What Is Dextrose and How Is It Used?

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What’s in a name? Turns out a lot. Especially if you’re sugar.

The sweet stuff goes by a slew of different names (as many as 56!) but turns out not all sugars are bad for you. Dextrose, for one, can potentially save your life.

Here’s the sugary scoop on dextrose: what it is, how it’s used, side effects, and why you should take note — especially if you’re living with diabetes.

Glucose, dextrose, fructose, sucrose, lactose, maltose… sugars may seem complicated, but sometimes they’re simple — literally.

Dextrose is what’s dubbed a ‘simple sugar’ and is made from corn (plus sometimes other veggies). Like other sugars, it’s used in food, most commonly baked goods.

But it’s also used in medicine, which is where things get interesting — or, not so simple.

The breakdown

Your body breaks down ‘simple sugars’ quickly and converts them into energy.

Of the 50-plus names for sugar, three are key here: dextrose, glucose, and fructose. All are simple sugars, but have some important differences.

Standard table sugar contains both fructose (about 50 percent) and glucose. But your body processes the two very differently.

Glucose is essentially blood sugar, so most cells in your body can metabolize it super easily.

Fructose — not so much. It gets processed by your hard-working liver which converts it into glucose so your body and brain can use it.

Dextrose is chemically identical to glucose. In science geek terms: Glucose appears in two different molecular arrangements known as isomers, namely L-glucose and D-glucose. D-glucose = Dextrose.

Dining on dextrose

Dextrose is used most often in food as a sweetener (surprise, surprise) but can also give goods a longer shelf life. Common dextrose culprits include: cookies, cakes, marshmallows, creams and fillings, cereals, and dried fruits.

So, simple sugars can convert to quick energy for your body: good. Eating too much (um, a dozen brownies): not good.

Your body uses what it needs for energy and stores the rest as fat. So ingesting too many dextrose-dosed red velvet cupcakes could be the reason your Lululemons are feeling a bit more snug than usual.

Too much simple sugar can also lead to a greater risk of more serious things like: diabetes, heart disease, and even depression. So it’s important to balance the upsides with the potential downsides.

Dextrose isn’t just a staple in the bakery aisle of your local market. It can also be found in hospitals, where it’s used to treat several conditions, namely:

  • dangerously low blood sugar
  • dehydration
  • lack of nutrition (essentially a solution containing dextrose, amino acids, and fats — called a TPN — is given to help people get nutrients when they can’t get ’em through foods)

Since it’s “simple” sugar, the body can quickly tap into it for energy — sort of the way a kid taps into their Halloween stash and then spins like the Tasmanian Devil for 24 hours.

While we’ve given ‘sugar rush’ a bad name, there are times when your body needs a quick dose of energy — and dextrose can be the answer.

A proper dosage typically administered through IV can be the quick fix the body needs (when medically necessary), especially for people unable to absorb carbohydrates, amino acids, and fats.

When someone with diabetes has been skipping meals or exercising more than usual, their blood sugar levels may drop. In mild cases, you can follow your normal plan of action.

But more significant blood sugar drops are dangerous and can land you in the hospital. Enter: dextrose.

Dextrose injections of 50 percent followed by insulin are also given to those with hyperkalemia, a condition that happens when levels of potassium in the body skyrockets.

Again, in science geek terms, here’s what happens: When dextrose is injected, it feeds body cells with glucose. But this also delivers a dose of potassium (kinda like a BOGO offer) that helps lower blood potassium levels. In just one shot, the person’s condition improves without going hypoglycemic.

It’s also given intravenously to dialysis patients to prevent hyperkalemia.

When it comes to treating hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, dextrose comes up top compared to its sugary counterparts, like glucagon.

Studies compared IV administration of both glucagon and dextrose to people with diabetes treated with insulin, and discovered that those given dextrose woke up and regained control of their body faster than those who were given glucagon. Yay! #teamdextrose

You may be wondering if it’s necessary to keep running to hospitals to get your shot of dextrose. Nope, you don’t need to. *Except* in an emergency.

People who are aware of their diabetes or hypoglycemic conditions may keep a stash of dextrose gel or tablets (which are inexpensive and readily available) for when the need arises, especially when they find that their blood sugar drops under 70 mg/dL.

These dextrose gel solutions also come in handy (and are maybe even better than IV dextrose) when treating hypoglycemic newborns, as the latter gets in the way of parent-infant bonding. Word to the wise: Not all newborn hypoglycemia can be treated with dextrose gel, so talk to a doc.

While dextrose can be prescribed for people with diabetes, it doesn’t come risk-free. It may increase blood sugar too much and raise levels sky high. When this happens, hyperglycemia may strike.

Symptoms may include:

  • sudden or excessive thirst and dehydration
  • nausea or vomiting
  • shortness of breath
  • confusion
  • upset or crampy stomach
  • a frequent need to pee
  • diarrhea
  • swelling
  • dry skin

Dextrose safety tips

Given the potential ups and possible downs, dextrose should be administered by a trained medical professional or with caution. After taking dextrose tablets, it’s recommended that you check your blood sugar immediately. If the outlook isn’t good, it’s a sign that you’ll need to adjust insulin intake to lower your blood sugar. Check with your doctor for the proper training and tools.

If you experience bad side effects, get some medical help pronto. If these symptoms occur, that’s when you know things aren’t going well — and fast:

  • Signs of a bad allergic reaction. Think: rash, hives, blisters, trouble breathing, or swelling of the throat, tongue, and face.
  • The room is spinning. Enter dizziness, lightheadness, or feeling like you’re blacking out.
  • Persistently low blood sugar. This is blood sugar that stay lows even after taking two doses of a dextrose tablet.

If you experience any other worrying side effects, call your doctor or get medical care ASAP.

Dextrose is generally known to be quite harmless when used with other drugs.

Even so, tell your doctor if you’re taking any other medications on the side and they’ll know when not to prescribe dextrose.

Do’s:

  • Tell your doctor if you have a dextrose allergy. Because duh, you’ll need to alert them if something can potentially put your life in danger.
  • Follow the instructions if it’s a chewable dextrose tablet you’re taking. Chew. That. Damn. Tablet. DO NOT swallow it whole.
  • Keep your doctor in the loop. If you’ve been experiencing hypoglycemia, your symptoms should go away after 10 minutes. You may want to take another dose of dextrose if symptoms persist, but if not, seek medical help immediately.

Don’ts:

  • Don’t reach for that dextrose tablet if you have hyperglycemia, peripheral edema, or suffer from low potassium.
  • Don’t neglect to tell your doctor if you have health problems such as bleeding in the brain or spine, severe dehydration, or difficulty peeing. Dextrose isn’t a good fit with all these issues and may endanger your life.
  • Don’t offer it to children. Or during Halloween. Dextrose is NOT candy. Period.

tl;dr

  • Dextrose is a simple sugar made from corn and other veggies and found in baked goods and other yummy foods. Because it’s a simple sugar, the body can easily convert it into energy.
  • Dextrose is also used medically to treat people with low blood sugar and dehydration. It’s administered via IV in hospitals, but can also be taken on your own in gel or tablet form to raise low blood sugar.
  • You must monitor your blood sugar levels closely when using dextrose to prevent them from skyrocketing. When used safely and smartly, dextrose can be a life saver for those living with diabetes.
  • Dextrose, like anything else, isn’t a cure-all. Make sure you’re working with your doctor to manage your diabetes, follow a proper diet, and prevent hypoglycemia episodes.

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