Diabetes describes a group of metabolic diseases where a patient has high blood sugar due to problems processing or producing insulin. Diabetes can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or lifestyle.
Between 1971 and 2000, the death rate for men with diabetes fell, according to a study in Annals of Internal Medicine. This was a major coup, reflecting the many advances in diabetes treatment. However, according to the study, the death rate for women with diabetes showed no signs of improvement. Additionally, the difference in death rates between women who had diabetes and those who didn’t more than doubled.
This study of diabetes in men and women presented several possible reasons for the gender differences. Reasons included:
- Women often receive less aggressive treatment for cardiovascular risk factors and conditions related to diabetes.
- The complications of diabetes in women are more difficult to diagnose.
- Women often have different kinds of heart disease than men.
- Hormones and inflammation act differently in women.
The findings emphasize how diabetes affects women and men differently.
If you’re a woman with diabetes, you’ll experience many of the same symptoms as a man. However, some symptoms are unique to women. Understanding both will help you identify diabetes and find early treatment.
Symptoms unique to women include:
- vaginal and oral yeast infections and vaginal thrush
- urinary infections
- female sexual dysfunction
- polycystic ovary syndrome
Symptoms experienced by women and men:
- increased thirst and hunger
- frequent urination
- weight loss or gain that has no obvious cause
- blurred vision
- wounds that heal slowly
- skin infections
- patches of darker skin in areas of the body that have creases
- breath that has a sweet, fruity, or acetone odor
- reduced feeling in your hands or feet
It’s important to keep in mind that many people with type 2 diabetes have no noticeable symptoms.
Pregnancy and Diabetes
Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes
If you have diabetes and are pregnant or hoping to become pregnant, talk to your doctor about the best ways to manage your and your baby’s health. For instance, your blood glucose levels and general health need to be tracked before and during your pregnancy.
When you’re pregnant, blood glucose and ketones travel through the placenta to the baby. Babies require energy from glucose just as you do. However, babies are at risk for birth defects if your glucose levels are too high.
Gestational diabetes occurs in approximately 9.2 percent of pregnancies. The hormones of pregnancy interfere with the way insulin works. This causes the body to make more of it. However, for some women, this still isn’t enough insulin, and they develop gestational diabetes.
In most women, gestational diabetes goes away after pregnancy. If you’ve had gestational diabetes, your risk for type 2 diabetes is increased.
According to the Office on Women's Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, you are at risk for type 2 diabetes if you:
- are older than 45
- are overweight or obese
- have a family history of diabetes (parent or sibling)
- are African-American, Native American, Native Alaskan, Hispanic, Asian-American, or Native Hawaiian
- have had a baby with a birth weight more than 9 pounds
- have had gestational diabetes
- have high blood pressure
- have high cholesterol
- exercise less than three times a week
- have other health conditions that are linked to problems using insulin, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- have a history of heart disease or stroke
At all stages of life, women’s bodies present obstacles for managing diabetes and blood sugar. Challenges may occur because:
- The fluctuating hormones associated with the menstrual cycle, childbearing, and menopause make it more difficult to maintain proper blood glucose levels.
- Some birth control pills can increase blood glucose.
- Glucose in your body can cause yeast infections.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prevent or delay diabetes, avoid its complications, and manage symptoms.
There are a variety of medications you can take to manage the symptoms and complications of diabetes. These include:
- insulin therapy
- metformin, which reduces blood sugar
- sulfonylureas like Chlorpropamide, which increase pancreatic insulin secretion
- meglitinides, which stimulate the pancreas to release more insulin
Many patients find that lifestyle changes can help them manage their diabetes. Lifestyle changes include:
- exercising and maintaining a health weight
- avoiding smoking cigarettes
- eating a diet focused on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- monitoring your blood sugar
There are a variety of alternative remedies that women with diabetes can use to manage their symptoms. These include:
- supplements like chromium or magnesium
- eating more broccoli, buckwheat, sage, peas, and fenugreek seeds
- plant supplements
Remember to consult with your doctor before trying any new treatments. Even if they’re natural, they can interfere with current treatments or medications.
There are a variety of complications that are frequently caused by diabetes. Some of the complications that women with diabetes should know the signs and symptoms for are:
- eating disorders: some research suggests that eating disorders are more common in women with diabetes
- coronary heart disease: many women who have type 2 diabetes already have heart disease when diagnosed (even young women)
- skin conditions: including bacterial or fungal infections
- nerve damage: potentially leading to pain, impaired circulation, or loss of feeling in affected limbs
- eye damage: potentially leading to blindness
- foot damage: can result in amputation if not treated promptly
Once you have been diagnosed with diabetes, there is no cure, only symptom management. A recent study has found that women with diabetes are 40 percent more likely to die because of the disease. It also found that all type 1 diabetes patients have shorter life expectancies than the general population. Patients with type 1 diabetes may see their life expectancy lowered by 20 years, and those with type 2 diabetes may see it lowered by 10 years.
Though there is no cure for diabetes, a wide variety of medications, lifestyle changes, and alternative remedies can help manage symptoms and improve overall health. Consult your doctor before starting any new treatments, even if you think they’re safe.