If you are one of the 30+ million Americans who have diabetes, your doctor has probably warned you about blindness, kidney failure, neuropathy, amputations, and heart disease. These debilitating disorders are the most common diabetic complications, and they deserve the spotlight.
Unfortunately, the list of complications from diabetes doesn’t end there. Elevated blood sugar, oxidative stress, inflammation, and other metabolic abnormalities associated with diabetes take a toll on organs and tissues throughout the body—resulting in lesser known (and often surprising) complications.
Hearing, Vision, Smell, & Taste
Because acute sight, hearing, taste, and smell depend on robust blood flow, nerve function, and antioxidant defenses, diabetes is linked with sensory deficits.
- Hearing. People with diabetes are much more likely to have hearing loss—and to develop it at a younger age—due to damage to the auditory nerves and the blood vessels that supply the delicate structures in the inner ear.
- Vision. Diabetic retinopathy is a well-known cause of vision loss, but there are also lesser-known diabetic complications of the eyes such as cataracts and glaucoma.
- Smell & taste. Researchers found that older people with severe insulin resistance were twice as likely to have an impaired sense of smell. Diabetes is associated with alterations in sense of taste as well.
Diabetic Neuropathy: Beyond the Feet
You’ve likely been told to be on the lookout for numbness, tingling, and sensitivity in your feet, as these are signs of diabetic neuropathy, which affects half of individuals with diabetes. But neuropathy isn’t limited to the feet.
Diabetes also injures the autonomic nerves that control involuntary functions such as digestion, bladder function, and sexual function. As a result, people with diabetes are more prone to:
- Urinary tract infections. Diabetes and urinary tract infections are common. When the nerves that supply the bladder fail to respond, the bladder doesn’t empty completely, and recurrent infections may set in. Urinary incontinence may also develop.
- Erectile dysfunction. Two-thirds of men with type 2 diabetes have some degree of erectile dysfunction, which is related to both nerve and circulation impairment.
- Digestive problems. Constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, and other digestive difficulties arise when nerves that control the gastrointestinal tract are damaged.
Skin Problems & Diabetes
Diabetic ulcers are front and center on any list of complications, but they aren’t the only skin problems connected with diabetes.
- Slow-healing sores & bruises. Like diabetic ulcers, cuts, abrasions, bruises, and bumps are often slow to heal because of damage to the blood vessels that deliver oxygen, nutrients, and immune cells to the skin.
- Acanthosis nigricans. Darkened, slightly thickened, velvety-looking patches of skin in the groin, armpits, neck, and other skinfolds is a skin complication that occurs primarily in people who have diabetes or are obese.
- Infections. Skin complications with diabetes include increased risk of bacterial infections (boils, infected hair follicles, styes) and fungal infections (athlete’s foot, nail infections, ringworm, jock itch, vaginal yeast infections).
- Dry, itchy skin & hair loss. Dry, itchy skin may be due to yeast infections or poor circulation, so it is not uncommon in diabetes. Some studies have also linked diabetes with conditions that cause hair loss.
Diabetes & Sleep Apnea
Are diabetes and sleep apnea linked? Snoring is a cardinal sign of sleep apnea, a serious disorder that does more than disrupt sleep. It is also associated with weight gain, insulin resistance, oxidative stress, inflammation—and a significant increase in the risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mood and memory problems. And if you already have diabetes, sleep apnea makes harder to control.
If you have diabetes, get tested for sleep apnea—even if you don’t snore. Sleep apnea treatment with CPAP or APAP (continuous or automatic positive airway pressure) can make a huge difference in your health, well-being, and longevity.
More Little-Known Complications of Diabetes
I wish I could say that’s the extent of it, but there are many more little-known complications of diabetes. Here’s a partial list:
- Osteoporosis. Research shows both type 2 and especially type 1 diabetes are associated with decreased bone mineral density and higher fracture risk.
- Anemia. Most common in individuals with diabetic kidney disease, anemia (low red blood cell count) can also worsen other complications of diabetes.
- Gout. This type of arthritis is related to an excess of uric acid, and people with diabetes are more likely to have elevated levels.
- Shoulder pain & diabetic frozen shoulder. Pain, stiffness, or limited range of motion of the shoulder affects about a quarter of people with diabetes, compared to just 5 percent of the general population. Other musculoskeletal problems are also more common.
- Dental problems. Gum disease, tooth decay, tooth loss, and dry mouth are overlooked complications of diabetes.
- Respiratory infections. Impaired immune function in people with diabetes increases the frequency and severity of colds, flu, pneumonia, and other respiratory infections.
- Cognitive dysfunction & dementia. Diabetes has adverse effects on the brain and increases the likelihood of developing memory problems and dementia.
The sheer number of diabetic complications can be overwhelming, but don’t get discouraged. There are solutions for virtually all of these problems.
The Solution? Make Blood Sugar Control Your #1 Priority
The most important thing to remember is that every one of these problems is directly related to diabetes. Therefore, making it your top priority will go a long way towards improving—and protecting against—all diabetic complications.
Treating diabetes requires more than taking a drug and testing your blood sugar. It requires a program of diet changes, exercise, weight loss, and targeted supplements that address not only blood sugar but also oxidative stress, inflammation, and other underlying risk factors.
Granted, this approach also requires desire, focus, and more than a little effort on your part. But the rewards—improvements in multiple, perhaps unexpected aspects of your health—are priceless.