Diabetes is a life-altering diagnosis that affects 1 in 10 Americans. When you consider its far-reaching impact on the body’s regenerative capacity, its frightening to realize that 1 in 5 people with diabetes don’t know they have it and almost 100 million Americans are pre-diabetic.
Join us as we explore how diabetes affects so many different aspects of your health and well-being and gain insights to lead a more vibrant, resilient life.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic (long-lasting) disease that affects how your body uses sugar.
Essentially, your digestive system breaks down most of the food you eat into glucose (sugar). That sugar enters your bloodstream to be disbursed among your cells.
In non-diabetics, rising blood sugar causes your body to signal your pancreas to release insulin. This hormone acts as a “key” to “unlock” cells and push glucose inside to make energy.
But when you have diabetes, your body either can’t make or can’t use insulin effectively. In either case, sugar builds up in your bloodstream, potentially leading to serious – even life-threatening – complications like vision and limb loss, heart disease, and kidney disease.
Types, Causes, and Risk Factors of Diabetes
The WHO estimates that some 422 million people globally have diabetes, with some 37 million adults in the U.S. living with the disease. But not everyone has the same kind of diabetes.
Type 1 Diabetes
In Type 1 diabetes, your body doesn’t produce enough (or any) insulin. Generally, this disease is more common in children and young adults.
Experts believe Type 1 diabetes is essentially an autoimmune response that causes the body to attack its own pancreas. In some cases, the disease is hereditary (passed down in families). You may also be at greater risk if you live in a country with higher rates of diabetes.
Type 2 Diabetes
In Type 2 diabetes, your cells become resistant to insulin, and your pancreas may not make enough to overcome this resistance. Type 2 is the most common type of diabetes (comprising 90-95% of all cases) and is historically more common in adults.
Unlike Type 1, Type 2 diabetes is largely linked to your lifestyle. You may be at greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes if you:
- Are overweight or obese
- Live a sedentary lifestyle
- Eat foods with a high glycemic index
- Suffer from high blood pressure
- Have high cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides (fat) in your blood
Occasionally, lifestyle isn’t the only determinant and other factors such as age, genetics, ethnicity, and co-morbidities like PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) can play a role.
Gestational diabetes occurs when a pregnant woman develops diabetes as a result of changing pregnancy hormones leading to high blood sugar. While the condition can vanish after giving birth, it can increase your chances of developing Type 2 diabetes later. Currently, the exact cause is unknown, but risk factors may include:
- Being over 25
- Being overweight prior to pregnancy
- Having had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy
- A family or personal history of pre-diabetes or Type 2 diabetes
Pre-diabetes isn’t technically diabetes – but it means you are living on the edge. You may receive a pre-diabetes diagnosis if your blood sugar is too high to be healthy, but not high enough for a Type 2 diagnosis. However, considering it’s caused by the same underlying derangement – resistance to insulin, it means things are already going wrong with glucose regulation and urgent action is needed.
Uncontrolled Diabetes and the Body
Many diabetics manage and control their condition through a combination of diet, exercise, and medication. But when diabetes rampages unchecked, it can lead to severe complications like:
- Cardiovascular problems, including coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, or narrowed arteries (atherosclerosis)
- Nerve damage (neuropathy) caused by excess sugar damaging the blood vessels that feed your nerves
- Foot damage or numbness resulting from neuropathy, poor circulation, or ulcers
- Kidney damage (nephropathy), kidney failure, or irreversible end-stage kidney disease resulting from excess blood damaging your filtering system
- Skin conditions, including infections, boils, styes, and ulcers
- Eye damage, including diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, glaucoma, and vision loss
- Age- and diabetes-related mental decline like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
How is Diabetes Treated?
Diabetic treatment plans may vary based on the type and severity of the diagnosis. Common elements of many treatment plans include:
- Monitoring your blood sugar levels
- Counting your carbohydrate intake
- Administering insulin injections
- Taking oral medications
Types of Oral Medications
Aside from insulin, the type of medication a diabetic needs varies based on their situation and co-morbidities.
For instance, some medications are designed to remove sugar from your bloodstream. They may stimulate your pancreas to make more insulin, increase your sensitivity to insulin, or encourage your kidneys to discard sugar as waste.
Other medications lower the amount of sugar that enters your bloodstream. For example, some prevent your liver from releasing glucose or block enzymes that break down carbs.
Some diabetics may require meds to control cholesterol or high blood pressure. And many individuals with pre-diabetes or a comorbidity like PCOS take metformin to reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
The Role of Diet and Exercise
Healthy eating and regular physical activity are crucial components of managing AND preventing diabetes.
Incorporating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins into your diet can stabilize your blood sugar levels. Meanwhile, cutting back on saturated fats, refined carbs, and sweets reduces your chances of sugar spikes and complications.
Meanwhile, regular exercise can help lower your blood sugar by increasing insulin sensitivity and moving sugar into your cells. Most experts recommend getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day, or at least 150 minutes a week.
Is It Possible to Reverse a Diabetes Diagnosis?
Aside from gestational diabetes – which often disappears after giving birth – diabetes generally can’t be cured. However, some Type 2 or pre-diabetics may be able to “reverse” their diagnosis.
This happens when an individual sticks with their healthy diet long enough to get their diabetes under control. Eventually, they may no longer need medication to manage their condition, thereby going into remission. Whether this constitutes a “cure” is up for debate, as it’s possible for these individuals to re-develop diabetes later.
The key is to intervene before even pre-diabetes sets in by recognizing predictive biomarkers such as insulin resistance and glucose variability. Preventing disease rather than reacting after its already set in.
Diabetes Prevention and Management
Although there’s no cure for diabetes, the same healthy lifestyle choices that help treat diabetes can also prevent or reduce the severity of onset, including:
- Eating healthy and eating less
- Exercising at least 150 minutes each week
- Maintaining a healthy weight
Doctors may also prescribe a medication like metformin to reduce the risk of developing diabetes in high-risk patients.
Diabetes and Regeneration
Long-term, untreated or poorly managed diabetes can increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, vision loss, and organ damage. Not only that, but chronic high blood sugar levels can greatly impact your healing and aging processes.
For many diabetics, one of the most common complaints is how slowly their wounds heal. Unfortunately, diabetes – particularly untreated diabetes – greatly impacts your body’s ability to regenerate cells and heal wounds. This occurs via multiple mechanisms:
- Poor circulation. Diabetics are more likely to develop circulation problems like narrow blood vessels, thick blood, and reduced blood flow. This reduced blood flow makes it harder for your body to deliver essential cells and nutrients to wound sites.
- Slow immune system activation. Diabetes can weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s immune response to new wounds, translating to longer-lasting wounds.
- Increased inflammation. Diabetes increases your risk of body-wide inflammation. While some inflammation around a wound is expected, severe or long-lasting swelling can extend the wound’s “lifespan.”
- More infections. High blood sugar levels can nourish bacteria colonies, prevent immune cells from fighting off infections, and lead to complications like gangrene and sepsis.
But diabetics don’t just have to worry about slow-healing wounds. Because diabetic neuropathy often reduces sensation in the feet, you may not know you have a wound (or even an ulcer) at all. If an infection progresses far enough, a limb amputation may be required.
The problem is so prevalent (about 15% of diabetics develop foot ulcers) that diabetics are 15 times more likely to have a limb amputation due to ulcers than non-diabetics.
Diabetes and Aging
Both diabetes and aging can result in serious health complications, especially as your body becomes less able to fight pathogens and regenerate cells. Unfortunately, that means aging and diabetes can create a feedback loop, where the impacts of one drive complications with the other. In fact, many consider diabetes to be a form of accelerated aging.
For instance, aging is a well-known risk factor for developing:
- Cataracts, glaucoma, and vision loss
- Gum disease
- Nerve damage
- Balance problems
- A decreased ability to fight infection
- Problems in the bedroom
- Less dexterity in your hands or feet
- Memory problems like dementia or Alzheimer’s
Plus, the older you get, the more likely you are to die of problems stemming from heart disease, stroke, or high blood pressure, among other issues.
Unfortunately, complications from diabetes – particularly the long-term impacts of high blood sugar – can cause all these things, too. And the decreased ability to regenerate your tissues, similarly to aging, compounds the issue. And if you’re a diabetic, you may be much more likely to develop these problems as you age.
Aging Well with Diabetes
Currently, there’s no cure for diabetes or aging, But it’s often possible to prevent the onset of diabetes or temper its severity. The key is to live a healthy, conscientious lifestyle by:
- Sticking to your medication schedule
- Counting your carbs and watching your nutrient intake
- Managing your blood pressure and cholesterol through diet, exercise, and medication
- Refraining from or ceasing smoking
- Keeping up with your annual physicals, kidney checkups, and eye exams to detect and treat problems early
- Taking proper care of your teeth and gums, including brushing, flossing, and visiting the dentist
- Keeping your skin clean, clear, and wound-free
Done right, you can live a long life and age well while staving off the consequences of diabetes.
Diabetes can complicate the already-difficult process of aging. But with early detection, the disease isn’t just manageable – you can prevent it from developing and live a long, healthy, rich life filled with memories and laughter. Regular exercise, a clean diet, and regular medication can make that a reality. (Plus, those treatment options may help stave off age-related diseases, too.)