You’ve heard people complain about having low blood sugar before and may have even experienced it yourself. But high blood sugar is also an issue that can cause a wide variety of symptoms (including making you feel like crap) and, if it’s becoming a regular thing, may be a sign of serious health issues.
High blood sugar—hyperglycemia—occurs when the level of glucose (i.e. sugar) in your blood becomes elevated.
We get our glucose from food, and most foods we eat impact our blood sugar in one way or another, certified dietitian-nutritionist Lisa Moskovitz, R.D., CEO of NY Nutrition Group, tells SELF. That includes foods that are higher in carbohydrates and sugar, yet lower in fat and fiber, such as baked goods, white-flour breads, soda, and candy, she says.
“This is also the case with foods high in added sugar, including desserts, candy, sweetened yogurts, ice cream, granola bars, certain breakfast cereals, and sugar-sweetened beverages,” Alissa Rumsey, M.S., R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells SELF.
uckily, high blood sugar isn’t something most of us have to worry about. “Our body is pretty resilient to controlling blood sugar levels, especially when they’re high,” Deena Adimoolam, M.D., assistant professor of endocrinology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells SELF.
Normally when you eat something sugary or carb-filled, your pancreas makes insulin, a hormone that your body needs to process glucose. Any glucose that’s leftover is stored in your liver to make sure that it’s not hanging around in your blood. And, Dr. Adimoolam says, this system works pretty darn well in non-diabetic healthy adults. “A normal person who has no problem with their ability to control blood glucose should never become significantly hyperglycemic,” she says.
If you’ve developed insulin resistance or have diabetes, however, your body isn’t as great at producing the insulin you need to process glucose, which means you’re more at risk for having blood glucose levels that are dangerously high.
Some of the early signs that your blood sugar is too high include:
Feeling overly tired, weak, or fatigued are non-specific symptoms and may also be signs of lowblood sugar, Dr. Adimoolam says. But it’s important to get any fatigue checked out that doesn’t go away with adequate rest.
Headaches are incredibly common, so it helps to know what kind of headache you’re dealing with (migraines, for instance). However, any new, chronic headache deserves to be discussed with your doctor.
3. Blurred vision.
Excess amounts of glucose in your blood can end up affecting your retina, causing a condition called diabetic retinopathy. As a result, you might notice blurred vision and extra floaters.
4. Frequent urination.
That extra glucose can also affect your kidneys, which are responsible for removing the excess water from your blood to produce urine. Having too much glucose in your blood can damage blood vessels in your kidneys, which makes this filtering process less efficient and causes you to pee more.
5. Increased thirst.
According to Dr. Adimoolam, feeling like you need to drink more than usual is a natural side effect of peeing more often.
If your high blood sugar symptoms are left untreated, they may become more obvious and severe over the course of a few days or weeks. According to our experts and the Mayo Clinic, here’s what could happen if your blood sugar is too high:
6. Difficulty concentrating.
7. Dry mouth.
8. Increased hunger.
10. Shortness of breath.
11. Abdominal pain.
If you’re so sick that you can’t keep food or fluids down, you need immediate medical attention. Otherwise, make an appointment with your doctor.
You can use your food choices to lower the odds you’ll experience these symptoms.
If you do have diabetes, it’s important to stick to your individualized nutrition plan. And, if your symptoms are caught early enough, it is possible to lower high blood sugar with lifestyle changes alone (including both diet and physical activity).
Although there’s no set “diabetes diet,” most people are advised to make fruits, vegetables, and whole grains the bulk of their diet because they’re low in sugar and high in fiber. Sugary foods are usually still OK every once in a while, but how much and how often you should have them will depend on your individual circumstances—including whether you have type 1 or 2 diabetes.
A large part of this process is educating patients about which foods are truly healthy, Dr. Adimoolam says. Even quinoa—something we generally think of as being healthy—still has carbs that can interfere with your blood sugar. For help putting together a nutrition plan, check in with your doctor (who may refer you to an R.D.).
If you’re regularly experiencing the symptoms of high blood sugar and aren’t sure why, talk to your doctor.
If your doctor suspects you might have diabetes, they’ll do a blood test to see the amount of sugar in your blood that’s physically attached to hemoglobin cells, Dr. Adimoolam says. The higher your blood sugar over the past few months, the more of those hemoglobin cells will be attached to sugar molecules. However, that test’s results may be inconclusive or the test may not be available. In that case, you’ll be given a different type of blood test (possibly one that requires you to fast). And, if your doctor thinks you might have type 1 diabetes, there may be a few additional tests to look for compounds in your urine and to test your immune system.
Treatment for diabetes, in addition to managing your nutrition and exercise, may include monitoring your blood sugar, medication, and insulin therapy. People with type 1 diabetes definitely require insulin (in the form of a pump or injections), as do many (but not all) people with type 2 diabetes. In some cases people with type 1 diabetes may opt for a pancreas transplant, which would replace the need for insulin therapy.
Diabetes is obviously a serious condition, so it’s crucial to be aware of the sometimes subtle signs—and to see your doctor if you have any concerns.