Most healthy adults experience a rise in the level of glucose (sugar) in their blood after eating, particularly a meal that’s high in carbohydrates. For healthy people, elevated blood sugar—called hyperglycemia—usually isn’t a big deal. A healthy body produces plenty of insulin, which is what quickly and efficiently moves the glucose out of the blood and into our cells, where it’s used for energy. Brief episodes of hyperglycemia may also be caused by stress, illness, lack of exercise, or certain medications.
Hyperglycemia becomes a problem when it’s chronic. That’s usually either because the pancreas isn’t able to produce enough insulin to work its magic on blood glucose, or because the cells have become resistant to the effects of insulin so blood glucose levels continue to build. In other words, chronic hyperglycemia is typically caused by undiagnosed diabetes, or it’s a sign that your diabetes treatment plan needs to be updated. Right away.
If it goes on for long enough, hyperglycemia may permanently damage your nerves, organs, and blood vessels. It can cause blindness and kidney disease and may increase your risk of having a stroke. It may even cause a condition called ketoacidosis (or diabetic coma), which can be deadly. Ketoacidosis develops when your body can’t use glucose for fuel and energy and has to break down fats instead. Breaking down fats generates acids (ketones), which build up in the blood and cause the coma.
Know the Symptoms
It’s important to understand that although hyperglycemia and diabetes often overlap, they aren’t the same thing. In fact, it’s quite possible to be hyperglycemic without being diabetic.
The most obvious symptoms of high blood sugar are what some experts refer to as the three polys: polydipsia, polyphagia, and polyuria, Those are just fancy ways of saying excessive thirst, excessive hunger, and excessive urination. Other symptoms include dry mouth, difficulty concentrating, extreme fatigue, blurred vision, headaches, unexplained weight loss, recurrent infections, cuts and sores that take a long time to heal, intestinal problems (such as chronic diarrhea or constipation), and erectile dysfunction. If you have any of those symptoms for more than 24 hours—especially if you’re already diabetic—call your healthcare provider.
What to Do
To make a proper diagnosis of hyperglycemia, a medical professional will order a variety of tests. If it turns out that you do, in fact, have high blood sugar, your provider will most likely order you to do some or all of the following:
- Eat foods with low glycemic index. The glycemic index (GI) is a scale that assigns foods a numeric value from 1–100 based on how much they affect your blood sugar. The higher the number, the more quickly the blood sugar spikes, and the more you should avoid that particular food. Foods with low GI tend to take longer to digest, help you stay full longer (which may reduce overeating), and help prevent symptoms of hyperglycemia.
- Drink more water. If insulin isn’t getting the sugar out of your blood quickly enough, drinking lots of water may speed up the process by increasing the amount of sugar that departs your body when you urinate.
- Exercise more. But check with your provider. Exercise usually lowers blood sugar, but in certain cases (such as if you’re at risk of developing ketoacidosis) exercise may actually make things worse.
- Test your blood sugar often. Your provider will prescribe a test kit along with instructions for how to interpret the results and what to do when they’re out of the desired range.
- Take antibiotics or other medication. If your hyperglycemia is caused by an infection or a chronic illness, your provider may write a prescription.