By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated June 22, 2012)
Symptoms of hypoglycemia and panic disorder are quite similar, which means that low blood sugar can trigger panic attacks.
How Hypoglycemia Causes Panic Symptoms
According to Jurriaan Plesman (2011) of the Hypoglycemic Health Association of Australia, “The function of adrenaline is to convert sugar stores in our body in the form of glycogen into glucose…when the brain…senses a low blood sugar level it will send a hormonal message to the adrenal glands to pour adrenaline into the system. This raises blood sugar [and] causes us to feel fearful without an external object of fear.” In other words, when your blood sugar is low, your body dumps adrenaline into your system to correct the problem, and this extra adrenaline can trigger feelings of nervousness and anxiety, or even a full-blown panic attack.
Hypoglycemia can cause typical panic symptoms such as heart palpitations, dizziness, sweating, trembling, and fear, as well as general low blood sugar symptoms such as irritability, forgetfulness, and sleepiness in the daytime. Many studies have linked hypoglycemia to anxiety symptoms (Buckley, 1978; Harp & Fox, 1990; Ross, 1974).
Hypoglycemia occurs when glucose is used too quickly by the body (for example, a hard workout on an empty or nearly empty stomach), its release into the bloodstream is too slow, or it is unbalanced by too much insulin in the bloodstream. Disorders that interfere with glucose absorption such as Crohn’s Disease, celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, and others can trigger hypoglycemia. It can also be caused by insulin resistance, which prevents glucose from crossing cell membranes. In addition, it can occur when diabetics take insulin at the wrong times or take too much. However, many people seem to have hypoglycemic episodes without disease.
In some cases, hypoglycemia signals a vulnerability to developing diabetes later on.
Hypoglycemia is a reactive condition. If a person with hypoglycemia eats foods rich in simple sugars (especially on an empty stomach), he will often experience a sugar crash shortly after the initial rush. Skipping meals or drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages can also trigger problems.
Plesman (2011) notes that there are dietary changes you can make to help normalize your blood sugar if you’re prone to hypoglycemia. Key aspects of the diet involve:
- Avoiding sugary foods and very sweet fruits, refined carbohydrates (those made with white flour or rice), strong tea, coffee, and nicotine
- Having small meals or snacks that contain protein and complex carbohydrates every three hours or so instead of several big meals each day
- Supplementing with vitamin B complex, vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D
See Plesman’s Research Evidence for Hypoglycemia for more information on recommended supplements.
Consult a doctor before taking supplements to ensure appropriate and safe dosing and check for conditions that might be contributing to the hypoglycemia, as these will need to be treated as well.
Overall, 4% of the population is prone to hypoglycemia, according to the Hypoglycemic Health Association of Australia. If you think you might have hypoglycemia, take the Hypoglycemia Association of Australia’s online test.
See a doctor to rule out diabetes and other conditions that affect blood sugar before assuming that the problem is hypoglycemia on its own.
More Information About Anxiety
If you suffer from anxiety and/or panic disorder, see the Anxiety and Panic Disorder page for a list of complementary therapies. See also Conditions That Often Accompany Anxiety for information about additional mental and physical health problems that may be caused by anxiety or trigger anxiety attacks.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical or psychiatric advice. Medical concerns should be referred to a qualified doctor.
- Buckley, R.E. (1978). “Hypoglycemic Kindling of Limbic System Disorder.” Orthomolecular Medicine 7(2), 18-23.
- Conrad Stöppler, M., MD (Author); Shiel Jr., W.C., MD, FACP, FACR (Editor). (n.d.). “Hypoglycemia.” MedicineNet.com.
- Eckman, A.S., MD (Reviewer), A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. (2011, June 28). “Hypoglycemia.” PubMed Health, NCBI.NLM.NIH.gov.
- Harp, M.J., & Fox, L.W. (1990). “Correlations of the Physical Symptoms of Hypoglycemia with the Psychological Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression.” Orthomolecular Medicine, 5(1), 8-10.
- Plesman, J. (2011, November 15). “The Hypoglycemic Diet,” “Anxiety and the Autonomic Nervous System,” and “Beating Anxiety and Phobias.” Hypoglycemic Health Association of Australia, Hypoglycemia.ASN.Au.
- Ross, H.M. (1974). “Hypoglycemia.” Orthomolecular Medicine, 3(4), 240-245.