Diabetes is a cluster of disorders characterized by high blood sugar levels that persist over a long period. It is one of the most common disorders of our time.
According to the International Diabetes Federation, 387 million people worldwide were living with diabetes by the year 2014.
In the U.S. alone, 29.1 million people have diabetes, out of which 8.1 million remain undiagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Understanding How Your Body Works
Glucose is a type of simple sugar found in food. It is a major source of energy and is used by every living organism.
When you eat food, your digestive system breaks it down into glucose in the blood so your cells can extract energy from it and recharge themselves. At this point, the glucose is also called blood sugar.
Every cell of every organ in your body, be it the muscles, kidneys or the brain, relies on energy from glucose to perform its functions.
But how does this glucose reach the cells?
Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas that performs the crucial task of delivering glucose to the different cells.
So, how does all this relate to diabetes?
There are two major types of diabetes.
Type 1 Diabetes
- In Type 1 diabetes, the cells of the pancreas responsible for making insulin either fail to do so or create very little.
- This keeps the glucose unused in the blood, and can ultimately cause an overload of blood sugar.
- It is mostly diagnosed in young adults and children.
Type 2 Diabetes
- This is the most common type of diabetes. Ninety percent of the adults suffering from diabetes have Type 2 diabetes.
- Type 2 diabetes occurs when your pancreas produces the insulin, but your cells are unable to use it properly. In medical terminology, this is called insulin resistance.
- Initially, the pancreas responds by making more insulin to try to get the cells to use it properly. However, over time, the pancreas fails to keep up. This may ultimately cause excess blood sugar.
Excess blood sugar due to either type of diabetes is a major cause for concern. Uncontrolled diabetes can allow the sugar to remain in the blood for too long and damage other organs.
Here is how uncontrolled diabetes can damage your heart, eyes, kidneys, nerves, teeth and more.
Diabetes causes a 2- to 4-fold increase in a person’s risk of having a heart attack, heart failure, coronary artery disease (artery blockage) and death, according to a 2011 study published in Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine.
People with diabetes are likely to have a heart attack or heart failure at a younger age, the study also notes.
High blood sugar levels in the heart for a prolonged period can irritate and damage the insides of the arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to heart.
This triggers an accumulation of cholesterol and fat deposits in the arteries, eventually narrowing them and obstructing blood flow.
This is called coronary artery disease (CAD). It can develop for multiple reasons other than diabetes. However, it develops much faster in diabetic patients.
Over time, the arteries may become completely blocked and deprive the heart of oxygen, causing a heart attack.
While diabetes itself is a risk factor for heart disease, other diabetes-associated symptoms could also cause heart disease:
- High LDL cholesterol: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is the ‘bad’ cholesterol. Diabetes usually accompanies a case of heightened LDL cholesterol in the body that settles in the arteries and causes CAD.
- Abdominal obesity: Fat accumulated around the abdomen also increases the production of bad cholesterol, causing CAD.
- High blood pressure: Pressure in the blood vessels going through the heart causes a strain and damages the vessels, increasing the risk of CAD and a heart attack.
Kidneys contain tiny filters that capture waste material from the blood and discharge it from the body through urine.
The blood that comes for filtration also contains important substances like proteins and red blood cells. Since the kidneys’ filters are so minuscule in size, they do not filter these useful substances and they remain in the blood and benefit the body.
However, diabetes damages the filters over time, causing a complete failure of the filtration process. This, in turn, allows the proteins in the blood to escape to the urine.
Albumin is one such protein that passes through to the urine. A dangerous excess of the same is called microalbuminuria.
Microalbuminuria could indicate an early stage of kidney failure. Diabetic nephropathy (diabetes-induced kidney disease) is the most prevalent cause of end stage kidney disease, according to a 2001 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. This is when your kidneys fail completely and are no longer able to support you.
It could take years for kidney damage to occur in diabetic patients. High blood pressure, another symptom of diabetes, contributes significantly to the progression of kidney failure.
Nerves transmit messages from the brain to the different organs in our bodies, allowing us to move, see, hear, breathe and feel.
Almost half the people with diabetes are likely to suffer nerve damage at some point, and it is usually diagnosed late in Type 1 patients and early in Type 2 patients, according to a 2005 study published in American Family Physician.
High blood sugar levels in diabetic patients interfere with the nerves’ ability to transmit signals to the different organs.
Persistent high blood sugar also irritates the walls of the blood capillaries carrying blood to the different organs. Eventually, this starves the nerves of oxygen and nutrients, and damages them severely.
Because nerves run throughout the body, nerve damage can have a variety of symptoms depending on the area of the body that has been affected. This may include your legs, hands, gastrointestinal tract as well as your reproductive organs.
There are two common types of diabetic nerve damage.
- Sensory-motor or peripheral: Symptoms include tingling, burning, excessive sensitivity to touch, numbness, cramps, shooting pain, muscle weakening, loss of coordination and balance.
- Autonomic nerve damage: Symptoms include bladder problems, gastrointestinal problems (like constipation), erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, rapid heart rate, problems with the eyes adjusting from light to dark, dizziness and fainting.
The white matter is the area of the brain responsible for information processing and memory. A loss of white matter can severely undermine a person’s cognitive functions and cause mental decline.
In a 2007 study published in Diabetologia, patients who had Type 1 diabetes underwent a neuropsychological check-up and their brain tissues were taken for examination.
They showed reduced white matter in the brain and performed poorly on design/drawing tests, as well as processed information more slowly.
Type 2 diabetes also affects the person’s mental abilities severely and may hamper their ability to perform cognitive functions. It may cause cerebrovascular disease and vascular cognitive impairment over time.
Cerebrovascular disease obstructs blood flow to the brain. Persistent high blood pressure damages and narrows the blood vessels supplying blood to the brain over time, causing this disease.
When high blood pressure narrows the vessels, it could also cause a mini-stroke or a major stroke. High blood pressure can also rupture the blood vessels, causing a brain hemorrhage.
Vascular cognitive impairment is an Alzheimer’s-like condition that greatly undermines memory, problem solving, and information processing and retention abilities.
High blood sugar also takes a toll on your oral health. Diabetes reduces the person’s ability to fight infections, exposing them to a horde of mouth disorders.
People with diabetes are at a high risk of the following:
- Tooth decay and cavities: The mouth is a bacterial hub, which interacts with the high blood sugar to form plaque (a yellow coating on the teeth). Plaque erodes the enamel (protective layer) of the teeth, leading to decay and cavities.
- Gingivitis (early gum disease): Diabetes undermines the body’s ability to ward off bacteria. This, combined with poor oral hygiene, allows the plaque to persist and eventually harden. This irritates the gingival (gum-area beneath the bottom of the teeth) and may lead to swelling and bleeding.
- Periodontitis: This is the advanced form of gingivitis. It damages the bone and tissue that support the teeth, causing them to fall out.
Diabetics may also develop burning mouth syndrome and oral thrush (white patches on the tongue).
The eyes are one of the most sensitive organs of your body.
People with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes face a high risk of contracting blindness, according to a 2015 study published in the British Medical Journal.
Diabetes can cause several eye disorders that can have debilitating and irreversible repercussions.
- Diabetic retinopathy: High blood sugar damages the blood vessels in the retina, a tissue that is located at the back of the eye. This can cause vision damage, vision loss and blindness.
- Diabetic macular edema: This usually occurs after retinopathy and is the most common cause of vision loss. In macular edema, a fluid fills up in a part of the retina called the macula that enables straight-vision crucial to reading, writing, driving and identifying faces.
- Cataracts: In this disorder, the natural lens of the eye becomes cloudy. It is the most common cause of blindness, and usually occurs in people 40 years of age and above. People with diabetes are at a 2 to 4 times higher risk of developing cataracts than those without the underlying disorder.
- Glaucoma: This disorder is characterized by a pressure buildup on the optic nerve that connects the eye to the brain, which eventually damages it. It can destroy vision permanently.