If you’re one of the millions of Americans who have diabetes, you’ll want to make sure you keep it well under control. Although many people know how bad diabetes can be for them, many others don’t realize that diabetes can lead to various health problems that can crop up throughout your body.
James Speed, MD, an endocrinologist in Northern Colorado, said, “Diabetes is a systemic illness that affects multiple organ systems.” He explains some of the problems you might see if your blood sugar doesn’t stay within the proper range.
- Eyes: Diabetic retinopathy can cause vision loss or blindness. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in the U.S.
- Kidneys: With diabetic nephropathy, your kidneys don’t work as well as they should. In severe cases kidney disease can require dialysis.
- Feet: Poorly controlled diabetes can lead to nerve damage. At first, the nerve damage causes pain, which you can treat with medication. But over time, you can lose feeling in your feet. You may also develop wounds that don’t heal, which can increase your risk for amputation.
- Heart and brain: You are two times as likely to have high blood pressure if you have diabetes, which increases your risk for heart disease and stroke.
- Gums: Poorly controlled diabetes can lead to gum disease. Diabetes may alter your saliva, making it more likely you’ll develop plaque.
- Skin: Poorly controlled diabetes can increase your risk of dry or itchy skin, calluses, fungal infections and bacterial infections.
- Sex organs: Diabetes can damage your nerves and blood vessels, interfering with sexual function.
- Bladder: Nerve damage from diabetes can affect your ability to control your bladder.
How to keep your diabetes under control
“We talk about the ABCs of diabetes. A is A1c, B is blood pressure, and C is cholesterol,” Dr. Speed said. “The big thing in avoiding complications is really being proactive, and glucose control is where we put most of our energy and time.” Problems with the eyes, kidneys and feet stem directly from poor glucose control.
Continuous glucose monitors, which are wearable devices that check your blood sugar every five minutes, can help you monitor your levels closely. Managing your A1c level, which measures your glucose level over time, is essential. Dr. Speed said most people should aim for an A1c level under 7.0. (People with shorter life expectancies may be able to go a bit higher.)
Increased glucose levels are only partially responsible for the increased heart disease and stroke risk in people with diabetes. That’s why controlling blood pressure and cholesterol are also essential. People with diabetes may need medication even if their blood pressure or cholesterol levels are only slightly elevated. “The goals are different if you have diabetes,” Dr. Speed said.
Lifestyle changes can also help control diabetes. “People don’t appreciate the lifestyle part enough,” Dr. Speed said. Eating fewer carbohydrates and overall calories can help you lose weight if you need to. And exercising for 20 to 30 minutes four or five times a week can help control blood glucose and improve heart health.
Catching complications early is also crucial. Be sure to stay on top of eye exams, dental visits, annual wellness exams and regular skin and feet checks so you can quickly treat any problems that crop up.
The bottom line
Poorly controlled diabetes can lead to problems that strike throughout your body, so it’s essential to monitor your blood sugar levels and make sure your glucose isn’t too high. To connect with an expert who can help you stay on top of your diabetes and avoid complications, reach out to a local specialist.