Does Diabetes Weaken the Immune System?

Previously Published on ChicagoTribune.com – Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes affect millions of people around the world, although many who suffer from it have not been officially diagnosed with the disease. The most common warning signs of diabetes have become widely publicized in recent years. They include excessive thirst, general fatigue, blurred vision, numbness in the extremities and changes in personality. However, there is another side effect of diabetes that can lead to serious health problems left unchecked. A number of undiagnosed or under-treated diabetics can also have compromised immune systems. As a result of the changes in blood chemistry and the nervous system. This isn’t the same process as a cancer patient losing all immunity due to strong chemotherapy, but more of a reduction of the body’s natural immune reaction.

But it is important to understand that not all diabetics, regardless of type, have compromised immune systems, and they are not noticeably more vulnerable to opportunistic infections, such as influenza or a common cold. The effects of uncontrolled hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) tend to target a fragile diabetic’s skin, urinary tract, kidneys and eyes.

Diabetes information: Cause and diagnosis

The actual cause of diabetes is still being studied, but there are several different mechanisms. Type 1 (juvenile onset) is considered an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own pancreas and other organs that produce certain blood cells. Type 2 diabetes (adult onset) happens when the pancreas essentially “burns out” and stops producing enough insulin to break down incoming carbohydrates, especially sugar. A doctor will take a blood or urine sample to test for higher levels of sugar in the body. Excessively high levels that do not reduce over time can indicate uncontrolled diabetes.

Diabetes and the immune system

How a high level of blood sugar (hyperglycemia) affects the immune system is complicated. Humans are born with an innate immune system that automatically kicks in whenever an outside threat is detected. Think of a breakout of hives following a bee sting or excessive sneezing after breathing dust or pollen. Over time, the human body also develops an acquired immune system once it reacts to new invaders such as measles or chickenpox. The body develops specialized blood cells that react after the innate system has been compromised.

Uncontrolled hyperglycemia damages some of these specialized blood cells, affecting the body’s ability to fight off an infection. It can also cause nerve damage, which means damage to the skin is not always sensed by the body’s immune system. An uncontrolled diabetic with neuropathy, for example, can cut his foot but not realize the skin has been broken. Opportunistic infections can set in before the immune system can send out white blood cells.

Common diabetic conditions caused by immunosuppression

Skin infections

Our skin is the first line of defense against many potential infections and diseases, and unfortunately, it is also more likely to be affected by uncontrolled hyperglycemia. Nerve damage reduces the skin’s ability to detect unwanted visitors, and the population of healthy skin flora that help with defense can also be reduced.

Many diabetics experience frequent yeast infections as a result, especially in remote folds of skin. Yeast thrive in such an environment, especially with the elevated levels of sugar. The use of antifungal creams or genital yeast infection medications can bring some relief, and special antimicrobial soaps also help maintain the proper skin chemistry to avoid yeast infections or other skin rashes.

Urinary tract infections

Another system commonly affected by uncontrolled hyperglycemia is the urinary tract. The environment is almost ideal for bacterial or viral growth, and the body’s slower immune response also contributes to the condition. Diabetics frequently experience bladder, kidney and urethral infections that require OTC or prescription medications for treatment.

The good news is that when diabetics gain better control over their blood sugar levels, generally through medication, dietary changes and exercise, the frequency and intensity of UTIs tend to lessen. As blood sugar levels normalize, the environment becomes less hospitable to bacteria and harmful fungi.

Foot ulcers and circulatory infections

A condition called neuropathy is a common side effect of a compromised circulatory and nervous system. Uncontrolled diabetics can lose sensation in their feet, which leaves them vulnerable to cuts, punctures and fungal infections. When open sores become infected, they can escalate into painful foot ulcers.  Topical wound care treatments can help keep foot ulcers in check, but neuropathy itself can be a progressive and chronic side effect.

Other areas of the body can also be affected by a compromised circulatory or nervous system. Some diabetics report a painful tingling sensation throughout the day, especially in the extremities. Poor circulation caused by hyperglycemia can also make fingers feel numb or cold.

How to improve a compromised immune system

Get a proper diagnosis and treatment

Many of these health conditions can be linked directly to unchecked, undiagnosed and untreated adult-onset diabetes. Once a proper diagnosis has been made, the effects of high blood sugar on the body tend to diminish noticeably. Prescription diabetes medications help remove excess sugar from the bloodstream and reduce stress on the pancreas and kidneys. Simply being treated for diabetes can improve your compromised immune systems naturally.

Add vitamins and supplements to your diet

Many diabetics also seek out vitamins and supplements designed to boost the immune system. Consulting a medical professional before starting a holistic regimen, however, it is highly recommended. Zinc is a very important supplement for the immune system, so a zinc-heavy product such as Jarrow Formulas Zinc Balance could be very helpful. Calcium and magnesium are also believed to boost immunity naturally.

Stress reduction

Stress can also have an effect on the body’s immune system, so diabetics are often encouraged to find ways to reduce stress throughout the day. Some find relief through soothing essential oils, while others consider meditation, power naps, yoga or sports activities. Stress can also create a response in the body that negatively affects blood sugar control.

Healthier diet and lifestyle

Diabetics must follow diet plans that are lower in complex carbohydrates and higher in protein. By eating healthier foods with lower glycemic levels, a diabetic has a much better chance of controlling blood sugar. There are a number of diabetic cookbooks available that can suggest healthier meals with immunity-boosting ingredients. Eating more controlled portions and taking blood glucose readings between meals can also help diabetic maintain a healthy weight, which also affects the immune system.

Previously Published on ChicagoTribune.com
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