CDC statistics reveal that every year for the past decade, up to 45 million Americans get the flu. Nearly half of them have symptoms serious enough to seek medical attention, and a significant number are hospitalized.
In fact, influenza and pneumonia (the most common complication of the flu) are our country’s eighth leading cause of death—and a disproportionate number of people who come down with these respiratory infections have diabetes.
How Does Diabetes Affect the Respiratory System?
Although high blood sugar is the defining feature of diabetes, this metabolic disorder adversely affects the entire body, including the respiratory system.
- Inflammation. Diabetes ramps up inflammation and the airways are among the many targeted tissues. Chronic inflammation is believed to be a primary link between diabetes and lung function impairment.
- Blood vessel damage. The lungs depend on a complex network of capillaries surrounding the tiny air sacs where oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange takes place. Inflammation and oxidative stress, which is also elevated in diabetes, damage these microscopic blood vessels and impair respiratory function.
- Obesity. As weight increases—especially in the abdominal area—lung volume and capacity decrease. More than 90 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are obese or overweight, and in most cases it’s abdominal obesity.
Impaired lung function clearly contributes to diabetics’ increased vulnerability to influenza and pneumonia. But there’s more.
The Immune Response Is Impaired by Diabetes
Diabetes also depresses the immune system and the body’s ability to fight off all kinds of infections. In addition to respiratory infections, diabetic ulcers (slow-healing, infected sores that in severe cases lead to amputation), periodontal disease (gum infection), and bacterial and fungal infections of the skin occur more often in people with diabetes.
This increased susceptibility to infections is believed to be due to diabetes-related metabolic dysfunction that directly affects the immune response:
- Disruption of the innate immune system. Diabetes, and the chronic inflammation and oxidative stress that accompany it, disrupt the innate immune system, which is the body’s first line of attack against bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens.
- Alterations in critical immune cells. Chronically elevated blood sugar is associated with alterations in the activity and proliferation of T cells, natural killer cells, monocytes, macrophages, and other critical immune cells.
- Exacerbating coexisting conditions. Chronic conditions such as obesity, kidney problems, and heart disease—common complications of diabetes—further hamper the immune response. Even if you don’t have diabetes, these disorders are independent risk factors for influenza, pneumonia, and other respiratory infections.
Pneumonia, Influenza, & Diabetes Management
Diabetes not only makes you less resistant to respiratory infections, it also worsens their severity. Flu tends to hit people with diabetes particularly hard. The CDC reports that about 30 percent of adults who are hospitalized due to the flu have diabetes. They are more likely to develop complications such as pneumonia and bronchitis—and three times more likely to die of respiratory infections than those without diabetes.
You also need to be aware that influenza and pneumonia complicate diabetes management. Infectious illnesses may make your blood sugars erratic and hard to control. Plus, when you’re feeling lousy, appetite is often suppressed and you eat less, which can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). On the other hand, illness can also make blood sugar levels soar.
It’s a vicious cycle. Respiratory infections worsen blood sugar control, and poor blood sugar control increases the risk and severity of infections.
Breaking the Cycle: Prevention & Treatment
The good news is that this cycle can be broken.
- Diabetes management. A focused program of weight loss, regular exercise, a therapeutic diet, and supportive nutritional supplements not only improves blood sugar control but also protects against diabetic complications—including respiratory infections.
- Immune system support. Be extra vigilant about washing your hands often, avoiding exposure to sick people, eating a healthy low-sugar diet, and getting plenty of sleep. I also recommend taking a good daily multivitamin plus extra vitamin C, supplemental probiotics, and vitamin D3 (2,000–5,000 IU or enough to maintain a vitamin D blood level in the 50–80 ng/mL range).
- Natural therapies for respiratory infections. At the first sign of symptoms, increase your vitamin C dose to 500 mg every couple of hours. Zinc lozenges, echinacea, elderberry, aged garlic, and Oscillococcinum also have well-deserved reputations as cold and flu remedies. Drink plenty of fluids, including herbal teas—ginger, eucalyptus, slippery elm, licorice, and wild cherry bark are particularly soothing. And chicken soup really does help relieve congestion.
- Special precautions. Pay closer attention to your blood sugar levels and signs of hypoglycemia when you’re sick, especially if you are using insulin. And don’t wait to talk to your doctor about worsening symptoms of any respiratory infection.
Diabetes & Other Lung Diseases
Flu and pneumonia aren’t the only lung problems you need to be tuned in to. Diabetes’ also increases the risk of asthma as well as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and other chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD).
This underscores the importance of doing what you can to get a handle on diabetes. You know what to do. Just take a deep breath and begin.