What is widely perceived as a disease of “blood sugars,” diabetes mellitus is more accurately defined as a disorder of improper metabolism.
Metabolism refers to the way our bodies use digested food for energy and growth. Most of what we eat is broken down into glucose. Glucose is a form of sugar in the blood – it is the principal source of fuel for our bodies.
Individuals suffering with diabetes fail to metabolize or burn carbohydrates (sugars) properly and instead metabolize lipids (fats) at much higher rates than non-diabetics. This can then lead to high levels of glucose in the blood and symptoms such as fatigue, thirst, hunger, frequent urination, visual changes, and decreased sensation. If left untreated, it can cause heart disease, strokes, kidney failure, blindness, infections, and impaired wound healing, as discussed below.
When food is digested, it eventually enters our bloodstream in the form of glucose and triggers insulin to be released from our pancreas. Insulin is a hormone that allows glucose to enter cells, which then utilize it for growth and energy. Without insulin, glucose remains high in the blood, a condition called hyperglycemia. Metabolism in the cell is subsequently impaired; and diabetes can develop.
Hyperglycemia occurs when the body does not produce enough insulin, produces no insulin (Type I diabetes), or does not respond properly to the insulin produced by the pancreas (Type II diabetes). Both Type I and Type II diabetes result in hyperglycemia, the hallmark of the disease.
In diabetes, the improper insulin response causes the body’s cells to not get enough glucose for their essential energy and growth requirements, even though the blood has plenty of it. This results in severe biochemical abnormalities throughout the entire body.
Although much of what we know for properly managing diabetes is key (such as decreasing blood glucose levels, exercise, and diet), it is important to understand that a diabetic’s fundamental issue is their body’s impaired ability to use glucose as the primary fuel for metabolism. The resulting improper metabolism affects the entire body and leads to an array of complications:
Cardiovascular problems are often a result of atherosclerosis, narrowing of the arteries due to the buildup of plaque. Plaque is made up of calcium, fat, and cholesterol that cause blockages in the arteries, resulting in heart attack and stroke. Another manifestation of poor circulation is erectile dysfunction, which is common in diabetes.
Neuropathy or Nerve Damage
Another common complication of diabetes is damage to nerves. This often leads to numbness and tingling sensations, particularly in the legs and the tips of the toes known as neuropathy. Unaddressed, this condition is both painful and dangerous. Poor circulation and damage to the capillaries can lead to permanent damage in many areas of the body.
Nephropathy or Kidney Damage
A major complication of diabetes is damage to kidney function. The primary job of the kidneys is to purify our blood by removing waste materials, whісh are then excreted from the body in the form of urine. Thіѕ work is carried out by glomeruli – structures in the kidneys that are made up of very tiny blood vessels. Again, damage to these micro vessels leads to decreased kidney function and therefore increased toxins in the body. People may experience nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, fatigue, headache, and swelling of the legs. If left untreated, severe kidney failure leaves people with a lifetime of arduous dialysis treatments and a possible kidney transplant.
Vision problems can result as diabetes damages the tiny blood vessels of the eyes. The most feared complication is diabetic retinopathy, which is one of the major causes of blindness. In addition, diabetes can lead to other serious complications such as cataracts and glaucoma.
Additional complications include problems with wound healing, particularly in the feet. Pressure wounds and injuries, which can go unnoticed due to poor circulation and nerve damage, are very difficult to treat and heal. Infections of the gums, constipation, diarrhea, facial dropping, weakness, speech impairment, decreased bone density, and hearing problems are also common long term diabetic complications.
Knowledge is power, and for those of us touched by diabetes, it is important to understand the facts, educate others, and continually seek innovations that will lead to better outcomes for this epidemic that affects so many lives.
This article was written by Kathleen Ritz, COO/CMO for Trina Health of the CAROLINAS