Bodies in Motion: The Effects of Diabetes on the Body
Type 2 diabetes is a lifelong condition that can have serious, negative effects on literally your entire body. The problems caused by diabetes can range from heart disease to kidney failure to losing toes and fingers to nerve damage.
Monitoring and managing blood sugar (glucose) levels is the key to diabetes treatment. And in fact, the majority of diabetes complications result from elevated blood sugar levels.
Glucose and Cell Damage
Many parts of your body—including your brain, nervous system, heart, and kidneys—pick up glucose directly from the blood. In these (and other) organs, glucose from the blood passes through the cellular walls of your blood vessels (capillaries). However, when blood sugar levels are chronically high, it becomes difficult or even impossible for the capillaries to function normally. They become unable to repair themselves and as a result, more and more glucose leaks through the capillary walls. This prevents nutrients from reaching the cells of the organs in your body, and in bleeding in those areas.
Diabetes and Loss of Eyesight
The eyes are particularly susceptible to this type of cell damage. In the video to the left, you can see how uncontrolled high blood sugar levels can lead to worsening vision, spotting, and even blindness. The retina is the part of the eye where nerves receive incoming light. In order to function, it needs oxygen, partially delivered by tiny, very fragile blood vessels (capillaries) that grow out and across the retina. In cases of high blood sugar, these vessels can become damaged and begin to leak, allowing blood to seep out. This in turn can cause scars to form on the retina, leading to impaired vision. This condition is known as “diabetic retinopathy.”
Diabetes and Blindness
Using the slider to the left, you can see how, over time, continued scarring can create splotches and blurred vision. In the most severe cases, diabetic retinopathy can even lead to total blindness. This is called “proliferative diabetic retinopathy” (PDR). In PDR, abnormal blood vessels grow into the retina in an attempt to replace the damaged capillaries (as seen in the previous video) and leak. Scar tissue can form and cause the retina to detach from the back of your eye. The new blood vessels can also interfere with the flow of fluid out of the eye, leading to pressure build up and (neovascular) glaucoma.
Diabetes and Kidney Failure
The kidney is another area of the body susceptible to glucose-caused cell damage. In the kidneys, blood flows through tiny blood vessels, and small molecules such as waste products are squeezed out through even tinier holes in the vessels. Useful substances stay in the blood, while waste products are dispelled from the body in urine. However, years of uncontrolled glucose can result in kidney failure. Using the slider to the left, you can see how in diabetic nephropathy the blood vessels in the kidneys start to deteriorate, leaking useful proteins out into the urine. Over time, the kidneys lose their filtering ability entirely, leading to kidney failure.
Diabetes and Nerve Damage
It may not seem as bad as kidney failure or blindness, but diabetic neuropathy (i.e., nerve damage caused by diabetes) can be just as debilitating. In fact, this condition can lead to severely damaged extremities and even amputation.
In the video to the left, you can see how long-term high blood glucose can damage the touch receptors in your skin. High blood glucose can also interfere with the ability of the nerves to send signals back to your brain. This leads to loss of feeling, which in turn can lead to the development of sores and ulcers that go undetected and untreated.
Diabetes, Ulcers, and Amputation
It is essential that a person suffering from type 2 diabetes regularly check their feet for sores and ulcers. Because diabetes can cause nerve damage and loss of feeling, it is common for diabetes patients to develop undetected ulcers on their feet. If these go untreated, they can worsen and spread. Blood flow stops and oxygen delivery stalls, which makes the body incapable of healing the area.
The damage can become so problematic and potentially dangerous to the rest of the body that the foot or bottom part of the leg must be amputated.
Preventing Further Damage
Remember, these complications are not inevitable. With the right diet, proper exercise, and good blood glucose management, many type 2 diabetes patients can avoid serious complications.
It is particularely important to closely monitor and manage your blood glucose. Research shows, for example, that lower HB1AC levels can significantly lower your risk for heart disease and serious heart attacks.