Diabetes: Complications, Risk Factors, and Prevention

So a couple weeks ago we talked about the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.  We talked about what puts us a risk for getting the different types of diabetes.  But what about your risk factors if you already have diabetes?  What about ways to prevent or even cure your diabetes?  Nothing like a little motivation to move you in the right direction eh?

First a little recap:

Type 1 Diabetes is caused when your body attacks your pancreas and can no longer make insulin.  You become insulin dependent.  This is linked mostly to genetics and bad luck, but an unhealthy lifestyle has been shown to accelerate the process.

Type 2 Diabetes is caused when the body cannot can not utilize the insulin that the body makes and when the body cannot make enough insulin to compensate.  The most common causes are weight, poor diet, with genetics also playing a factor.

So, as a diabetic, what are some complications and what puts you at risk for these complications?

First let’s talk about why a lot of these complications happen.  Most of them occur because of high blood sugar.  Do me a little favor, grab a sugar packet from the break room or a teaspoon of sugar from your kitchen.  Rub some sugar between your fingers (now go wash your hands).  Sugar is sharp!  It’s crystal and when it is in your blood it is still a very tiny microscopic little ninja star.  When your blood sugar is high your blood goes from a teaspoon of sugar in your tea to simple syrup.  That is a lot of sugar running around and that little ninja star becomes a wire scrub brush.  And that brush is running through your veins honey.  Yikes!

So the major risk you hear about the most as a diabetic is cardiovascular disease.  This is very complicated, but let’s at least tackle some of the simple concepts.  When you want to paint your bookshelf what do you do first?  You sand that baby down!  This takes off protective coatings and creates tiny imperfections in the wood.  This means the new paint can stick to the surface!  Now lets apply this concept to your blood vessels.  The excess sugar in your blood scuffs up the inside of your blood vessels.  Now that the inside of your vessels are texturized the cholesterol that is also located in your blood grabs a hold and sticks.  Your blood vessels then narrow giving you chest pain, blocking off blood to your heart and brain and putting you at high risk for stroke and heart attack.  This, of course, is made worse the longer your blood sugar is elevated (because your body has no time to heal) and when your cholesterol is elevated this puts you even more at risk for cardiovascular disease.

Something else that you might be doing to your body, but you might not feel is kidney damage, or nephropathy.  Your kidney has little tiny blood vessels where waste from the body is filtered out.  Remember that scrub brush?  You are doing two different things to your poor kidneys:  First, the scrub brush is poking holes in your filtering system so you are losing blood and vital nutrients.  Second, the sugars are scarring up the vessels making it harder for the kidneys to filter, thus causing a backup of waste into your body.  Yuck!

Cancer is another risk factor that increases, especially with Type 2 diabetes.  There are still studies being done to try to pinpoint the cause, but it may have to do with the risk factors that cancer and Type 2 diabetes have in common, like obesity.

Neurological problems have also been linked to diabetes.  Alzheimer’s has been correlated to high blood sugars and may be related to the scuffing up of vessels around the neurons, but also to genetics surrounding Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

High blood sugar can also cause some very unattractive problems (and there is nothing wrong with being diabetic, but let’s look fabulous and healthy being one).  High blood sugar gives you dry mouth.  Dry mouth lets the naughty bacteria running rampant around your mouth.  High blood sugar erodes the blood vessels.  This means that the body’s ability to heal is diminished.  This means that your skin will suffer, your mouth will suffer (nobody likes hillbilly mouth), and so will your feet!  All these things put you at risk for massive bacterial infections and amputation.  I’ve had family members who needed both legs amputated from uncontrolled diabetes.  The amputations don’t heal well, they hurt, they become infected, and they take a huge emotional toll on the diabetic and their family.

Eye damage can also be devastating.  The blood vessels in your eye are so teeny tiny that when those sugar crystals travel through them and cause damage the eye and it’s nerves don’t get the blood and nutrients that you need.  This means that the eyes begin to die and blindness becomes a real risk.

The greatest complaint I get from my patients is about the pain and numbness that they begin to feel in their fingers, toes, legs, and arms.  We’ve already talked about how high blood sugar destroys blood vessels and destroys nerves causing blindness.  The same thing happens to the nerves over the rest of your body.  Those starving nerves can tingle, burn, and eventually die leaving no feeling in those limbs.  Neuropathy also effects sexual health and can cause erectile dysfunction in men and sexual dysfunction in women.

So this all sounds pretty scary.  Coming from a family of diabetics some of this makes diabetes sound like a death sentence, but this does not have to be the case.  Whether you are a Type 1 or Type 2 diabetic be healthy.  Exercise, watch your blood sugar, and your weight.  No one wants you to look like Twiggy (eww) and you’re never going to perfect blood sugar all the time, but trying and shooting for being healthy makes all the difference.  If you are a Type 2 diabetic then shooting for being healthy can also be your cure.  Just remember kids:  It’s never too late to get healthy, but we always have to deal with the consequences of our actions.  Just don’t lose hope!

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