Hypoglycemia unawareness

Endocr Rev. 1991 Nov;12(4):356-71. doi: 10.1210/edrv-12-4-356.


Hypoglycemia unawareness can occur in diabetic as well as nondiabetic individuals. A single causative mechanism for its occurrence is not yet apparent. It is likely to be multifactorial but current evidence favors a major role for some type of CNS adaptation. Certainly in some instances, classic autonomic neuropathy could be a contributory factor in patients with longstanding diabetes. Most, if not all, individuals with this condition have reduced plasma epinephrine and/or norepinephrine responses during mild hypoglycemia. Although it may be difficult to distinguish between mere reductions in the magnitude of a response and a true alteration in the threshold to initiate that response, four studies (44, 59, 65, 86) have provided evidence for an increase in the threshold (greater hypoglycemia required) for activation of counterregulatory hormone secretion associated with reduced awareness of hypoglycemia; in one study (44), diabetic patients had developed abnormalities with improved glycemic control after intensive insulin therapy; in another study (59), diabetic patients had recurrent hypoglycemia but did not differ in glycemic control (as assessed by glycosylated hemoglobin values) from subjects aware of hypoglycemia. In the two other studies, patients with impaired counterregulatory hormone responses and hypoglycemia unawareness had lower glycosylated hemoglobin levels than the other patients (65, 86). Altered tissue sensitivity to catecholamines seems unlikely to provide a primary explanation since not all symptoms are adrenergic and since, as mentioned earlier, most patients with this condition have reduced or delayed catecholamine responses to hypoglycemia, which in themselves could explain reduced awareness of hypoglycemia. Furthermore, patients with diabetic autonomic neuropathy have been reported to have increased sensitivity to catecholamines (143). One frequent observation, dating back to the early descriptions of hypoglycemia unawareness (17-19), is that patients with this condition have had frequent episodes of hypoglycemia. Although it is easy to envision how reduced warning symptoms could result in development of severe hypoglycemia, it is quite possible that frequent episodes of hypoglycemia themselves might initiate the process. For example, as depicted in Fig. 4, episodes of mild hypoglycemia occurring in insulinoma patients, diabetic patients undergoing intensive insulin therapy, or patients with longstanding diabetes complicated by autonomic neuropathy and impaired glucagon secretion could lead to CNS adaptation.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Central Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Diabetes Complications
  • Diabetes Mellitus / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemia / diagnosis*
  • Hypoglycemia / etiology
  • Hypoglycemia / physiopathology
  • Insulin / adverse effects
  • Insulin / therapeutic use


  • Insulin