Almost 1 in every 10 people in the United States have diabetes, whether they know it or not. It is one of the most common, and destructive, diseases prevalent in the world today. It is currently the 7th leading cause of death; in 2015, more than 300,000 people had deaths relating to symptoms of their diabetes. More and more research is showing just how far the effects diabetes can reach in the human body, especially when it goes unmanaged or undiagnosed. A simple mismanagement of sugars in the bloodstream can cause anything from mere dizziness to dementia or loss of limbs.
While most people know about low blood sugar and how it can cause people with diabetes to faint, they are not aware of the long-term effects repeated low or high blood sugar can have on the body. Even the fluctuation between excessively high blood sugar and low blood sugar can create much bigger problems than if the disease is management and more consistent.
Candis Albrecht, RN is Perry's diabetic nurse educator. She joins the Pulse to discuss the latest research, common misconceptions, and the best way to go about managing diabetes.
Diabetes does not mean your pancreas does not work. It does not mean your body cannot process sugar. Diabetes is a complex disease that affects many parts of the body, and it affects people differently. The main way to describe diabetes is a utilization problem. For many people, the pancreas is working, or the glucose levels are fine, or they are active and eat well. The problem is that the body has trouble knowing when to use insulin and how much. The different systems are struggling to communicate and maintain appropriate levels in the blood stream.
This makes each case very different, and each solution very different. For some people, the key to living with diabetes is a change in diet, or others it is an increase in activity, or others, certain medications that support the body.
What happens when people choose not to seek medical advice for managing diabetes? Sugar levels in the blood will fluctuate, which causes major issues in the body. If those levels go low, they tend to go low quickly, which is why people faint, become dizzy, or feel shaky. It happens too fast for the body to adjust. Rather than running for the test kit, in this case, people should always eat something. Having something quickly will temporarily hold off the low level. Then find the kit, test it, and, most importantly, eat a full meal. A simple snack will not fix the problem, as the levels will drop again.
When the levels become high, it tends to happen gradually. People don't often notice when it is high, which is why having a test kit is important.
Damage to the body from diabetes happens when blood sugar frequently falls too low, frequently or consistently becomes too high, or when the levels fluctuate back and forth drastically. Of course, this takes more than an hour or day to cause noticeable damage, but with a life-long disease, it is not uncommon to eventually get to that point. The effects of unmanaged diabetes and inconsistent blood sugar are still being discovered, though we do know that it causes damage to blood vessels, including vessels in the brain and in the body's extremities, certain chemicals are being linked with dementia, and risk of heart attacks and stroke increase significantly. All in all, there are at least 11 body systems that can be affected by diabetes.
The number one thing you can do to manage diabetes? See your provider often, communicate everything you are feeling and any changes, and be your own advocate. Providers have a limited amount of time in which to see you and most insurance providers do not cover frequent visits. Instead, ask your provider to refer you to nutritionists, diabetic educators, chronic disease departments, etc. who have the specialization, resources, and time to get to know you and make recommendations that can more thoroughly put you on the path to a long and healthy life.
Candis Albrecht, RN coordinates the Diabetes Self-Management Education program