High blood sugar levels can affect your health in many ways.Getty Images
Blood sugar, also called glucose, is the sugar that circulates in the bloodstream, says Dr. Michael Del Junco, MD, an internal medicine specialist at Providence Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Orange County, California.
“After we eat, the body digests the meal into sugars called glucose. The sugar will travel from the stomach to the small intestine, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream.”
This refers to the pancreas, an organ in the abdomen that helps with digestion and hormone regulation, to secrete insulin. “Insulin helps move glucose into tissues to serve as a fuel source for the body’s cells,” explains Del Junco.
Any excess sugar that does not travel to tissues is stored in the liver and muscles as triglycerides, a type of fat.
Insulin resistance disrupts normal blood sugar levels
However, for some people, the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to move all the glucose efficiently from the bloodstream to working cells throughout the body, and this can lead to high blood sugar levels.
“The most common consequences of chronically high blood sugar are metabolic syndrome, prediabetes, and diabetes,” explains Del Junco.
All of these cases are characterized by a state of insulin resistance. This is a condition in which your body does not respond as it should to insulin, causing glucose levels to remain high in the blood.”
Symptoms of high blood sugar
Some of the symptoms of hyperglycemia are non-specific and may include:
- Polyuria: increased urge to urinate, often at night.
- polydipsia: increased thirst.
- Polyphagia: an increased desire to eat.
Effects of high blood sugar on health
Since blood circulates throughout the body, high blood sugar levels can have negative consequences for nearly every organ and organ process. Here are eight ways that chronically high blood sugar levels can negatively affect your health:
Why is it important to control blood sugar levels? Simply put, the blood reaches and affects everything in your body, says Dr. Craig Primack, president-elect of the Society for Bariatric Medicine.
Here, experts share eight unexpected ways your blood sugar levels can negatively affect your health:
Consider this scenario: Two people enter the emergency room with chest pain. Someone has had a heart attack in the past. The other suffers from diabetes.
Who is most likely to have a heart attack? A person with diabetes says Dr. Craig Primack, an obesity specialist and co-director and co-founder of the Scottsdale Weight Loss Center in Arizona. He explains that this position is commonly used in medical schools to demonstrate how diabetes functions as “the equivalent of coronary artery disease.” By that he means, “If you have diabetes, you already have coronary artery disease, even if it hasn’t been diagnosed,” he says.
While experts used to think that dietary cholesterol was the main culprit behind clogged arteries, current research suggests that excess levels of blood sugar likely play a larger role, Primack says.
This happens because high blood sugar levels increase the production of free radicals – highly reactive molecules that cause premature cell death – and reduce the availability of nitric oxide – a compound essential for blood vessels to relax and allow blood to flow freely despite plaque buildup. The resulting inflammation can damage blood vessels.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among people with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association, which notes that two-thirds of deaths in people with type 2 diabetes are from CVD.
Primack says that as blood sugar levels rise, the same factors that reduce blood flow to the heart reduce circulation to the reproductive organs.
According to a 2017 review in the journal Diabetes Medicine, about 53% of the 90,000 men with diabetes included in the study also had erectile dysfunction. The study also found that men with diabetes are 3.5 times more likely than men without the disease to have difficulty maintaining an erection. They also tended to develop ED about 10 to 15 years earlier than men who did not develop diabetes.
Those with poorly controlled blood sugar levels are more likely to experience sexual side effects than those who control their blood sugar.
Although it has not been studied, women with chronically high blood sugar levels can also experience sexual problems. These problems can include vaginal dryness, decreased levels of sexual interest, and difficulty reaching orgasm.
Either way, the link between high blood sugar and cognitive decline is strong, regardless of your diabetes diagnosis. For example, a 2018 study published in the journal Diabetologia, which followed 5,189 people over 10 years, showed that the higher the blood sugar level, the faster the rate of cognitive decline.
Primack says researchers don’t yet know the full explanation for the relationship between sugar and the brain, but the reduced blood flow likely plays a role.
Most people have heard of diabetic neuropathy, in which chronically high blood sugar levels damage nerve cells throughout the body, causing tingling, needles and even numbness in the hands, feet, arms, and legs.
But here’s a lesser known fact: This nerve damage can also deteriorate the body’s joints, explains Dr. Jeff E. Silman, MD, a family and sports medicine physician at the Florida Orthopedic Institute in Tampa.
This arthritis-like condition, called Charcot joint or diabetic arthropathy, can cause instability and deformities of the joints, usually in the feet.
Meanwhile, excess glucose molecules in the blood can stick to joint surfaces, making them stickier and less able to move smoothly. Excess glucose can also degrade collagen in the joint, which leads to more joint pain and stiffness.
By damaging the blood vessels in the kidneys, chronically high blood sugar levels can also reduce kidney function and contribute to kidney disease. The longer a person has had diabetes, and the longer the diabetes remains out of control, the greater the risk of developing kidney disease. The National Kidney Foundation reports that about a third of people with diabetes have chronic kidney disease.
The kidneys help balance fluid levels and remove waste products from the body, and are therefore essential for overall health. If you have type 2 diabetes or have had type 1 diabetes for more than five years, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends a yearly kidney function check.
Experts used to think that it was the daily slack of diabetes management that increased the risk of depression in people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, but emerging research suggests that blood sugar levels may be more depressing than blood sugar intake. Insulin readings and injections.
For example, research published in the Journal of Neuroscience shows that, for those with type 1 diabetes, high blood sugar levels increase depression-related neurotransmitter levels in the brain. The study also found that high sugar levels alter the connections between areas of the brain that control emotions, which may contribute to mental health problems.
Similarly, a 2021 study from Stanford University found that insulin resistance, which is associated with chronic high blood sugar levels and is a precursor to diabetes, doubles the risk of developing major depressive disorder.
Chronically high blood sugar levels can lead to diabetic retinopathy, which can develop when the blood vessels in the retina — the light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye that allow sight — are damaged. These damaged vessels sometimes enlarge, leak, or obstruct normal blood flow. This can lead to blurry or distorted vision and blindness.
Glaucoma is also associated with diabetes. This eye disease results from damage to the optic nerve, usually due to excessive pressure in the eye. It can lead to vision loss slowly over time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people with diabetes are more likely to develop open-angle glaucoma, the most common type of glaucoma.
The CDC recommends a dilated eye exam at least once a year from an optometrist or ophthalmologist, as they can detect these and other vision problems related to high blood sugar. This can lead to an earlier diagnosis, better diabetes control and better overall health outcomes.
Gastrointestinal problems such as gastroparesis are a common complication of high blood sugar and diabetes. Gastroparesis, sometimes called delayed gastric emptying, is a condition in which the stomach slows down or stops the movement of food into the small intestine. It can cause nausea, bloating, and cramping and may lead to nutritional deficiencies. The NIDDK reports that diabetes is the most common cause of gastroparesis and occurs in about half of all diabetic patients.
Lifestyle interventions can help
“Because the majority of people with prediabetes will develop prediabetes, it is important to identify simple strategies to effectively lower blood sugar and the risk of developing these conditions,” Del Junco says. While the outlook may seem bleak if your blood sugar has been trending too high lately, there are some lifestyle changes you can make that can help lower it. “The best treatments continue with diet and exercise.”
Del Junco also recommends:
- Playing sports. “Moderate intensity aerobic exercise for 150 minutes a week or 30 minutes a day can lower blood sugar by 20% to 22%,” he says. “Implementing this strategy alone can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by approximately 25%.”
- Get rid of excess weight. “A weight loss of 5% to 10% of your total body weight can lower your blood sugar and risk of developing diabetes by 55% to 60%,” Del Junco says.
- Move over. In addition to exercising, del Junco recommends simply getting up and moving every 30 minutes and avoiding inactivity for long periods of time.
- Improve your diet. Del Junco recommends limiting saturated fats, sugary drinks, trans fats, fried foods, highly processed foods, fructose and red meat in your diet. Instead, “Increase your consumption of low-GI foods like fish, fiber, fruits, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and natural oils.” The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly a serving of a food raises your blood sugar level. Sugary liquids such as soft drinks have very high glycemic index scores, while green leafy vegetables, which have a lot of fiber that slows down the movement of glucose from food into the bloodstream, are much lower on the glycemic index scale.
- Ask your doctor. For many people, lifestyle changes aren’t enough to lower high blood glucose levels, and you may need medications to help lower your blood sugar. Talk to your healthcare provider about your specific needs and what is best for keeping your blood sugar at optimal levels.
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