World Diabetes Day lands perfectly between a holiday devoted to begging for candy and a holiday celebrating food. It really couldn’t come at a better time. Diabetics everywhere need a reminder to watch their sugar intake and not get carried away by the season of pumpkin-flavored everything!
I’ve discussed the complex condition of diabetes with you on a scientific level, but for the sake of this blog, let’s break it down into a “bite-sized” bit. I want to talk about how diabetes specifically affects your blood sugar, and, in turn, how high blood sugar levels affect your health.
Diabetes and Blood Sugar
Diabetes is often categorized as a blood sugar disorder, which means that there is more sugar in the blood that can be utilized by your body. If you are diabetic, then you already know how important regularly testing your blood sugar is in managing your disease.
If your blood sugar levels are high, this might be because you recently indulged in a sugary meal and your body has not yet converted the broken-down sugar molecules, called glucose, into energy. Or your blood sugar levels are high because your body doesn’t have enough of the hormone insulin. Insulin facilitates glucose uptake and is needed by the hard-working cells of your liver and muscle tissue.
Diabetics either don’t make enough insulin or don’t make any insulin at all. In this case, the cells that need insulin for glucose uptake (like liver and muscle cells) don’t have the energy to function properly. In the meantime, glucose is left floating in the blood. High glucose levels can build up, eventually causing damage.
Complications of High Blood Sugar
Excess glucose, in the blood, can result in a condition called hyperglycemia. In diabetics, hyperglycemia can happen for several reasons. A common reason is not giving yourself enough insulin, although sometimes the issue is that the insulin shot you gave yourself was not effective (1). Other times, hyperglycemia means you ate more than you should have or did not exercise enough to utilize the glucose you did digest (1). High blood sugar may even mean you are stressed or suffering from an illness like a cold (1). Symptoms of hyperglycemia include thirst, fatigue, frequent trips to urinate, and high levels of sugar in your urine (1). These symptoms don’t sound so scary, right? But left untreated, hyperglycemia leads to some serious complications.
The build-up of glucose in your blood can cause damage to your blood vessels, leading to cardiovascular disease. If the damaged vessels are adjacent to nerves, they can push or pinch them. When this happens, you may experience nerve damage, which is called neuropathy. Damaged blood vessels supplying your eyes can lead to blindness, and damaged nerves and poor circulation can cause serious problems in your limbs and joints. Even your skin, teeth, and gums can be at risk. (2) Because your kidneys’ job is to filter unwanted substances (like excess glucose) from your blood, hyperglycemia can affect your kidney function and may result in kidney failure.
The most serious complication of hyperglycemia is a condition called ketoacidosis. Without glucose for energy, your body will begin to break down its fat cells. Some of the products from the broken-down fat cells are called ketones. Ketones that build up in your blood can result in ketoacidosis, which can cause a life-threatening diabetic coma. (1)
How to Manage High Blood Sugar
The good news is that with frequent testing of your blood sugar levels, you can totally manage your diabetes. This does not mean you should go ahead and finish off the leftover Halloween candy in one sitting! It does mean that by testing your blood sugar regularly (both before and after meals), logging your results, and recognizing warning signs or symptoms of high blood sugar, you can take control of your health.
Monitoring blood sugar is often recommended as a primary tool in controlling your diabetes, but in order to really get the most out of testing, you should record your test results and look for patterns (3). Are your levels too high or too low several days in a row? Your blood sugar levels can affect your mood, too, so pay attention to your feelings because they may provide additional insight into how well you are managing your diabetes. With diligent testing and logging your results and mood, you can make a plan to better control your diabetes.