This article first appeared in the medical column “Ask-the-Doc” in the World Journal
Although the disease does not cause immediate mortality, it greatly affects the patient's quality of life as well as shortens life expectancy.
Diabetes damages blood vessels in our bodies, especially finer vessels called capillaries. If patients do not take control of their blood sugar levels, they may end up with multiple organ damage, and develop cardiovascular disease, strokes, diabetic retinopathy, and kidney failure. In addition, diabetes can slowly harm nerves and their surrounding vessels, resulting in neuropathy, foot ulcerations and necrosis (death of tissue in the body), which ultimately may lead to amputation.
"We examine everyone's feet during their initial check-up to see if there are any problems," said Dr. Wu. He explained that diabetic patients frequently have tingling feet or hands as the first sign of the disease due to the dense concentration of fine nerves and capillaries in these parts of the body. Patients will gradually lose sensation in their feet and hands and become unable to perceive temperature or pain. The problem is further compounded by delayed healing from bad circulation in these areas. If their feet get injured and they do not receive prompt treatment, minor injuries can turn into potential amputations.
Dr. Wu points out that complications from diabetes will surface after a few years of contracting the disease. In its initial stages, diabetes does not have any clear manifestation of the effect on nerves or blood vessels. Therefore, it needs be detected and confirmed by blood test. "Simply put, having diabetes is akin to submerging one's body in sugary water, causing cell damage slowly," stressed Dr. Wu.
Dr. Wu reminds us that a proper diet and regular exercise are key factors in preventing and controlling diabetes. A diet high in leafy greens and fibers can help control blood sugar levels. For example, substitute white rice with brown rice. Fiber and complex sugars take longer for our bodies to process and break down, allowing the insulin in our blood to better regulate blood sugar levels. "Cutting out the sugar in your diet works the same way,” said Dr. Wu. “Simple sugar gets processed too quickly, which can cause our blood sugar to spike.”
"Avoiding sugary drinks has a similar effect," Dr. Wu explains. A cup of soda can have the same effect of raising one’s blood sugar level as eating a bowl of rice. However, drinking soda does not give one a feeling of fullness, often causing people to over-consume. That can lead to a rapid increase in the blood sugar level.
Research indicates that people with diabetes have reduced life expectancy and decreased quality of life. Therefore, it is wise to immediately start eating healthier, increase exercise, and maintain a normal weight when diagnosed with pre-diabetes — a condition where the blood sugar level in the body is consistently above normal but not yet classified as diabetic.
Calvin Wu, M.D. specializes in endocrinology. He obtained his bachelor's degree in bio-engineering from UC Berkeley, and MD from USC. He completed his residency at USC and his fellowship in endocrinology at UCLA Harbor Medical Center. He practices at El Camino Health.