Understanding and Resolving Common Hypoglycemia with Chinese Medicine
By E Douglas Kihn, OMD, LAc
Common hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is a condition that is increasingly common in the U.S. and other places that are strongly influenced by modern American culture. Every experienced practitioner of Chinese medicine in America has treated many patients with this
condition, although this problem is not yet all that common in most parts of the world, nor
has it been a common occurrence throughout history.
Common hypoglycemia is currently considered incurable by Western medical experts. As we shall see, this opinion
is not an accurate one.
Let us begin by examining the symptoms of common hypoglycemia from a Western medical viewpoint, as well as through the practical lens of Chinese medicine.
Then we’ll take a look at current approaches to the treatment of this increasingly common disorder.
Symptoms of Common Hypoglycemia
Difficulties seem to arise after a few hours of fasting, i.e. abstaining from food.
The usual symptoms of hypoglycemia are the following.
- shaking of the upper extremities
- dizziness or light-headedness
From a Western medical perspective
From a Western medical point of view, the diagnosis and the control of symptoms for common hypoglycemia are simple. Blood sugar, which is called glycogen, supplies nutrients to each cell of the body. When the blood runs low on this fuel, the cells start going haywire, causing
hypoglycemic symptoms. Blood tests will also indicate that the blood is deficient in glycogen.
The conventional answer is to give the blood a continuous steady supply of glycogen. This is accomplished with a two-pronged strategy.
First, patients are advised to consume food many times per day. The usual frequency is five to seven meals daily.
Second, patients are asked to change their diets to include more foods that do not spike the glycogen content of the blood. Spiking the blood with high concentrations of blood sugar has an after effect of dropping the blood sugar content precipitously, bringing on symptoms of hypoglycemia. The preferred foods are called low glycemic foods and are found on a list called the glycemic index.
In this way, the symptoms of common hypoglycemia can be mostly controlled.
From a Chinese medical perspective
The genius of Chinese medical theory lies in the fact that it connects everything into a comprehensible whole, allowing practitioners to see the Big Picture. That allows us to relieve symptoms, break up chronic syndromes, and discover and fix ultimate causes.
In every single case of common hypoglycemia, patients have become victims of what can be termed the "American Syndrome." For details, see the Acupuncture.com article
The American Syndrome.
Economic and cultural imperatives over the last three decades have shoved many Americans into lives filled with hurrying and worrying. Both of these habits create excess yang in the form of heat rising into the upper body. As the heat rises, it creates turbulence, which we call internal wind. Wind can be defined as uncontrolled and purposeless movement or its corollary, absolute stillness, similar to atmospheric wind or stillness.
The energy most affected is your Chinese liver (gan).
This liver wind is a nasty business, and can easily confuse and scatter the qi and blood of the upper body and the head, causing shaking, dizziness, and fainting. Qi is that substance which animates everything in the body, and when the qi is scattered and confused, the body has trouble moving, resulting in a weak feeling. The sudden rising of energy from the middle abdomen where the liver resides will pull the qi of the stomach upwards also, accounting for the feelings of nausea.
Rising liver wind can be deadly. The sudden violence is responsible, for example, for bursting blood vessels in the brains of stroke victims. Common hypoglycemia is, in a way, warning of a possible stroke in the person’s future.
How does hurrying and worrying cause liver yang rising and common hypoglycemia?
In modern physics as well as Chinese theory, excessive heat (yang) is the result of the friction generated by excessive movement, speed, and activity. Friction generates heat, simple as that.
We are warm-blooded creatures and heat is a good and necessary thing for us. But too much heat causes many kinds of medical problems, including all sorts of inflammatory conditions, autoimmune diseases, and manic disorders. These problems resulting from excessive internal heat are on the increase within our culture, with no signs of diminishing.
In every case of common hypoglycemia, there will be found strong evidence of this excess yang of internal heat and movement, generated by hurry and worry. As it rises, it creates the windy symptoms detailed above.
Hurrying is a general term that includes driving fast, talking fast, walking fast, working fast, multitasking, constant competition with others, engaging is excessive aerobic exercise, overwork, avoiding rest breaks, and especially depriving oneself of adequate sleep in the mistaken belief that accomplishing tasks, earning money, and/or serving others is more important than attending to one’s health. Hurrying and scurrying are considered virtues in modern American, while living life at a relaxed pace is seen as laziness and good-for-nothingness.
Worrying is as common is the USA as air. Many will confess to worrying all the time. Besides accomplishing nothing of value, worry and its relatives – anxiety, lingering fear, dread, frustration, resentment, guilt, and suppressed rage – are all stagnate emotions that result from obsessive thoughts –
qi - that do not pertain to the moment, but are stuck in the imaginary future or past. Since healthy
qi needs to keep moving forward through each moment of time, this stagnate
qi gets stuck at a barrier, upon which it grinds as it tries to break through or go around. This grinding action creates friction and heat, and the heat wants to rise up. As it does so, wind is generated.
Using Western medical terminology, we could explain it this way. Hurry
and worry force the adrenal glands that sit atop the kidneys to secret epinephrine in abnormal quantities throughout the day. Epinephrine, among other functions, stimulates insulin production so that ready fuel in the blood – glycogen- is carried into the body’s cells in preparation for fighting or fleeing. This continuous state of supposed "emergency" quickly exhausts the supply of glycogen stored in the muscles and liver, creating a temporary fuel deficit. The lack of glycogen for the cells of muscles and organs creates the frightening symptoms that constitute the hypoglycemic syndrome.
Problems with the standard treatment for common hypoglycemia
The standard mechanistic approach to this problem, which promotes the eating of "correct" food and eating it all day, inadvertently creates a vicious feedback loop that ensures the continuance of common hypoglycemia, worsens mental health, and can eventually develop into more serious health concerns such as diabetes 2 and stoke.
By eating five to seven meals daily, hypoglycemics never allow themselves to feel physical
hunger – an empty feeling in the stomach area that motivates and empowers animals and people to go to work for food. Never feeling that emptiness in the upper abdomen means that the body never wants food. Food unwanted by the body is not processed quickly or easily, setting up a situation of food stagnation. Stagnation of any sort picks up heat, and this extra heat adds to the overall symptoms of excess internal heat rising and wind.
Eating meals in the absence of hunger is a clear violation of the natural trust between body and mind. Lack of self-trust in deference to external authority lessens self-esteem and increases a general sense of insecurity and fear, exactly what hurried and worried Americans do not need.
The cells of the muscles, bones, connective tissues, and organs that are constantly bombarded with insulin, at a certain point refuse to accept any more insulin. Thus nutrition, including blood sugar, along with insulin, build up in the blood and the cells begin to starve. Diabetes type 2 is the result of this insulin refusal.
Rejection of excessive insulin commonly occurs in obese and overweight people who are constantly jammed with excessive nutrition, hence the high correlation between obesity and diabetes 2. But experts are mystified at outwardly lean people who develop diabetes 2. What goes unnoticed is that these people who are often treating their hypoglycemic symptoms with food all day are stuffed with food and insulin on the inside. And their wicked pace of life burns off calories like crazy, keeping them "lean" on the outside.
Eventually, the situation reaches a point where the lean tissues of the body say, "Enough is enough!" and the ironic 180 degree turnaround would be diabetes – also known as high blood sugar (hyperglycemia), the opposite of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
In Chinese theory, we would say that excess yin (material) in the form of food, which is used to calm
excess yang (heat and energy), causes excess yin in the blood. Our intention is to subdue this unhealthy yang with healthy yin in order to achieve
balance, always the goal in Chinese medicine.
The Chinese approach to common hypoglycemia
First of course, we want to relieve the symptoms, using our standard techniques of needles and herbs. There are some very effective acupoints on the arms, legs, and back that relieve the heat and wind which are causing the discomfort. Chinese herbology offers a huge selection of herbs and formulas – called
febrifugals - that cool internal heat and drain it safely out through the urine, as well as soothe the symptoms of internal wind.
We will also employ needles and herbs to remove the blockages of qi and food that add to the problem of pathogenic heat. These techniques will provide the added benefit of calming and relaxing the mind and body.
Also prescribed will be breathing exercises such as qi gong, tai qi, and yoga that effectively cool heat and release stagnation.
Addressing and eliminating the root causes of hurrying and worrying will require several sessions of wellness coaching. A central feature of wellness coaching for Americans will be a program such as Hunger Awareness Training, which will break the habit of using food as a mental and physical sedative. Instead, patients will gradually learn to replace the habits of hurrying, worrying, unnecessary eating with healthy habits that satisfy underlying physical and emotional needs, in combination with
generous helpings of self-awareness and Taoist philosophy – cornerstones of Chinese medicine.
E Douglas Kihn, Doctor of Oriental Medicine and Licensed Acupuncturist, is the author of
Chinese Medicine for Americans, and has been practicing Chinese medicine for over a quarter of a century on the Westside of Los Angeles. He can be reached through his website at