what I call a “frantic baker”. I shuffle around the kitchen, rifle through cabinets, curse when I can’t find an ingredient and need to rush out to the store to get it…now you must get the idea. I’m always in motion when I’m baking, which pays off in the end. I need to try my baked goods in order to boost blood sugar that went low in the process of creating them. This is one of the many reasons why I love baking!

3 – Playing with my puppy. Little Miss Violet is four months old now and more rambunctious than ever. She loves fetching, running, chasing…and nine times out of ten, I’m fetching, running, and chasing right along with her. Before too long, Violet’s winded and on her way to dreamland while I’m on my way to the kitchen to grab something that will treat my low blood sugar.

4 – Cleaning the bathroom. A self-professed neat freak, I have a very specific process when I’m cleaning the 1.5 bathrooms in my condo. This process probably isn’t the most efficient because it involves a lot of walking up and down the stairs to gather various cleaning supplies, but it does do one thing well: lower my blood sugar, of course.

5 – Walking. This is pretty dang obvious because any sort of physical activity/exercise is bound to make my blood sugar drop, but not in the same way that walking does. I swear that 10-15 minutes of walking at a normal pace is enough to drop my blood sugar by about 100 points – that’s how effective it is for me. Walking is my sneaky little trick when my blood sugar is a tad too high: Instead of taking insulin to correct it, I just have to get a quick walk in and I’m falling fast in no time.

The Truth About My Carb Counting

One of the many reasons why I love the diabetes community is that I’m constantly learning new information, finding inspiration, and enjoying support from my fellow friends living with T1D. Sharing our stories with one another leads to us finding that it’s more than diabetes that we have in common.

Here’s an example: My friend, Cherise Shockley, recently wrote an article for DiaTribe in which she made a confession to herself regarding how she counts her carbs. I recommend reading the extremely well-written article to get a full sense of what she discovered, but in short, Cherise recently realized that her carb counting is inaccurate because of the “glass ceiling” for entering carbs into her pump for bolus calculations. In other words, Cherise’s personal maximum of carbs that she was comfortable with dosing for using her pump wasn’t aligning with the actual amount of carbs she was consuming. This excerpt explains part of it:

That was my moment of truth. I told Natalie I ate my favorite chocolate chunk cookie that day. She asked me how many carbs the cookie contained, and I told her 68 grams; she wondered why I only bolused for 55 grams. I paused before I replied – I did not know the answer.

Natalie then asked me if I had a glass ceiling for entering carbs in my pump. She explained that this means even though I know I eat 63 carbs, I will only enter 50 carbs in my pump because anything higher than that concerns me. What she said was interesting; I had never heard anyone describe it to me in that way.

-Cherise Shockley

When I read this, I said, “Yes! Finally, someone is able to articulate exactly how I handle carb counting!”

This is the truth about my carb counting: I have limits when it comes to how many carbs I will bolus for at a time, but those limits do not apply to the actual number of carbs that I consume.

In my 23 years of life with type 1 diabetes, I never knew the meaning behind my carbohydrate glass ceiling.

To explain, I am only comfortable with bolusing for a maximum of 60 grams of carbohydrate at a time. I do not know how I came up with this particular number, but I do know that there are situations (e.g., holiday celebrations) in which I am absolutely consuming more than 60 carbs in a sitting, and yet I only bolus for that amount.

Still confused by what I mean? Read the full article to understand, but this excerpt from it helps to explain why this fear of bolusing for more than 60 carbs at a time exists for me:

To learn more about carbohydrate glass ceilings and why some people have one, I talked to Dr. Korey Hood, a professor of pediatric endocrinology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University who has lived with type 1 diabetes for over 20 years. Dr. Hood told me that all parts of diabetes management can be challenging, and carb counting is particularly tough because it is hard to be accurate and precise. He always recommends people with diabetes meet annually with their diabetes educator (CDCES) to get a refresher on different aspects of diabetes management, including carb counting.

Dr. Hood said that the glass ceiling is most likely due to one of two issues – worries about hypoglycemia or the meaning behind taking such a big dose of insulin. Dr. Hood said that “many of us with diabetes, particularly those on insulin, worry about going low. Why wouldn’t we – it is a terrible feeling! We often experience fears of hypoglycemia because we had a terrible low in the past and have a desperate desire to avoid it in the future. When we worry about hypoglycemia, we scale back our insulin dosing. This prevents the low but also likely results in high glucose levels. So, it really is not a good strategy.” 

-Cherise Shockley

This was a major revelation for me because suddenly I realized what my reasoning is for my carbohydrate glass ceiling: I have a hypoglycemia fear. I have experienced scary episodes in the past (fortunately, none of which have required medical attention). I have friends who have experienced severe hypoglycemic episodes, and when a colleague of mine experienced a low episode that was so bad that I had to call 911 for him, it left a mark on me. So on the occasions that I do eat more than 60 carbs in a sitting, I simply don’t take the amount of insulin that I should to account for those carbs, and I wind up going high, exactly as Dr. Hood describes in the quote above.

When it comes to diabetes, there is no such thing as “perfection”. My blood sugars cannot and will not be perfect 100% of the time. But one thing that I do have control over is doing the absolute best that I can with carb counting and bolusing. It’s time I hold myself more accountable to my carbohydrate glass ceiling…in fact, it’s time for me to smash through it.

A ginormous thank you to Cherise for being so open and honest in this piece and for inspiring me to own my carbs, too.