By Dr. Peter Klapper Ph.D.
Today more than 37.3 million Americans (11.3% of the population) suffer from diabetes. If you or someone you know lives with diabetes, you understand how life changing this disease can be and how it can be difficult to live with this “new normal.” Between managing your insulin administration to control your blood sugars to watching what you eat, diabetes is a lot to manage. That’s why for “Diabetes Awareness Month,” we want to share ways you can help manage diabetes to avoid serious complications.
What is Diabetes?
Anytime you eat, your body breaks down most of the food into sugar (aka glucose) and releases it into your bloodstream. The minute that glucose is released, and your blood sugar goes up, your body tells the pancreas to release insulin so that your cells can use it as energy. This is how the body is supposed to work but isn’t the case for someone with diabetes.
If you have diabetes, the body isn’t releasing insulin properly or just isn’t making enough. When this happens, too much sugar stays in the bloodstream, and over time can cause serious health issues such as heart disease, vision loss, kidney disease, etc. What determines your body’s lack of insulin production can be autoimmune or an issue that develops as you age. Since these are separate causes, a diagnosis of diabetes is split into two types.
Type 1 vs Type 2
Type 1 diabetes is chronic condition that is thought to be autoimmune, meaning that the body mistakenly attacks itself. Typically, type 1 diabetes is diagnosed in children and young adults and occurs when the immune system attacks the beta cells in the pancreas that makes insulin.
Those who are at risk with type 1 tend to be those with a family history of type 1 diabetes and while it can appear at any time, two noticeable peaks are between the ages of four and seven and 10 and 14. Sadly, there is currently no cure for type 1 diabetes.
Unlike type 1, type 2 isn’t autoimmune but caused by insulin resistance, which means that the muscle, liver and fat cells do not use insulin well. Because of this, your body creates more insulin to help glucose enter cells, essentially wearing out the pancreas from overuse and resulting in an increase in blood sugar levels.
Risk factors are attributed to being overweight, genetics, and lifestyle. It’s important to note that that while type 1 currently doesn’t have a cure, type 2 can be prevented or reversed by healthy changes such as diet, physical activity, and losing weight.
Long Term Complications
As with any health concern, if you don’t manage your disease with medication or lifestyle changes, you are more at risk for complications. For those with diabetes, long-term complications can look like the following:
If a diabetic’s blood sugars don’t stay under control, their vision can be impacted. Consistent high blood sugars can cause blurry vision, cataracts, glaucoma, and retinopathy. However, all of this can be preventable by having yearly checkups with your eye doctor.
Foot Pain / Diabetic Neuropathy
Feet problems are a common complication that diabetics are warned about due to damaged nerves in the feet and legs from diabetic neuropathy, a condition in which nerves are damaged by poorly managed diabetes. On top of experiencing nerve pain, if a diabetic experiences a cut or sore, it can easily get infected because they have lost feeling in their feet from damaged nerve endings. If left untreated, these foot problems can lead to amputation.
Another complication in the feet stems from poor blood flow and the risk of developing ulcers due to the lack of blood. If you notice that your pain or sores aren’t improving, reach out to your doctor for further assessment.
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Long bouts of high blood sugars can also cause a lot of stress on the heart. When a diabetic’s blood sugars are consistently high, blood vessels can become damaged putting diabetics more at risk for strokes and heart attacks.
Weakened Immune System
Diabetes naturally weakens your immune system, which puts diabetics more at risk for serious complications from common infections. During the recent pandemic, diabetics were more at risk to have severe symptoms for this very reason.
Depression and Anxiety
Most chronic health conditions go hand-in-hand with depression and anxiety. In fact, people with diabetes are two to three times more likely to have depression than people without diabetes.
Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA)
DKA is a very serious and life-threatening complication that diabetics face. According to the CDC, it develops when the body doesn’t have enough insulin to allow blood sugar into cells for use as energy. Instead, your liver breaks down fat for fuel, a process that produces acids called ketones. When too many ketones are produced too fast, they can build up to dangerous levels in your body.
Diabetics are also at risk for kidney disease due diabetic nephropathy. This condition is caused by poorly controlled diabetes that damages blood vessel clusters in your kidneys that filter waste from your blood. This can lead to kidney damage and cause high blood pressure.
How To Manage Your Diabetes
While diabetics are at risk for a lot of serious complications, the list we provided above can be avoided by properly taking care of yourself and your health. The most important thing a diabetic can do is keep their blood sugar in a healthy range. This can be done using medication, maintaining a healthy diet, not smoking, keeping in regular communication with your doctor, and physical activity.
It’s also imperative to be proactive and stay on top of your blood sugars by testing often. By using a glucose monitor, diabetics can test their sugars to make sure they stay in a healthy range. If they are low or high, measures can be taken to regulate them quickly.
By Dr. Peter Klapper Ph.D.