During digestion, your body breaks down carbohydrates from foods — such as bread, rice and pasta — into various sugar molecules. One of these sugar molecules is glucose, a main energy source for your body. Glucose is absorbed directly into your bloodstream after you eat, but it can't enter the cells of most of your tissues without the help of insulin — a hormone secreted by your pancreas.
When the level of glucose in your blood rises, it signals your pancreas to release insulin. The insulin, in turn, unlocks your cells so that glucose can enter and provide the fuel your cells need to function properly. Any extra glucose is stored in your liver and muscles in the form of glycogen.
This process lowers the amount of glucose in your bloodstream and prevents it from reaching dangerously high levels. As your blood sugar level returns to normal, so does the secretion of insulin from your pancreas.
Diabetes drastically diminishes the effects of insulin on your body, either because your pancreas is unable to produce enough insulin (type 1 diabetes) or because your body is resistant to the effects of insulin or doesn't produce enough insulin to maintain a normal glucose level (type 2 diabetes). As a result, glucose tends to build up in your bloodstream (hyperglycemia) and may reach dangerously high levels if not treated properly. Insulin or other drugs are used to lower blood sugar levels.
Factors that contribute to hyperglycemia
Many factors can contribute to hyperglycemia, including:
- Not using enough insulin or oral diabetes medication
- Not injecting insulin properly or using expired insulin
- Not following your diabetes eating plan
- Being inactive
- Having an illness or infection
- Using certain medications, such as steroids
- Being injured or having surgery
- Experiencing emotional stress, such as family conflict or workplace challenges
Illness or stress can trigger hyperglycemia because hormones produced to combat illness or stress can also cause your blood sugar to rise. Even people who don't have diabetes may develop hyperglycemia during severe illness. But people with diabetes may need to take extra diabetes medication to keep blood glucose near normal during illness or stress.
April 18, 2015
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- Your guide to diabetes: Type 1 and type 2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/type1and2/index.aspx. Accessed March 24, 2015.
- McCulloch DK. Management of persistent hyperglycemia in type 2 diabetes mellitus. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed March 24, 2015.
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- Steele AM, et al. Prevalence of vascular complications among patients with glucokinase mutations among prolonged, mild hyperglycemia. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2014;311(3):279.
- Standards of medical care in diabetes — A position statement of the American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Care. 2015;38(suppl):S33.
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