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How Diabetes Affects Your Whole Body

Learn why controlling your blood sugar is so important to keeping your whole body healthy, from head to toe.

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Diabetes is a lifelong condition that requires constant care. If you do not manage your diabetes well, blood sugar can stay at unhealthy levels and can harm your body.

Over time, chronic high blood sugar levels take a toll on your body. You may face a host of health problems. Diabetes that is not controlled eventually can affect you from head to toe. Some examples:

Brain. Chronic high blood sugar levels can affect and damage blood vessels that carry blood to the brain. This can lead to a stroke. A stroke can cause permanent damage or death. Chronic high blood sugar levels may also increase risk for memory issues.

Eyes. Over time, uncontrolled diabetes can cause blood vessel damage throughout the body, including your eyes. Your retina has tiny, fragile blood vessels on it. These blood vessels can swell, weaken and clog. This is called "diabetic retinopathy." In some cases, this can lead to blindness. People with diabetes are also more likely to get cataracts and glaucoma.

Ears. Hearing loss is more common in people with diabetes. It could be because of blood vessel and nerve damage, but studies aren’t conclusive.

Mouth. Periodontal, or gum, disease may be worse in people with diabetes. Doctors are still studying possible causes of this.

Heart. Chronic high blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels. High cholesterol along with the high blood sugar levels can lead to fatty buildup in your blood vessels. This restricts blood flow and can cause blood vessels to harden. If a blood clot forms, a heart attack can occur.

Skin. You are more at risk of developing skin conditions, such as infections.

Nerves. Damage to nerves in your arms, legs and vital organs can occur with chronic high blood sugar levels. This is called “diabetic neuropathy.” It can cause tingling, numbness or loss of feeling. It can be painful and lead to serious problems, such as infection or amputation.

Kidneys. Chronic high blood sugar levels can impair the blood vessels in the kidneys. These blood vessels filter out waste products. Having high blood sugar makes your kidneys work harder. The filtering system may begin to work poorly. If it stops working, the kidneys fail. Diabetes is the main cause of kidney failure.

Stomach. When nerve damage occurs in the stomach, it can cause gastroparesis. With this condition, your stomach cannot properly move food through the digestive tract. Food sits in your stomach for an unpredictable amount of time. That makes blood sugar levels hard to manage.

Bladder. Uncontrolled diabetes can damage the nerves that control bladder function. You may feel the need to urinate often or have some leakage. Other problems may include poor control of sphincter muscles or the inability to fully empty the bladder. More than half of men and women with diabetes have bladder problems.

Reproductive organs. Damage to nerves and blood vessels can lead to sexual problems. For example, men with uncontrolled diabetes are at risk for erectile dysfunction. Women can experience vaginal dryness, pain during sex or a reduced sexual response. Studies also have found lower testosterone levels in men with diabetes. But obesity could be a factor, too.

Legs. Blood vessel damage can lead to narrow or blocked arteries in the legs. This causes a painful condition called peripheral arterial disease (PAD). Not only does PAD cause leg discomfort, but it's also dangerous. PAD increases your risk for heart attack and stroke.

Feet. People with uncontrolled diabetes often have nerve damage and poor blood flow (circulation). Nerve damage can make you lose feeling in your feet. If you step on something sharp, you can get hurt and not know it. Poor circulation makes it difficult for blood to get to your feet to fight off infections. Sometimes, amputation is needed if people have severe foot infections.

How to stay healthy

Taking steps to control your diabetes will help you stay healthy. These steps may help you avoid some health problems or keep others from getting worse:

  • Don't smoke. If you do, get help from your doctor to quit.
  • Monitor your blood sugar as often as recommended by your doctor and keep a record of your readings.
  • Eat nutritious foods. Follow the meal plan created by your doctor or nutritionist.
  • Get regular exercise and avoid being sedentary. With your doctor's permission, aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week. Resistance training, like lifting weights,  at least two times a week is also recommended for people with type 2 diabetes unless you have a condition or symptom that makes this inadvisable.
  • Take your medicine as prescribed. This may include pills, insulin or non-insulin injectable medication. You may also need blood pressure medicines and cholesterol drugs.
  • Brush and floss your teeth. Brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day. Floss at least once a day. See your dentist twice a year for regular checkups.
  • Check your feet each day for scrapes, sores or blisters and report any problems promptly to your doctor. Once a year — or more often if you have foot problems — ask for a comprehensive foot exam. It should include inspection, checking of foot pulses and testing for loss of sensation. Wear shoes that fit properly.
  • See your doctor as often as suggested for checkups. Follow through on recommended tests. And visit an eye doctor annually for a dilated eye exam. Your medical doctor may recommend that you also see other specialists regularly.
  • Get your immunizations. Talk with your doctor about an annual flu shot. Also ask whether you need a pneumonia shot.

By Jenilee Matz, MPH, Contributing Writer

American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes–2015. Diabetes Care. 2015;38:s1-s93. Accessed: September 25, 2015.
National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. Diabetes overview. Accessed: September 25, 2015.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease. Your guide to diabetes: Type 1 and type 2. Accessed: September 25, 2015.
American Diabetes Association. Complications. Accessed: September 25, 2015.

Last Updated: September 28, 2015