Diabetes Mellitus is a disease that does not always cause symptoms. In some cases, it can take years for people with diabetes to even be diagnosed or feel that anything is wrong.
This is because changes in blood sugar levels can take time, sometimes even decades, to cause real problems.
Keeping blood sugar in control is not just about seeing a normal lab test; it helps prevent and delay serious problems.
In this article, the short- and long-term complications of diabetes will be explored.
Short-term complications of diabetes
When thinking of diabetes problems, most people think of losing limbs or blindness, but these are long-term complications. In the short-term, diabetes can cause several issues. If not quickly treated, these short-term issues can turn into long-term problems.
Hypoglycemia, or a dangerous drop in blood sugar, can happen in those taking insulin or certain other diabetes medications. These medications work to treat high blood sugar, but if not used correctly can cause blood sugar to drop too low.
Mild hypoglycemia can cause hunger, nausea, dizziness, and irritability. Severe hypoglycemia can lead to nervous system problems, coma, and even death.
Once a blood sugar under 70mg/dl is noticed, about 15g of a fast-acting sugar such as skim milk or glucose tablets should be consumed quickly to bring blood sugar back into a normal range.
If there is no available insulin for the body to use, then there is no way for sugar to get out of the bloodstream and into cells. When this happens, blood sugar can rise very high, and the body will be starving for food.
Unable to get enough food, the body uses fat to make an alternate source of energy known as ketone bodies.
As the number of ketone bodies increases, the blood turns acidic and leads to a life-threatening condition known as diabetic ketoacidosis. This requires emergency care and insulin treatment. Diabetic ketoacidosis is more common in those with type 1 diabetes.
Hyperosmolar Hyperglycemic Non-Ketoic Syndrome
Illness or stress can cause blood sugars to spike. When blood sugars get very high, the body tries to get rid of the sugar by pulling the water of our cells and triggering more frequent urination.
This is known as a hyperosmolar hyperglycemic non-ketoic syndrome. This syndrome causes extreme thirst, dehydration, and disorientation.
Typically, IV fluids and insulin are required to correct this condition. Unlike diabetic ketoacidosis, there is still some insulin available to prevent a dangerous rise in ketone bodies. This syndrome is more common in type 2 diabetes.
How can short-term complications be prevented?
The above issues all result from either a dangerous rise or a drop in blood sugar. This can be prevented from more frequent monitoring of blood sugar levels.
In also important to seek medical treatment when blood glucose rises abnormally high, or you notice symptoms of disorientation and dehydration.
Long-term complications of diabetes
It is entirely normal to have some sugar, or glucose, in the blood. The body works hard to keep glucose within a certain range. However, blood glucose is toxic when it is too high for too long.
This excess glucose can go on to damage large blood vessels leading to significant organs (macrovascular complications), small blood vessels such as the ones in the eye (microvascular complications). The following long-term complications can develop over the years to decades.
Macrovascular complications typically involve one key process: atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is when a blockage is formed in a major blood vessel.
This blockage develops due to several factors: elevated glucose causes blood vessels to weaken and become narrower, elevated cholesterol leads to plaque buildup, and high blood pressure stiffens artery walls. Managing macrovascular complications involves excellent control of blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure.
Diabetic heart disease
The leading cause of death in those with diabetes is heart disease. Over time, high blood glucose can cause large blood vessels to weaken and become narrower. This, along with elevated cholesterol and blood pressure, puts those with diabetes at twice the risk of heart disease.
Peripheral artery disease
The blood vessels that run through the legs are known as peripheral arteries, and these are especially susceptible to damage from high blood glucose.
Although glucose is the preferred energy source of the brain, too much can lead to an interruption in blood flow to the brain or a stroke. Similar to cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol and blood pressure also increases the risk for stroke.
The smaller vessels that support many organs can be easily damaged, and are known as microvascular complications.
The vessels leading to the eyes become damaged when glucose is chronically high. This can lead to glaucoma (damaged optic nerve), cataracts (clouding of the eye), and eventually blindness. In the developed world, the most common cause of blindness is diabetes.
The kidneys, a pair of organs important in regulating fluid balance and filtering the blood, are also vulnerable to high blood sugars. When the kidneys become damaged, they lose their ability to remove toxins from the blood.
These toxins build up in the bloodstream, which is how medical providers monitor for signs of kidney damage. Over time, this can lead to complete kidney failure, which will require dialysis.
Diabetic peripheral neuropathy
Just like blood vessels, the body is lined with nerves. Damage to nerves by high blood glucose can cause a number of problems.
When nerves are impaired, you can suffer a wound and not know it is there. This happens most often in the nerves affecting the feet.
A foot wound that is not healing well and not noticed will lead to an infection that may require amputation. Nerve damage can also lead to neuropathic pain, often described as a tingling or burning sensation.
Diabetic autonomic neuropathy
Automatic neuropathy is damage to nerves that carry out involuntary functions, like digestion, breathing, blood flow, and bladder.
This can lead to several symptoms such as slowed digestion, constipation, problems with urination. Poor blood flow is also a common cause of sexual dysfunction such as erectile dysfunction.
More serious autonomic nerve problems include dangerous changes in heart rate and an inability to feel when blood glucose is too low.
How to prevent complications of diabetes
The old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” definitely holds true when speaking about diabetes.
The truth is, diabetes complications are often incurable, and the management involves slowing the rate of disease progression. Preventing these complications in the first place is the only way to treat them completely.
At the center of all, the above complications are blood glucose control. Blood glucose that is too high is the catalyst that leads to all the complications of diabetes.
When fasting, a normal blood glucose level is 80-130 mg/dl (4.4-7.2 mmol/L). After meals, the goal is <180 mg/dl (<10 mmol/L). Of course, other factors such as blood pressure and cholesterol are also important.
How can changes in diet prevent diabetes complications?
Diabetes is a condition that is tightly linked to diet because food directly impacts blood glucose control. Even small changes in eating habits can have a large impact on diabetes control.
In addition, making diet changes is the most effective way to control weight, and losing extra weight can indirectly improve blood glucose by helping the body use its insulin more effectively.
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are a fancy term for sugars and starches. Carb containing foods include starchy vegetables, grains, fruit, milk, yogurt, and sweets. Carbs are important to understand in diabetes because this nutrient directly breaks down into blood glucose.
It is not that carbs are evil; in fact, several sources of carbs such as sweet potatoes, berries, and oatmeal have health benefits. However, control of the number of carbs is important to maintain blood glucose control and prevent high blood sugar levels.
When creating a meal, think more about the overall composition and portions of the foods and less about the specific foods themselves.
For example, it is easy to get caught up in a notion that white bread and hot dogs are “bad foods” while apples and fish are “good foods,” but this line of thinking often misses the bigger picture.
If portion sizes are in check, having a hot dog every once in a while can be just fine. On the other hand, if you have too many apples, you can easily turn a portion of good food into a bad diet habit.
The plate method is a simple way to visualize healthy eating. On a standard 9” plate, aim for half of the plate to come from non-starchy vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables are any vegetable that cannot be ground up into a paste, such as broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, and spinach.
These foods contain almost no carbs, are full of nutrients, fill up the stomach, and do not contribute to weight gain.
Starchy foods should be a quarter of the plate and whole-grain options chosen more often. Protein foods, which include meats, fish, poultry, eggs, and tofu, can be placed in the final quarter of the plate.
Protein foods do not contain carbs, but too much can contribute to weight gain. The type of protein foods is also crucial to controlling cholesterol. Choosing leaner types of proteins such as eggs, poultry, fish, and lean cuts of meat more often will reduce plaque-forming cholesterol.
Avoiding common diet traps
The following are common issues when trying to keep your diet in check:
• Beverages: choose only sugar-free beverages such as tea or seltzer water when possible. Juices, sodas, and sports drinks can wreak havoc on blood glucose control.
• Restaurants: know before you go, look up the nutrition information online to make better choices. Try to take half of the meal home, and skip the bread.
• Alcohol: the recommendation is no more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women. Be mindful that alcohol can lead to weight gain. Alcohol can make blood glucose drop too low if enjoyed without food, but can also increase blood glucose if mixed with sugary drinks.
Keeping blood glucose under control by exercise
Being physically active allows the body to soak up more blood glucose and bring it into the cells where it is used for energy.
The goal with exercise is aiming for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most days of the week. Moderate intensity is when you can talk, but not sing.
Exercise does not have to mean going to the gym, simply moving in any way counts. This includes taking the stairs instead of the elevator, sitting less, taking walks, dancing, and even gardening. Some exercise is always better than none.
Best supplements for preventing and treating diabetes complications
Many people are curious about taking dietary supplements to manage their diabetes. In addition to lifestyle changes and any necessary medical treatment, certain supplements can be effective as part of a diabetes treatment regimen.
With so many supplements on the market, it can be confusing to choose the one right for you. In many cases, the research on supplements is mixed or inconclusive, which makes choosing the right supplements difficult.
Remember that when talking about preventing and managing diabetes complications, the most important factor in controlling blood glucose. The following supplements have research supporting their effectiveness in this aim.
Alpha Lipoic Acid
Alpha-Lipoic acid is a naturally occurring compound produced by the human body. In supplement form, it has been shown to reduce insulin resistance and fasting blood glucose in type 2 diabetes. Alpha-Lipoic acid has also been shown to help with the symptoms of diabetic neuropathy specifically.
Cassia cinnamon, the type used in supplements, has demonstrated improvements in blood glucose in some studies. Studies are somewhat mixed on exactly how effective cinnamon is, but the supplement is generally well tolerated and safe. Cinnamon in spice form can also be added to foods such as oatmeal and fruit to provide a sweet flavor without extra calories.
A chemical found in certain plants, Berberine, has been used for diabetes treatment for hundreds of years. Several clinical trials support the use of berberine supplement to lower blood glucose. Some research has also found a cholesterol-lowering effect with berberine, which is important to prevent diabetes heart disease.
Scientific research also supports blond psyllium, white mulberry tree extract, xanthan gum, and tree turmeric helpful in diabetes treatment.
Diabetes is a progressive condition, that if left untreated, can lead to a number of severe complications. Preventing and treating these diabetic complications primarily involves controlling blood glucose levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol. Diabetes control can be achieved through a combination of diet, exercise, medical treatment, and dietary supplements.