Most of us have been bombarded by information warning us of the threat that diabetes poses to our health. But have you ever stopped to consider the strain this illness actually places on the heart?
We know that diabetes can have a major impact on our quality of life if not managed properly by changes to our lifestyle or by the use of certain drugs. We know, for example, that diabetes can seriously affect our nervous system, our kidneys, our eyes and even our body mass. But what is the effect of diabetes on the heart?
WHAT IS DIABETES?
Glucose is the ‘energy currency’ of the cell, essential for all living processes. Diabetes is a chronic, non-infective disorder, the main feature of which is an abnormally high level of glucose in the blood. Technically, it is a failure of the body to properly break down carbohydrates in the diet in order to produce energy. It results from a person’s lack of, or resistance to, insulin – the main hormone controlling the transport of glucose into all living cells. Insulin is secreted by the pancreas.
ARE THERE DIFFERENT TYPES?
Yes – there are two major forms:
Type 1 – This is due to the pancreas failing to produce enough insulin. This more serious form develops mainly in children and adolescents, who will need to take insulin by injection.
Type 2 – Results from the sufferer’s inability to use insulin effectively. This is by far the most common form, and usually comes about from a poor lifestyle, especially unhealthy food and drink, lack of exercise and poor quality sleep. Type 2 diabetes has been increasing dramatically in recent years and is now the fastest growing lifestyle disease in the world.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
The classic early signs and symptoms of diabetes were described by Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Medicine’, way back in Ancient Greek times: raging thirst, frequent urination, and an alarming loss of weight in spite of increased appetite. The inexorable build-up of glucose in the bloodstream sooner or later leads to a whole host of medical complications. To start with, chronic fatigue sets in, often accompanied by persistent itching. Others follow which may even be life-threatening: kidney failure, deteriorating vision, poor wound healing, serial infections such as thrush, and tingling or numbness in hands and feet. Even more alarming to family and friends are the sufferer’s irritability, confusion and other mental disturbances.
EFFECT ON THE HEART AND CIRCULATION
As if this is not bad enough, an increased risk of heart problems and stroke goes along with diabetes if it is not managed properly. Over time, high blood glucose levels damage nerves and blood vessels. They actively encourage deposits of fatty material on the inside of blood vessels that cause them to harden, interfere with es- sential blood flow, and increase the risk of blockage.
People with diabetes also tend to develop coronary heart disease and heart failure at an earlier age than other people. Middle-aged type 2 diabetics are at equal risk of a heart attack as someone without diabetes who has already had one. The risk is even greater in someone who is overweight, has high blood pressure and a lipid problem, as these conspire together to damage the heart and blood vessels.
Fortunately, the type 2 form is preventable and reversible in most cases by simple, inexpensive changes to the sufferer’s lifestyle and personal behaviour. These measures support our capacity for self-healing and restore inner harmony.
REDUCING THE RISK
Not much can be done to counteract any familial genetic risk of heart disease in someone who is diabetic. However, important and effective steps to control other risk factors are effective. The most important one is to lose any excess body weight. The risk of heart disease rises because abdominal fat boosts production of so-called bad cholesterol that deposits on the inside of blood vessel walls. Having high blood pressure makes the heart work harder to pump blood, so it may strain the heart, damage blood vessels, and increase the risk of a heart attack and other problems. Stopping smoking is very important for people with diabetes because both smoking and diabetes narrow blood vessels.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Someone with diabetes can cut down their risk of heart disease, by making a number of reasonable lifestyle changes. As reducing excess body weight is probably the most important, adopting a suitable diet and taking more physical exercise is another. These simple measures not only help to control blood sugar but, as a bonus, may lower raised blood pressure. Consuming more fruit, veg- etables and whole grain products, and cutting down on foods rich in saturated fat and cholesterol is a well-tested way to make meaningful dietary changes. And of course, cutting down or stopping smoking.
- Conventional medicine and cardio-metabolic risk
- SA diabetic association
- International diabetes federation
- Link between diabetes and heart disease
- Tibb and diabetes
- Murray N & Pizzorno J. (2000). Encyclopaedia of Natural Medicine. Little, Brown and Company, USA.
- Watkins, Peter J. (1996) ABC of Diabetes (3rdEd.) BMJ Publ. Group, London, UK.