Hungry or Low? How much do blood sugars really affect our mood?
Am I Hungry or am I Low? Can low blood sugar affect my mood?
I’ve almost been married for 8 years now and have had diabetes for 20 years. I jokingly call my diabetes my first child because it sometimes acts like a toddler with demands that put my 3-year-old to shame. Just like my 3 year old can send me over the edge with his incessant and almost OCD demands on me, an unexpected low blood sugar can make any task feel 100 times harder.
A combination that really makes me want to curly up on the floor and cry: my Dexcom alerting me that I’m low, feeling the low symptoms, a screaming toddler, and my husband trying to get information out of me like while he’s driving and I’m the navigator. That’s a recipe for disaster every time!
I’ve told my husband since we met that blood sugars greatly affects mood, but it wasn’t until recently that he really started to understand it after he watched a TedTalk and shared it with me. It was by Brad Bushman back in 2014. He’s a researcher who’s studied human aggression and self-control for over 20 years. I found it very entertaining and informative, so if you’d like to watch it you can find it here: https://youtu.be/UOn3zOp8JPE
In the TedTalk he discusses several studies he’s done to prove that “hungry” is a real thing. One study involved college students and aggression shown during a game after either drinking a sugar-free or sugared lemonade. He concluded that glucose has a direct effect on aggression.
An unexpected low blood sugar can make any task feel 100 times harder.
Another study involving married couples, which I found very interesting. They were given blood glucose meters and checked their blood sugars every morning and every night. They were also each given a Vudu doll and were instructed to stab a pin into the doll each night from 0-51 times depending on how angry they were with their spouse that day. They did it alone without the spouse being present and recorded how many times they stabbed the doll.
These are the results after 23 days:
The participants with low blood sugar stabbed the Vudu doll almost 3 times as much as the participants with higher blood sugars! “High” and “low” was determined based on each individual’s average blood sugar, so I’d assume that in people without diabetes these weren’t extreme numbers like us with Type 1 see, but they were higher and lower than average for them. He determined that those with lower blood sugars at the time of stabbing had less energy for their brain to exercise control over angry feelings and aggressive impulses.
He’s also done other research showing that people exhibiting “diabetic symptoms’ tend to be more aggressive than those without symptoms. Now I’m not sure what exactly he means by “diabetic symptoms”, but I assume he means extremes in blood sugars and the accompanying symptoms of highs and lows. If you’re anything like me, you can relate to that. Swings in blood sugars can cause an array of emotions and frustration, especially when they are extreme numbers.
His suggestions for how to strengthen self-control:
Work on your posture
Use non-dominant hand for mundane tasks
Speak in complete sentences
Keep track of what you eat
Some colleagues of his did a study proving that they work to strengthen self-control. While it may be hard to see the direct correlation between these tasks and less aggression, I’m curious to try them out and see if I notice a difference.
If anything, his research shows that blood sugars really do play a big role in emotions and aggression and that people with diabetes are at a greater risk for aggression, mood swings, and less self-control which can cause relationship problems, depression, and a lot of other emotional grievances.
It’s important that we recognize this and talk about it.
Don’t ever discuss anything important with anyone, and especially a spouse, while your blood sugar is low… or very high for that matter. Things will work out better in the end if you take a break to treat your blood sugar and continue a discussion later
Work with your diabetes team to achieve the best diabetes control possible
Talk with loved ones about how blood sugars can affect your mood
Don’t be ashamed if you let a low blood sugar get the better of you. As we say with diabetes management in general, “Fix it and move on.” Apologize if need be but don’t dwell
Annette Valle is a registered nurse and certified diabetes educator who also serves as an English/Spanish medical language interpreter. She has lived with T1D since age 13. Annette has personal experience and is certified to train on all models of insulin pumps, CGMs and hybrid closed loop systems.