Shopoglycemia: Low Blood Sugar in the Supermarket



Two years ago my daughter ran away from me in a store while I was suffering from low blood sugar. One minute she was beside me as I fumbled for glucose tablets and drank juice. The next minute she was gone. She was three years old at the time. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind while low to check the toy department first. That’s where I found her, on a shelf of an endcap and behind some toys.

My daughter, now five, has sensory processing issues that cause her anxiety in public places and it can be hard to engage her attention. I long for the day when I might explain to her that she should stay by my side until I recover from hypoglycemia or that she should ask for help from a stranger, but she is not there yet. She doesn’t understand the threat of a low blood sugar. We’ve talked about 911 and she knows that I need glucose when low, but she doesn’t have a frame of reference for me actually not being able to help myself because she’s always seen me recover. And in stressful situations, due to her particular special needs, she shuts down.

Being a parent and being a person with diabetes are not always conducive. My decisions about my care – short term and long term – affect the safety, security, happiness, and well-being of my children. A failure to eat the food I dosed for in a timely manner because I had to change a diaper and then clean up a messy highchair suddenly becomes a situation where my children are in danger of Mom passing out. A slip of the memory to dose insulin before a meal and I’m feeling too high and sick to play and I’m edgy and curt with my kids. But for me, it’s the weekly grocery shopping trip that represents the heart of parenting with diabetes.

I have a lot of low blood sugars at the supermarket despite my best precautions, like lowering my basal rate before I leave and snacking on glucose tablets as I stroll the aisles. Like so many activities in diabetes, the same management techniques don’t necessarily work for me every time. An ongoing joke in the online community is that Target must pump insulin through the air vents.

Melissa Lee - Supermarket

Shopping doesn’t count as intense activity, by any means, but the walking and cart-pushing are a calorie burn, nonetheless, and between my diabetes and the added responsibility of parenting young children, the act of grocery shopping continues to vex me.

As you can imagine, suffering a hypo while alone in public can be scary, but suffering from a hypo while alone in public with my kids is something else entirely. Two recent shopping trips illustrate the difference between my needs as a type 1 in a supermarket and my needs as a parent with type 1 in a supermarket.

Trip number 1 – alone. A particularly bad drop had me sitting on aisle 8 for over half an hour while I recovered. I had my Nightscout rig (cloud CGM software) reporting my Dexcom data back to my husband at home. I had my phone with me. I drank a juice I hadn’t paid for yet. I ate a snack from the shopping cart. Thirty minutes of sitting on aisle 8 looking to the outside world as though I really couldn’t pick a bag of rice. People walked past me. I could have grabbed any one of them and asked for help, but I was okay. It was scary, my low brain wondering “what if?” and feeling out of sorts. But I had someone who knew where I was and that I was hypoglycemic, I had access to food and drink, I was telling everyone on Facebook about being stranded by my low. I knew I would be all right soon though. I was following standard protocol: check, treat, and wait, hoping you don’t lose yourself.

Trip number 2 – alone with my daughter. A particularly bad drop again. She kept trying to run from me. I was panicked. I made her sit in time-out in front of a display and I ran to grab a bottle of juice from a nearby shelf. I was seeing spots. I tried to keep talking to her. I gauged her understanding of the situation. She didn’t comprehend why we couldn’t move on, so we argued. I ate a snack from the cart and drank the juice. She was antsy. I was frustrated. But mostly, I was terrified to lose her.

And that’s the difference. In one scenario, I’m able to maintain responsibility for myself even with a loss of control. It’s what we spend our lives with diabetes preparing to handle. In another scenario, my heart is beating outside of my body and I can’t hold on to it. My blood sugar affects the safety of the things I treasure most in the entire world.

There is no easy, predictable solution to blood glucose management. Highs and lows happen. Every time I visit my endo and her nurse (who does not have much knowledge about the particulars of type 1) asks if I’m having any lows, I say “yes, ever since diagnosis.” The goal of normoglycemia is a nirvana that we reach toward, of course. “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for,” right? To dismiss my parenting-with-diabetes dilemmas as the story of someone not tightly managed is to misunderstand the volatility of the disease. I’m tightly controlled, but this is the nature of type 1 diabetes. Keeping blood sugars in a healthy target range necessarily means that it’s easy to step just below the threshold into hypoglycemia.

I’d like to tell you that I’ve solved shopping-related low blood sugar (shopoglycemia?), but I haven’t. Each week marches on and the milk and coffee must be replenished. Sometimes the children can stay home with Daddy, but sometimes it’s important that I try with them again, that I continue living and parenting and gauging my little one’s ability to follow my directions. Diabetes does not stop me, but someday, when that long-promised cure comes, I’ll be running to the market. I might just race my kids there.

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1 year ago

This is so me! I don’t have diabetes, I have reactive hypoglycemia. Seems like it’s a shopping roulette. I don’t know if it’s the yummy food I see, so my body puts out a bolus of insulin to prepare for the goodies my brain and tummy want to consume or I have lost track of time and it’s been too long since I’ve eaten. Drops with my kids is scary to say the least. I have to hope for decent people around me to help sometimes. My son is very helpful. He knows what I need mid confusion and shaking.… Read more »

Myra Shoub
Myra Shoub
4 years ago

Oy. I have spent hours in a store unable to decide on buying anything. Inevitably it is caused by low glucose. Don’t let me loose in Target or Macy’s – I walk too far and tank.

4 years ago

I am the same way when I shop. My blood sugar drops so quickly that it can be scary as I feel my hands and face go numb. I do not want to look like a thief so it stops me from grabbing something off the shelves and eat. I often have to eat candy while shopping because of my shopglycemia. My sister thinks it is because of all the sensory information overloading me. Good to hear that someone else is like me.

6 years ago

Thanks for writing about this! My kids are now grown, but I remember when this used to happen.

I’m so happy to know that others get low in Target!! What is it about those big stores that do that – Home Depot too… Funny, but really, what is going on? I don’t think it’s just the size, because it’s not after I’ve been there for a long time.

Let me know if you figure it out!

6 years ago

About 24 years ago, I was shopping the same grocery chain my son now works for, except that he was a 1-year old and I was hypoglycemic. I got too low too fast and I actually had the presence of mind to grab something sweet off the shelf. I unwrapped it and ate it. Once my blood sugar normalized, I went and paid for the groceries in my cart, including what I had eaten while still shopping. The manager told me it would always be fine to eat something if I had an emergency and pay for it after I… Read more »

Valerie Heffron
6 years ago

I have never been one to “Go Shopping” with friends, because I just hate it, especially trying clothes on…it only occurred to me a few years ago it’s the hypoglemia that keeps me from shopping. As the years go by I realize how many things I stopped doing to avoid hypoglycemia.

6 years ago

It is comforting to know that I am not the only one who gets low in the grocery store. This helped me get it in perspective.

6 years ago

Holding my breath while reading. And thinking… Do the kids wear any kind of ID? Just a thought.
Our youngest disappeared once while visiting relatives at a farm – I was petrified. I can’t imagine how scary it is for you when your BG refuses to cooperate with being a Mom.

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