Iatrogenic hypoglycemia causes recurrent morbidity in most people with type 1 diabetes and many with type 2 diabetes, and it is sometimes fatal. The barrier of hypoglycemia generally precludes maintenance of euglycemia over a lifetime of diabetes and thus precludes full realization of euglycemia's long-term benefits. While the clinical presentation is often characteristic, particularly for the experienced individual with diabetes, the neurogenic and neuroglycopenic symptoms of hypoglycemia are nonspecific and relatively insensitive; therefore, many episodes are not recognized. Hypoglycemia can result from exogenous or endogenous insulin excess alone. However, iatrogenic hypoglycemia is typically the result of the interplay of absolute or relative insulin excess and compromised glucose counterregulation in type 1 and advanced type 2 diabetes. Decrements in insulin, increments in glucagon, and, absent the latter, increments in epinephrine stand high in the hierarchy of redundant glucose counterregulatory factors that normally prevent or rapidly correct hypoglycemia. In insulin-deficient diabetes (exogenous) insulin levels do not decrease as glucose levels fall, and the combination of deficient glucagon and epinephrine responses causes defective glucose counterregulation. Reduced sympathoadrenal responses cause hypoglycemia unawareness. The concept of hypoglycemia-associated autonomic failure in diabetes posits that recent antecedent hypoglycemia causes both defective glucose counterregulation and hypoglycemia unawareness. By shifting glycemic thresholds for the sympathoadrenal (including epinephrine) and the resulting neurogenic responses to lower plasma glucose concentrations, antecedent hypoglycemia leads to a vicious cycle of recurrent hypoglycemia and further impairment of glucose counterregulation. Thus, short-term avoidance of hypoglycemia reverses hypoglycemia unawareness in most affected patients. The clinical approach to minimizing hypoglycemia while improving glycemic control includes 1) addressing the issue, 2) applying the principles of aggressive glycemic therapy, including flexible and individualized drug regimens, and 3) considering the risk factors for iatrogenic hypoglycemia. The latter include factors that result in absolute or relative insulin excess: drug dose, timing, and type; patterns of food ingestion and exercise; interactions with alcohol and other drugs; and altered sensitivity to or clearance of insulin. They also include factors that are clinical surrogates of compromised glucose counterregulation: endogenous insulin deficiency; history of severe hypoglycemia, hypoglycemia unawareness, or both; and aggressive glycemic therapy per se, as evidenced by lower HbA(1c) levels, lower glycemic goals, or both. In a patient with hypoglycemia unawareness (which implies recurrent hypoglycemia) a 2- to 3-week period of scrupulous avoidance of hypoglycemia is advisable. Pending the prevention and cure of diabetes or the development of methods that provide glucose-regulated insulin replacement or secretion, we need to learn to replace insulin in a much more physiological fashion, to prevent, correct, or compensate for compromised glucose counterregulation, or both if we are to achieve near-euglycemia safely in most people with diabetes.
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