Hierarchy of physiological responses to hypoglycemia: relevance to clinical hypoglycemia in type I (insulin dependent) diabetes mellitus

Horm Metab Res. 1997 Mar;29(3):92-6. doi: 10.1055/s-2007-978997.


Hypoglycemia elicits a characteristic sequence of responses in healthy humans. These responses (and their arterialized venous glycemic thresholds) include: 1) Decreased insulin secretion (approximately 4.5 mmol/L). 2) Increased glucose counterregulatory hormone (glucagon, epinephrine, growth hormone and cortisol) secretion (approximately 3.6-3.8 mmol/L). 3) Symptoms of hypoglycemia (approximately 3.0 mmol/L). 4) Cognitive dysfunction (approximately 2.6 mmol/L). Thus, insulin secretion decreases as plasma glucose levels fall within the physiological range, and counterregulatory hormone secretion increases as plasma glucose levels fall just below the physiological range at substantially higher glucose levels than those required to produce symptoms and impair cognitive function. These data are entirely consistent with the body of evidence that insulin, glucagon and epinephrine stand high in the hierarchy of redundant glucoregulatory factors that prevent, as well as correct, hypoglycemia. When the same methods are used, these thresholds are remarkably reproducible from laboratory to laboratory. Nonetheless, the glycemic thresholds are dynamic rather than static. They vary in relation to recent antecedent glycemia. For example, lower plasma glucose concentrations are required to elicit autonomic, including epinephrine, and symptomatic responses in patients with well controlled IDDM, a phenomenon best attributed to recent antecedent iatrogenic hypoglycemia. This is the basis of the clinical syndrome of hypoglycemia unawareness, which is now known to be reversible with scrupulous avoidance of iatrogenic hypoglycemia. The latter also at least partially reverses reduced epinephrine responses to hypoglycemia, a key component (in the setting of absent glucagon responses) of the syndrome of defective glucose counterregulation. While perhaps seemingly adaptive, these threshold shifts appear to be maladaptive since both defective glucose counterregulation and hypoglycemia unawareness are associated with substantially increased rates of severe iatrogenic hypoglycemia in people with IDDM.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / blood
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / drug therapy
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / physiopathology*
  • Epinephrine / physiology
  • Glucagon / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemia / chemically induced
  • Hypoglycemia / physiopathology*
  • Insulin / adverse effects
  • Insulin / physiology
  • Insulin / therapeutic use
  • Perception


  • Insulin
  • Glucagon
  • Epinephrine