Glucose, or blood sugar, is the main power source for the human body. It comes from the food people eat. The hormone insulin helps the cells of the body convert glucose into fuel.
Fortunately, taking a proactive approach to this chronic disease through medical care, lifestyle changes, and medication can help limit its effects.
Effect on systems and organs
The effects of diabetes can be seen on systems throughout the body, including:
The circulatory system
Diabetes may affect many different organs and systems in the body.
Diabetes can damage large blood vessels, causing macrovascular disease. It can also damage small blood vessels, causing what is called microvascular disease.
- quitting smoking
- controlling blood pressure and lipids
- taking aspirin
- using prescription medications
Microvascular disease can cause eye, kidney, and nerve problems, but good control of diabetes can help prevent these complications.
The cardiovascular system
Excess blood sugar decreases the elasticity of blood vessels and causes them to narrow, impeding blood flow.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of stroke or dying of heart disease increases by 200-400 percent for adults with diabetes.
The nervous system
When people have diabetes, they can develop neuropathy, or nerve damage. This is again due to blood vessels not delivering enough oxygen.
According to the CDC, roughly one in two people diagnosed with diabetes have some level of nerve damage. Elsewhere, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases say nerve problems affect 60-70 percent of people with diabetes.
Nerve damage usually happens some 25 years or more after diagnosis. The most common form is peripheral neuropathy, which causes pain and numbness in:
Other forms of neuropathy affect the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system and internal organs, or the hips and upper legs.
The urinary system
Over time, high blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the kidneys. This damage prevents the kidneys from filtering waste out of the blood.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, diabetes is one of the principal causes of kidney disease.
Similarly, the American Diabetes Association say diabetes was the main cause for 44 percent of new kidney failure cases in 2011.
Effects of diabetes on bodily processes
The impact of diabetes on bodily functions includes:
The American Diabetes Association report that 28.5 percent of adults with diabetes aged 40 years or older had damage to the retina that could lead to a loss of vision.
Diabetes is the most frequently identified cause of gastroparesis. This is a condition that causes the stomach to slow the movement of food into the small intestine.
A person with gastroparesis may experience symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, and acid reflux.
Gastroparesis may cause:
- acid reflux
- abdominal pain
- weight loss if severe
Diabetes-related damage to blood vessels and the autonomic nervous system may have a negative effect on sexual function. This is because diabetes can interfere with the body's ability to send and implement responses to sexual stimuli.
People with diabetes do not heal as quickly as others. This is, again, due to poor circulation, which reduces the flow of:
This interferes with the ability of white blood cells to fight infection.
How diabetes affects other parts of the body
The effects of diabetes are significant for the following parts of the body:
This is where so much of the harm done by diabetes begins.
High blood glucose levels cause blood vessels to become narrower and make arteries less flexible. This limits the flow of blood and oxygen and leads to further injury to bodily processes and organs, as cited above.
People with diabetes need to be very careful with their feet, because many aspects of the disease can damage them. If very severe, this can lead to amputation.
Neuropathy affecting the feet can keep people from feeling common discomforts, such as a blister. If a blister is ignored, poor circulation can slow healing and encourage infections, which may become very serious.
Calluses, foot sores, and dry skin can also be problems for people with diabetes.
High blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels of the retina. Over time, this can lead to blurred vision, reduced vision, and even blindness.
The impact of diabetes on the skin ranges from the mild to the more severe.
People with diabetes are more susceptible to a variety of skin problems, from dry skin to fungal infections.
Mild skin problems may include:
- dry skin
- skin tacks
- dark patches of skin (acanthosis nigricans)
People with diabetes are also more likely to suffer from common skin problems, including:
- bacterial infections like styes or boils
- fungal infections like athlete's foot
Roundish, brown, scaly patches develop in the harmless skin condition known as diabetic dermopathy.
More severe skin problems may include diabetic ulcers. There are open wounds, which are extremely slow to heal.
Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum (NLD) starts as a raised area and can turn violet, and become itchy and sore. This rare condition may require treatment if the sores open.
Finally, diabetic blisters are linked to uncontrolled blood glucose levels. Eruptive xanthomatosis can occur, because of very high triglycerides that can be seen with the very high sugars.
People with diabetes tend to develop more serious heart problems at an earlier age than people without the condition.
In 2010, people with diabetes aged 20 years-plus were 1.8 times as likely to be hospitalized for a heart attack as people without the disease, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Links to other conditions
Diabetes is a contributing factor in the following conditions:
High blood pressure
This is a very serious condition usually only affecting people with type 1 diabetes. When high blood glucose levels are not treated, the body uses toxic chemicals called ketones for energy.
A hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state (HHS) occurs when blood sugars are extremely high. This happens more often in type 2 diabetes. A person develops HHS over a period of time and can become very dehydrated. They can also seem confused and even slip into a coma.
Someone may have metabolic syndrome if they have three out of the following five symptoms:
- high fasting blood sugar
- low HDL, or "good" cholesterol
- a large waist
- high levels of triglycerides
Metabolic syndrome is linked to inactivity or being overweight, and it increases the risk for heart diseases and stroke.
Short and long-term effects
Virtually all the problems diabetes causes for the human body get worse in the long-term.
In the short term, one of the most apparent effects of diabetes is pronounced ups and downs in blood sugar levels.
In the long-term, high levels of sugar in the blood damage blood vessels and nerves. People who have had diabetes for a long time are more likely to develop heart disease.
Eye problems and vision loss also appear more frequently in people who have had diabetes for several years. Kidney damage, too, worsens the longer an individual has diabetes.
Although the condition is very serious, many individuals with diabetes lead active, happy, and fulfilling lives. This is largely due to lifestyle changes they make and effective medical care.
The following guidelines can help people with diabetes stay healthy:
- get the A1C blood test regularly to monitor average glucose levels
- keep blood pressure within a healthy range
- manage cholesterol levels
- keep up-to-date with diabetes education
- get regular eye checks
- examine the feet regularly
- monitor glucose levels consistently
- work closely with healthcare providers