Diabetes Mellitus Q&A: How Does Diabetes Affect the Body?

by Cindy

How Does Diabetes Affect the Body?

Diabetes is a complex medical condition that affects the body in numerous ways.  Diabetes occurs when the insulin producing pancreas malfunctions and does not produce enough of this important hormone to keep blood sugar levels under control.  Insulin is necessary to store excess sugars and when there is no insulin, or not enough, blood glucose levels can rise.  High glucose levels, or hyperglycemia, can cause significant damage to the body both acutely and chronically.

How Do Acute Complications of Diabetes Affect the Body?

Diabetic Ketoacidosis:  This is an acute condition where blood sugar levels become extremely high in patients with type 1 diabetes due to a combination of insulin deficiency, increased glucagon release and dehydration.  Diabetic ketoacidosis is an acute condition that is sometimes the first indication of type 1 diabetes in an undiagnosed patient.  This condition can be triggered by times of stress, illness or insufficient insulin supply.  Patients in diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) will typically have sugars higher than 400 mg/dl, excessive ketone production and abnormal blood pH.  This condition can be extremely dangerous and requires prompt medical attention to reduce sugar levels and replace lost fluids.

Hyperosmolar Hyperglycemic State (HHS):  This is an acute condition that is seen in patients with type 2 diabetes who still produce some insulin.  This condition is often triggered by stress and illness. Hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state manifests as very high blood sugar levels, severe dehydration and abnormal fluid balance.  Blood sugar levels are often over 600 mg/dl in these patients and can lead to mental status changes or coma.  This condition carries a high mortality rate.  Patients with hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state must seek medical attention immediately for treatment and aggressive rehydration.

How Do Chronic Complications of Diabetes Affect the Body?

How Does Diabetes Affect the Eyes?

  • Diabetic Retinopathy: Diabetic retinopathy is the most common way that diabetes affects the eyes.  In short, high blood sugar levels cause damage to the blood vessels of the retina which, over time, can cause serious changes that affect vision.  Diabetes is the leading cause of adult blindness.  For this reason it is important for all diabetic patients to see their ophthalmologist annually for a dilated eye exam to check the retina for changes. Diabetic retinopathy is discussed in detail here
  • Glaucoma:  Some studies have shown that patients with diabetes may be at higher risk for glaucoma.
  • Cataracts:  The incidence of cataracts tends to be higher in diabetic patients.
  • Nerve Palsy:  Paralysis of the nerves that control the eye movement and lids can occur in diabetic patients.  In most cases, these symptoms are temporary and last only a few months.

How Does Diabetes Affects the Kidneys?

  • Diabetic Nephropathy: Diabetes is a leading cause of chronic kidney disease and end stage renal disease resulting in the need for dialysis.  Your physician should screen your kidney function every year using a simple urine test and through routine blood work.  Learn more about how does diabetes affect the kidneys in our article about diabetic nephropathy here.

How Does Diabetes Affect the Nerves?

  • Peripheral Diabetic Neuropathy: This common complication of diabetes affects a large percentage of all diabetic patients.  Over time, high sugar levels damages the nerves within the body.  The sensory nerves in the hands and feet are most commonly affected and can lead to loss of sensation and inability to feel pain in the extremities.  This condition is discussed in detail in our article about diabetic neuropathy here.
  • Gastroparesis:  Nerve damage to regulatory nerves that aid in digestion can cause gastroparesis, a condition where the gastrointestinal tract does not function properly to process foods. 

How Does Diabetes Affect the Rest of the Body?

  • Heart Disease:  Hypertension is very common in diabetic patients and can be triggered by diabetic kidney disease.  In addition, coronary artery disease is not only common in patients with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes but it is also the leading cause of death. 
  • Foot Problems:  Poor circulation and decreased sensation in diabetic patients puts the patient at high risk for uncontrolled infections, foot deformities and amputation.  Proper foot care is very important to avoid this complication of diabetes.  Learn more about orthopedic foot conditions and how to take care of the diabetic foot by exploring Know Your Sugar.
  • And More:  Diabetes can cause sexual dysfunction, erectile dysfunction, menstrual cycle disruption and pregnancy complications.  This chronic health condition can affect every system of the body and can trigger traditional symptoms of diabetes like increased thirst, hunger and urination or non-specific symptoms like fatigue, headaches and frequent infections.

These are just the most common ways that diabetes affects the body.  Explore Know Your Sugar for more information about diabetes, diabetic complications and more!

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