Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar can cause frequent urination, increased thirst, and feelings of being weak or tired. In those with diabetes, it can also have much more serious consequences, including seizures.
Wondering how to know if you or a loved one may be at risk for complications of high blood sugar? Read on to learn more about the surprising relationship between hyperglycemia and seizures.
Can High Blood Sugar Cause a Seizure?
Though hyperglycemia is a common complication of certain health conditions like diabetes and PCOS, others can experience it. Lifestyle factors like diet, body weight, stress levels, physical activity, and certain medications all play a role in your blood sugar levels as well.
So why is high blood sugar linked to seizures? Studies show that high blood sugar can increase the excitability of neurons in the brain. When this occurs, it can disrupt signaling in the brain and cause seizure activity.
Research suggests that hyperglycemia causes a decrease in levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is a neurotransmitter that prevents or blocks chemical messages and decreases stimulation of nerve cells in the brain.
Having lower levels of GABA is known to result in seizures in some cases.
Types of Seizures Linked To Hyperglycemia
Seizures associated with high blood sugar are considered provoked epileptic seizures, and do not necessarily mean you have epilepsy.
The most common types of seizures that affect people with hyperglycemia are:
Hyperglycemia has been observed to lower the seizure threshold. However, the exact link between hyperglycemia and seizures is not entirely understood and still the subject of research.
Can Low Blood Sugar Cause a Seizure?
Extremely low blood sugar, also called hypoglycemia, can also lead to certain complications, including generalized seizures. Studies show that a seizure due to low blood sugar is most likely to happen during sleep, and is more likely to happen to children than adults.
It’s not clear exactly why this happens, and some research shows that the incidence of seizure as a result of low blood sugar is rare. Some studies also suggest that hypoglycemia as a result of fasting can decrease the risk of seizures in adults.
More research in the field of neurology is still needed to determine the link between hypoglycemia and seizures.
The Two Types of Hyperglycemia that Cause Seizures
Let’s take a closer look at the causes and symptoms of these conditions.
Nonketotic hyperglycemia occurs when you have extremely high blood sugar levels without the presence of ketones. Ketones are chemicals in the body created when your body breaks down fat to use for energy. Nonketotic hyperglycemia is also called diabetic hyperglycemic hyperosmolar syndrome, or HHS.
HHS has a number of causes, and is usually seen in people with unmanaged type 2 diabetes. Diabetic hyperglycemia can be caused by infection, illnesses, some medications, or not taking prescribed diabetes medications.
Usually, your kidneys will make up for high blood sugar levels by sending excess glucose out of the body through urine. This also causes the body to lose a lot of water, leading to dehydration.
In some cases, high blood sugar levels can lead to nonketotic hyperglycemia-related seizures. These types of seizures are also referred to as focal seizures, which affect a certain area of the brain and can affect people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes mellitus.
Though researchers do not currently have proven hypotheses as to exactly how these seizures happen, it is estimated that about 25 percent of people who experience nonketotic hyperglycemia develop seizures.
If you have an abnormally high blood sugar reading, experience a loss of consciousness, or a seizure seek care from your doctor right away.
Ketotic hyperglycemia involves abnormally high blood sugar with the presence of ketones. Ketones, as mentioned earlier, are made when the body enters a state of ketosis and breaks down fat to use for energy.
Your body may do this when it does not have enough insulin to make use of glucose, which is your body’s normal source of energy. This can also happen if the body is producing insulin but it is unable to function normally at the receptor level. Normally, ketones are used by your muscles and heart.
But when your body creates ketones too quickly or in much higher amounts, these high concentrations of ketones can cause your blood to become acidic. This is a serious medical condition known as diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA.
DKA mostly affects people with type 1 diabetes, and is often the first sign of type 1 diabetes in people who have yet to be diagnosed. Infection, injury, illness, or missing doses of insulin can all lead to DKA.
Though the exact reason is unknown, people who experience DKA also may have seizures more frequently.
Important Warning Signs of a Seizure That May Be Caused by Hyperglycemia
Understanding the risk factors and early symptoms of hyperglycemia may help you avoid serious complications like seizures. These include:
- Frequent urination
- Increased thirst
- Blurred vision
- Feeling weak or unusually tired
- Elevated HBA1C levels (sometimes called A1C)
- Shortness of breath
- Fruity-smelling breath
- Dry mouth
If you experience any or all of these symptoms, seek care right away. You may also want to follow up with your healthcare provider frequently to monitor your blood sugar levels.
Treatment for Seizures Caused by Hyperglycemia
As we mentioned earlier, if you experience a seizure, you should seek medical attention immediately. A seizure may be a sign of severe hyperglycemia.
There are a few treatment options that can help treat hyperglycemia-induced seizures. These treatments may include:
- Intravenous fluid replacement, which will help replace fluids you’ve lost through urine and dilute the extra sugar in your blood.
- Electrolyte replacement, which will ensure your heart, muscles, and nerve cells work the way they should.
- Insulin therapy, which will reduce your blood sugar and reverse the processes that cause ketones to build up in the blood.
- Administration of antiepileptic drugs may be used in some cases.
- Glycemic control through diet and lifestyle changes may be recommended to lower blood sugar levels over time.
Hyperglycemia-induced seizures can sometimes lead to certain complications that can cause abnormalities in magnetic resonance brain scans and EEG changes. However, these are generally thought to be reversible.
After your immediate condition is addressed and treated, you should visit your healthcare provider to discuss next steps to avoid further complications of hyperglycemia. In some cases, seizures related to nonketotic hyperglycemia can lead to brain damage if left untreated.
Helpful Tips for Avoiding Hyperglycemia
Taking steps to manage and treat high blood sugar can help you avoid seizures caused by hyperglycemia. Talk to your doctor about how to keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range. Certain lifestyle and diet changes may also be beneficial.
Here are some helpful tips for maintaining a healthy blood sugar to avoid seizures and other serious complications
1) Physical Activity
Regular exercise can help your blood sugar in a healthy range. When you exercise, your body can make use of excess glucose for energy.
Moderate activity, like walking, stretching, and moderate weight lifting are most likely to have a positive effect on your blood sugar. However, you will want to check with your doctor before exercising if ketones are present in your urine.
2) Eat A Healthy Diet
Those with diabetes or insulin resistance may experience lower glucose tolerance and lower tolerance to higher carb-containing foods. Some research has shown that a lower-carb dietary approach may be beneficial for some. Here are some areas to focus on:
- Meeting your protein needs with nutrient-dense whole foods.
- Filling half your plate with nutrient-rich, non-starchy vegetables. These vegetables contain fiber and lower amounts of overall carbohydrates, which can help you maintain healthy blood sugar and support insulin sensitivity.
- Include plenty of healthy fats from foods like seeds, nuts, avocados, fatty fish like salmon, and olive oil.
- If you want to test how well you tolerate some carbs like whole grains, beans, or whole fruit, consider practicing meal sequencing.
- Minimize intake of added sugars, processed foods, and alcohol.
3) Check Your Blood Sugar Often
Checking your blood sugar often can help you know when your blood sugar is high enough to seek treatment. If you have diabetes, you may need to check your blood sugar more often.
Some people may choose to use a continuous glucose monitor, or CGM, which is a small, painless device that attaches to your arm. A CGM allows you to see your blood sugar levels in real-time throughout the day.
4) Seek Advice From Your Healthcare Provider
Following your doctor's instructions is crucial to maintaining a healthy blood sugar and treating any potential complications that may arise. This may include taking all prescribed medications as instructed, exercising regularly, and following a low-glycemic diet.
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Heather has worked in healthcare and nutrition for over 15 years, with bachelor's degrees in Microbiology and Philosophy and a master's degree in Nutrition Science. Her professional background includes nutrition and diabetes research, nutrition education, medical writing, and extensive clinical work in a functional neuroendocrine specialty practice.