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The Link Between Hypoglycemia, Low Cortisol and Adrenal Function

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June 19, 2014 | Published by


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There is a very close relationship between adrenal function and blood sugar levels. We have known for almost a century that people who suffer from low blood sugar frequently suffer from adrenal fatigue. We also know that people who suffer from adrenal fatigue almost always have some form of irregular blood sugar pattern, of which hypoglycemia is the most common. Let us take a closer look at the connection between adrenal function (or lack thereof) and blood sugar.

When your adrenals are fatigued, their cortisol output is diminished and you have lower levels of circulating blood cortisol. With lowered blood cortisol, your liver has a more difficult time converting glycogen (stored blood sugar) into glucose (active blood sugar). Fats, proteins and carbohydrates, which normally can be converted into glucose, also cannot be as readily converted into glucose.

These reserve energy pools controlled by cortisol are critical to achieving and maintaining normal blood sugar levels, especially during stress. Further complicating this matter is that, during stress, insulin levels are increased because the demand for energy in the cells is greater. Without adequate cortisol levels to facilitate the conversion of glycogen, fats and proteins to new glucose supplies, this increased demand is difficult or impossible to meet. All this combines to produce low blood sugar.

To make matters worse, many sufferers of hypoglycemia try to fix the problem by relying on sugary snacks, coffee and soda to keep going. This is a short-lived fix that temporarily increases blood sugar almost immediately. They can almost feel it hit the back of their brain as their blood sugar moves out of the basement and shoots for the stars, relieving their hypoglycemic symptoms for about 45-90 minutes. However, this is inevitably followed by a precipitous plunge back to even lower blood sugar levels than they started with. Many individuals do this day in and day out, not realizing that hypoglycemia itself is a significant stress on the entire body, and especially on the adrenals.

People who use sugar and caffeine to feel better are on a constant roller coaster ride, with their blood sugar constantly rising and then falling after each “fix.” This throws not only cortisol and insulin levels into turmoil, but also the nervous system and the entire homeostasis of the body. To the body, hypoglycemia is a strong stressor, an emergency call to action that further drains already fatigued adrenals.

Therefore, by the end of the day the person may feel nearly exhausted without having done anything. The old Dr. Pepper commercials had this pattern of hypoglycemia pegged when they created the slogan encouraging people to have a Dr. Pepper (high in sugar and caffeine) at “10, 2 & 4 each day.” It is not by accident that work breaks are scheduled at about these times or that people typically have something sweet and/or containing caffeine during these breaks.

Your brain also requires increased energy during times of stress and is especially affected by a lack of glucose. Although your brain uses several different fuels, when it is low on glucose it often does not do well. In fact, most of the mechanisms involved in regulating blood sugar are designed to ensure that your brain always has adequate glucose with which to function. Many of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue and most of the symptoms of hypoglycemia are the result of insufficient glucose available to brain tissues.

Hypoglycemia, without proper snack and meal placement, also encourages overeating when food is available. The overeating causes rapid weight gain because the increased insulin is circulating in your blood, ready to usher that excess energy (glucose) from the extra food into your fat cells where it can be stored as fat. Even though you may not like its effects, this is a beautiful and savvy compensatory mechanism that has helped us survive. Much of human history is a story of feast or famine; excess calories are a luxury in evolutionary terms. Therefore, after coming out of a situation of temporary famine (hypoglycemia) into a situation of excess calories (fat and sugary junk food), our evolutionary history urges us unconsciously to overeat and our bodies are designed to store that energy while it is available.

In this way, hypoglycemia creates a tendency to put on weight. If you do not want to gain weight you should avoid those low blood sugar dips that not only make you so hungry you overeat, but also create a tendency in your body to store energy as fat. This means regular exercise and eating the kinds of meals and foods that control hypoglycemia. It also means not eating those sugary foods and caffeine that send your blood glucose levels on a roller coaster ride.

Dr. James L. WilsonAbout the Author: With a researcher’s grasp of science and a clinician’s understanding of its human impact, Dr. Wilson has helped many physicians understand the physiology behind and treatment of various health conditions. He is acknowledged as an expert on alternative medicine, especially in the area of stress and adrenal function. Dr. Wilson is a respected and sought after lecturer and consultant in the medical and alternative healthcare communities in the United States and abroad. His popular book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome has been received enthusiastically by physicians and the public alike, and has sold over 400,000 copies. Dr. Wilson resides with his family in sunny Tucson, Arizona.


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