Paavo Airola - Let's Live - March 1977Index

What Is Hypoglycemia?

Part One

This and the following two articles are excerpted from Dr. Airola's new book, Hypoglycemia: A Better Approach.

HYPOGLYCEMIA is the most perplexing mysterious, complicated, contradictory, as well as controversial and complex "disease" I know. How did I arrive at such a disheartening conclusion? Consider this:

  1. The medical establishment - AMA and the affiliated groups, clinics, as well as official medical journals - insists that hypoglycemia is virtually a non-existent condition invented by self-diagnosing health faddists; a popular "in" disease among jet-set, high-stress, heavy-drinking hypochondriacs; a new invention replacing ulcers as the status disorder.

    A famous Mayo Clinic doctor and syndicated medical columnist, Walter Alvarez, M.D., summed up the official View, saying, "I have never seen a case of functional hypoglycemia in thirty years of practice." The American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the Endocrine Society joined the American Medical Association in publishing in their official journals strongly worded position statements indicating that hypoglycemia is an extremely rare condition. Yet, such prominent doctors and practitioners as Harvey M. Ross, M.D., Robert C. Atkins, M.D., E. Cheraskin, M.D., Stephen Gyland, MD. and Clement C. Martin, M.D., to name a few, consider hypoglycemia to be one of the most prevalent ailments in modern society, a virtual epidemic of major proportions.

    Dr, Atkins, for example, says that "the commonest condition I am called upon to treat in my practice of internal medicine is low blood sugar - hypoglycemia." Dr. Cheraskin claims that "the sugar-laden American diet has led to a national epidemic of hypoglycemia." And, Dr. Harvey Ross says that "Hypoglycemia has been estimated to affect 10 percent of the United States population". That's over 20 million people:

  2. Some doctors consider hypoglycemia to be a serious, incapacitating disease, a contributing factor to such killers as heart disease, even cancer. Others dismiss it as a rather harmless "stress adaptation syndrome", a carbohydrate metabolism disorder that is easily controlled and/or avoided.

  3. According to some doctors, the medical definition of hypoglycemia is very simple: too little sugar in the blood, or low blood sugar. They also define hypoglycemia as "the opposite of diabetes" (which is too much sugar in the blood), The offered cure is equally simple: more of easily-available sugar in the diet. Other experts violently oppose this simplistic view of hypoglycemia, claiming that the underlying causes leading to low blood sugar are so complex and so different with each individual, that it is almost impossible to find a common therapeutic approach applicable to more than one case.

  4. The experts' opinions on correct diagnostic procedures are just as contradictory. While many practitioners feel that a 5 or 6-hour glucose tolerance test (GTT) is a perfectly reliable and conclusive way to diagnose the condition, others feel that such a test is not only harmful, but also constitutes a very misleading, as well as undependable, way to find the presence of hypoglycemia. The standard medical practice is to consider levels of blood sugar lower than 60 to 80 mg. per 100 ml. as hypoglycemia. But one of the nutrition experts with wide experience in hypoglycemia, Dr. Carlton Fredericks, claims that "there is no number, no point, no range of blood sugar which constitutes hypoglycemia." He says that not how low the blood sugar level goes, but the speed at which it drops, that causes the symptoms of hypoglycemia - and only in some people, at that!

Complex And Mysterious

Are you beginning to be perplexed and confused? Can you see now why I referred to hypoglycemia as the most complicated, mysterious, and complex health problem I know?

But whether or not the experts agree on the definition, classification, diagnosis, or treatment of the hypoglycemia syndrome, your distress and suffering, if you are afflicted with it, is just as severe. You are probably reading this because you are searching and looking for relief. Because the major hypoglycemic symptoms are mental confusion, emotional instability, low energy level, and neurotic - even psychotic - behavior, the condition of hypoglycemia has a serious effect on a person's whole life, and on his marital and family relationships; it has, in other words. enormous personal as well as social implications. I. I. Rodale believed that many accidents, family quarrels, suicides, and even crimes are committed by individuals when their sugar levels are pathologically low, Hypoglycemia is, indeed, one of the most devastating ailments of man.

Because I have. seen so many unhappy, distressed, and miserable individuals whose lives have been wrecked - virtually destroyed - by hypoglycemia, I have decided to write this book to try to help those who are already afflicted, as well as those who may be subjected to this danger in the future. This task is not easy. Although I have authored ten books, one of which, How To Get Well, outlines successful biological and nutritional treatments for over 60 of our most common diseases and is used as a textbook in several universities, colleges, and medical schools, I feel apprehension as well as a great sense of responsibility when I approach this "simple" problem of hypoglycemia. I can truthfully say that of all the medical problems and ailments that I have studied and researched, this is the most complex, misunderstood, and controversial condition of which I can think.

What is Hypoglycemia?

Hypoglycemia, translated into lay terms, simply means low blood sugar. Hypo means low; glycemic means sugar. Diabetes is the opposite: high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia. The two conditions, although diametrically opposed, are closely related. Both are caused by the body's inability to use sugar effectively. This is, of course, an oversimplification. And I will admit, right at the onset, that we will have to use a lot of generalizations and oversimplifications more than I would like when trying to define and explain such a complex condition as the hypoglycemia syndrome. This is because, more than any other disease, hypoglycemia and its symptoms, as well as its underlying causes, vary with almost every individual.

Sugar Metabolism

Hypoglycemia was officially "discovered" by Dr. Seale Harris in 1924. He was the first to describe the presence of abnormally low blood sugar levels and the distinctly defined symptoms that accompany them. The condition was at first called hyperinsulinism and it was considered to be caused by to much insulin in the blood. Excessive insulin burned more sugar than was necessary, and caused an excessive drop in the blood sugar level. In diabetes, too little insulin is produced, which results in too much sugar staying in the bloodstream for too long. In simple terms, an overactive pancreas (where insulin is produced) is blamed for low blood sugar. But the real question is: why is the pancreas overactive?

Thus, both diabetes and hypoglycemia are linked to defective sugar metabolism in the body. What is sugar metabolism, and what causes its derangement?

To get the answers to these questions, we must understand the relationship and the difference between nutrition, and metabolism. Nutrition is related to the foods and liquids that enter our bodies; nutrition science is a study of the nutritional and therapeutic value of foods. Metabolism refers to what happens to the nutrients after they enter the body, how they are assimilated, absorbed. utilized, and burned up, and how they are used in various processes involved in keeping tissues and organs well.

The Big Three

The three basic nutrients obtained through foods are complex carbohydrates, fats, and proteins (plus, of course, vitamins, minerals, trace elements, enzymes, etc.). Almost all foods contain all of these nutrients, but in varying proportions. The basic human diet, especially as it had evolved since the advent of agriculture, was largely made up of natural, complex carbohydrate foods, such as grains, seeds, nuts, vegetables, fruits, and some dairy products, meat and/or fish in some parts of the planet.

Even now, in those parts of the world where civilization and industrialization have not yet made their destructive assault, and where the traditional diets have remained the same, the people are free from disease and they enjoy optimum vitality and long life.

But in the past few hundred years, with the advent of industrialization and the increased wealth that followed it, man's diet has undergone dramatic changes. Concentrated carbohydrates such as sugar and refined flour, completely non-existent in earlier times, now are eaten in increased quantities, reaching an incredible yearly intake of 125 lbs. of sugar and an equal amount of white flour per person in America today! The human metabolic system was not designed to function efficiently on such a diet. The excess of protein and fat, and especially the huge amount of refined carbohydrates has overloaded our metabolisms and contributed to the long line of disease directly related to faulty nutrition. Hypoglycemia is but one of these nutrition-related disorders.

Sweet Fuel

Sugar is the fuel our body uses for heat and energy. Normally, sugar is obtained from carbohydrate-rich foods, such as grains, vegetables, potatoes, fruits, bread, beans, and corn. The complex carbohydrates are slowly broken down from their long-chain molecules and changed into smaller molecules of absorbable sugar, called glucose, which is ultimately absorbed slowly through the wall of the small intestines. This sugar is then carried to the liver, where it is converted into glycogen and stored.

As the need for sugar arises (remember, sugar is needed for all muscle actions, and especially for brain and nerve function), the stored glycogen is reconverted into a usable form - glucose - and transported by the blood to the areas where it is needed. Thus, when we eat sugar in the form of natural carbohydrates, our blood and tissues usually contain only the amount of sugar needed for their normal function. But when we eat foods containing refined, white, commercially produced sugar, the small-molecule carbohydrates of these foods are absorbed quickly - sometimes almost instantaneously - through the membranes of the mouth and stomach, causing a sudden flood of glucose into the bloodstream. Such a flood of excess sugar into the bloodstream causes a tremendous strain on the pancreas and liver, as well as the adrenals and other endocrine glands that are involved in regulating blood sugar levels.

Too Great A Strain

Our bodies are well equipped to handle an occasional strain in the form of an excess of ingested sugar. The pancreas produces insulin which is released into the bloodstream where it destroys the excess sugar. But, if we continuously abuse our metabolism by dumping in huge amounts of easily absorbably sugar, the strain on the sugar-regulating organs will be too great. It may damage them to the extent that they will not be able to cope with the continuous insult. Often, the reaction of these organs, especially the pancreas, becomes abnormal (such as an overreacting pancreas, which produces large amounts of sugar-reducing insulin although only an insignificant amount of refined sugar was consumed), resulting in symptoms of hypoglycemia, And if the pancreas is over-reactive and produces too much insulin, the sugar level in the blood drops abnormally low, depriving the brain and nervous system of much-neeeded oxygen and causing an array of unpleasant hypoglycemic symptoms. Eating sugar in such a situation will not help. On the contrary, it will only trigger the over-responsive pancreas to produce even more insulin and make the situation and symptoms worse.

The abnormal reaction or malfunction of the sugar level-regulating organs can be caused by other factors such as emotional and physical stresses, alcohol, coffee, smoking, nutritional deficiencies, overeating, and drugs, But, faulty eating habits, especially the excessive use of refined carbohydrates, is the factor that contributes most to the development of hypoglycemia.

"I Don't Eat Sugar"

In my consulting work, I often encounter patients with diagnosed functional hypoglycemia who say, "I haven't eaten sugar for years - I never touch the stuff! - how could I have hypoglycemia?"

So few people realize that sugar is concealed in many foods. You may eat an occasional piece of apple pie a la mode. Did you know that it contains 18 teaspoons of sugar? You drink a glass of orange juice. Did you know that orange juice is 13 percent sugar? A plain doughnut contains 4 teaspoons of sugar! A bottle of Coca-Cola contains over 4 teaspoons of sugar. Many commonly used sauces, jellies, custards, and canned fruits or juices contain added sugar. It is almost impossible today not to get huge amounts of sugar if you buy your food at the regular supermarket. Virtually all man-made, canned, processed, frozen, or packaged foods contain some form of sugar additive. All commercially sold bread, for example, contains sugar or syrup.

One of the things that many health oriented people - those who do not eat sugar in any form - do not realize is that they often overload their system with easily assimilable sugar by eating too many sweet fruits. especially dried fruits, such as dates, figs, prunes, or raisins. Even without added sugar, these contain so much naturally concentrated sugar that it can easily overtax the pancreas and trigger its over-reaction.

Beware Of Excess

Even worse, the current fashion among well-meaning health food advocates is to drink excessive amounts of sweet fruit or vegetable juices, such as grape, apple, or carrot juice. This practice can have a disastrous effect on sugar metabolism and can contribute to the development of hypoglycemia as well as diabetes We all subscribe to the idea of eating whole, natural foods. We object to sugar and white flour on the grounds that they are refined, fragmented, concentrated substances. At the same time, we gulp huge amounts of juices on a regular daily basis without realizing that juices are not whole and natural foods. They are also fragmented, isolated, concentrated, sugar-laden liquids which our bodies and metabolisms are not equipped nor programmed to handle.

I have seen some people who drink half a gallon, sometimes even a full gallon of carrot juice a day. Not only do the palms of their hands turn yellow, but a large amount of sugar in this highly concentrated food puts a very real strain on the liver and pancreas. Our bodies are designed to handle foods that are eaten.

When we eat carrots or grapes, chewing them thoroughly, the carbohydrates and sugars in these foods are gradually and slowly digested and absorbed, supplying an even flow of sugar. But when we drink sweet juices, an excessive amount of sugar that doesn't need an elaborate digestion is suddenly flooding the bloodstream with the demanding strain on the pancreas and liver to quickly neutralize it and restore proper sugar levels. There is a certain maximum level of dietary sugar that our organs can handle without damage. This level was set by maximum sugar that can be obtained by eating foods. It has been determined during thousands of years of metabolic and genetic adaptation to the natural environment.

A Rightful Place

There is another factor to consider regarding the practice of copious juice: drinking. Juices are extremely alkalizing foods, containing large amounts of highly alkaline minerals, especially potassium. Juices do have a rightful place and play a very important role in practically every, therapeutic program, especially during fasting when they help cleanse and de-acidify tissues affected by acidosis.

However, if juices are used in large amounts, on a prolonged basis, by relatively healthy people, they tend to alkalinize the body too much, causing a condition known as alkalosis. This, again, puts an extra strain on the adrenal glands which must synthesize large amounts of special adrenal-cortical hormone to restore and maintain a normal pH in the body.

Most readers are probably aware of the fact that an overly-acid system (too many grains and/or too much meat in the diet) is not a desirable condition, and may lead to metabolic disorders, contributing specifically to the development of arthritic and rheumatic diseases. But an overly-alkaline body (too many alkalizing vegetables and fruits, especially in concentrated juice form) is just as undesirable. It may make the body susceptible to many metabolic disorders, especially digestive and assimilative problems, as well as an increased susceptibility to infections. Not too acid, but not too alkaline either, is the ideal - pH should be about 6.4 in a urine test, Which means slightly acid. Neutral pH is considered to be 7.0.

Let's Get It Right!

Now, after this warning about indiscriminate drinking of sweet juices - especially by hypoglycemics or those prone to hypoglycemia or diabetes - I must hurry to clarify myself before I am misunderstood or misquoted. My objections are to the excessive drinking of juices. Generally, foods should be eaten, not drunk. A small amount of juice 2-3 oz. at a time, can be taken, either diluted 50-50 with water one hour before a meal, or undiluted with meals, provided it is sipped slowly, and salivated well - as any other food. In the treatment of disease, especially during juice fasting, juices are indispensable. (For information about how to use juices therapeutically and what juices to use for specific conditions, please refer to my book, How To Keep Slim, Healthy, and Young With Juice Fasting, available at all health food stores.) Please note, however, that juice fasting, although an essential part of the standard biological treatment of almost every disease, is not recommended for the treatment of hypoglycemia nor diabetes except when prescribed and supervised by an experienced doctor. (Malignancies and active tuberculosis are other conditions where fasting is not advisable.)

The Mechanics of Hypoglycemia

In summary, the mechanics of hypoglycemia are as follows:

Occasional Indiscretions

Ideally, when all these glands and organs function as they should, blood sugar is kept at normal levels. Even if we occasionally abuse our bodies by dietary indiscretions, these sugar-controlling mechanisms are able to cope with the extra strain. But they have their limits! Like any other mechanism, either within the human body or in man-made machinery, they can break down. When they do, conditions such as hypoglycemia and/or diabetes will result. When sugar gets abnormally high and the damaged pancreas is unable to produce enough insulin to bring sugar down and maintain the ideal balance of glucose in the blood - it is diabetes. When sugar gets too low, either because of an over-reactive pancreas that produced too much sugar-destroying insulin, or possibly because of a pancreas underactive in terms of producing the hormone glucugon - an anti-insulin factor, a controlling substance that blocks the action of insulin when needed it is hypoglycemia.

Now, I must again remind you of the great complexities in the physiology and mechanics of hypoglycemia. There are many, many reasons and causes that may lead to the malfunction and/or breakdown of the whole sugar-controlling mechanism. Causes include not only a simple excess of refined carbohydrates or sugar in the diet nor pancreatic or adrenal underactivity or overactivity, but also such factors as:

Other Kinds

The above-mentioned description and definition of hypoglycemia refers to so-called functional hypoglycemia, or hypoglycemia caused by an overactive or over-sensitized pancreas, but without a diagnosable pathological development or structural damage. An overwhelming majority of all cases of low blood sugar are functional hypoglycemia. There are, however. other kinds of hypoglycemia, usually referred to as, hyperininsulinism. Tumors of the pancreas, benign or malignant, when located in the insulin-producing area of the pancreas, the islets of Langerhans, can result in hyperinsulinism, or excessive insulin production. The other cause of hyperinsulinism is an enlargement in the whole insulin-producing area of the pancreas. A defective liver, or diseased or malfunctioning pituitary or adrenal glands can also result in hyperinsulinism. All the above-mentioned categories of hypoglycemia are classified as organic hypoglycemia.

This book deals mainly with functional hypoglycemia, which is responsible, perhaps, for 99 percent of all cases of low blood sugar.