Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. A report on diabetes statistics shows an estimated 10.7 million people in the US between ages 45 and 64 have been diagnosed with diabetes, and a further 3.6 million may be undiagnosed.
These days, many people either have diabetes or know someone with it. With this health issue being so common, how is it that we know so little about it?
As a nurse with 20+ years of experience, I’ll attempt to explain in simple terms, how diabetes works, and why it’s so problematic for our health.
There’s really only one thing about diabetes that makes it dangerous: blood glucose molecules and what they do to our body.
But first let's look at what blood glucose is. We need a certain level of glucose in our blood to feed the cells of our body. Our body has several organs and glands that all work together to maintain a healthy blood sugar level. In diabetes, something goes wrong in the organs and glands that make achieving this ideal blood sugar level, challenging.
For some, this process is entirely disrupted, which requires a rigorous treatment regimen. For others, the process is only partially disrupted, so treatment is aimed at giving those organs and glands some extra help. When treatment and management help keep blood glucose at normal levels, a person with diabetes can maintain good health. But when the blood glucose level goes too high or fluctuates frequently, this can cause serious problems.
What is it about blood glucose that makes it dangerous?
On a microscopic level, blood glucose molecules look exactly like crystals, and all crystals have one thing in common - they’re sharp. They have jagged edges that can scrape along any surface that they touch. When there are too many glucose molecules in the blood, they get congested in the small tiny vessels we call capillaries. In these small vessels, glucose scrapes along the vessel walls causing areas of irritation which lead to inflammation.
Think of a small superficial scrape on your skin — our immune systems become activated to help heal those scrapes by sending helpers to repair the damage. Unfortunately, after our immune cells repair the damaged vessel wall, it leaves behind a rougher surface, like a scar. These scars thicken and narrow the vessels, as well as making them more prone to collecting cholesterol deposits. All of this makes the blood vessels vulnerable to breakage and obstructions.
If a vessel breaks, it causes bleeding, which can create damage in the nearby cells and tissues. And if blood vessels become obstructed, due to a narrowed passageway, this can cut off the oxygen supply from the tissues surrounding those vessels. Either of these things creates serious health issues in the form of strokes and infarcts in vital organs such as the heart, brain, lungs, and kidneys.
To limit these challenging health issues from happening, diabetics are put on a treatment plan that helps keep their blood glucose under control.
If you have diabetes and keep your blood glucose within normal limits, you should be able to avoid some of these issues. For people with severe insulin-dependent diabetes, blood glucose control may be more challenging, but the goal is to keep it as low as possible, consistently.
Many people struggle with the diabetic treatment plan because it requires fairly significant changes in lifestyle, eating habits, and routines. These changes include avoiding certain foods, eating more healthy food, exercise, weight loss, adhering to a schedule for meals and medications, and more.
The trouble with blood glucose is that we can’t see or feel the damage that’s happening in those tiny blood vessels.
Often, we see the end result of this illness when it’s too late: a person has had a stroke, or their kidneys are failing, or they’ve had trouble with the tiny vessels in their eyes. This is why diabetes is often considered a silent yet stealthy killer and disabler. But perhaps, if we have a better understanding of what exactly makes diabetes dangerous, we may be able to manage it better.
The main thing in diabetes treatment is prevention of high blood glucose levels in order to prevent these deadly effects on our body. The problem is that the treatment requires a person to stay on a certain diet and use medications properly. The lifestyle change is so huge that many people have trouble sticking with it. Especially when it comes to eating treats or drinking alcohol. We all enjoy "cheating" with treats and drinks, but for diabetics, these daily mistakes add up and wreak havoc.
If more people understood how each of their "cheats" may contribute to death or disability, perhaps they might take the treatment more seriously. Diabetes is especially deadly when mixed with other metabolic health conditions (cholesterol and high blood pressure), addictions, obesity, and stress.
The important treatment aspects that must be adheared to if you want to prevent death and disability are:
- Take medications at the same time each day and be sure to tell your diabetes specialist about any other medications you take.
- Monitor blood sugar daily.
- Get prompt treatment for addictions to pain killers, alcohol, or other opiate medications (these combine with diabetes in a particularly deadly way)
- Eat a healthy well-balanced diet, low in sugar and starch
- Get prompt treatment for other metabolic conditions (high cholesterol and blood pressure)
- Take care of your kidneys, eyes, and liver as these organs can get damaged by high blood sugar and can cause further worsening of diabetes (becomes a vicious circle)
- Get regular check-ups
- Stay hydrated
- Move your body once a day by walking, swimming, or cycling. Whatever exercise regimen works for you, be sure to stick to it. Even going up and down your stairs at home will help.
I hope this helps you understand a bit more about diabetes and what blood glucose molecules do in our bodies.
Here’s to you and your health. After all, it’s your most valuable asset.
Here are some references that helped me write this article. You may find them interesting to read.
Diabetes Mellitus Standards of Care
Diabetes Mellitus: The Epidemic of The Century
Endothelial Dysfunction and Diabetes: Effects on Angiogenesis, Vascular Remodeling, and Wound Healing
National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2017
Mortality in the United States