Updated 26 January 2017

Diabetes: take charge of high blood sugar levels

Undiagnosed or unmanaged high blood sugar leads to serious health problems, but you can dramatically lower your risk for these with lifestyle changes.

High blood sugar/glucose can damage both the large arteries and the tiny blood vessels that serve all parts of the body, so it can potentially affect every organ system and cause serious complications. These include:
  • Heart disease and stroke. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in people with diabetes. Other cardiovascular problems, such as poor circulation to the legs and feet, are also more likely.

  • Eye problems. Most people with diabetes get some form of retinopathy, a disorder of the retina (the light-sensitive “film” at the back of the eye). Other common vision problems are cataracts (clouding of the eye) and glaucoma (increased pressure within the eye). These may even lead to blindness: diabetes is the biggest cause of new cases of blindness in adults.

  • Kidney damage. High blood sugar affects the arteries, and as the kidneys filter blood from many arteries, it raises risk for kidney problems. Diabetes is the leading cause of nephropathy (severe kidney disease).

  • Nerve damage. Prolonged exposure to high glucose levels can damage the nerves (neuropathy). This is experienced as numbness or tingling in the feet or hands. People with neuropathy often don't perceive pain or changes of bodily position well. You may not notice injuries, especially of the feet, and don't bear your weight properly. This, together with poor circulation, raises risk for developing foot ulcers. In the worst cases, unhealed ulcers lead to leg and foot amputations.

  • Infections. High blood sugar may make it harder for the immune system to fight infections. Gum diseases, among several other infectious illnesses, are more likely.

  • Problems in pregnancy. Poorly managed diabetes before and during pregnancy can cause birth defects, miscarriages and abnormal birth weight.

Medical science believes that lifestyle and type 2 diabetes are closely linked. So, healthy choices go a long way towards preventing high blood glucose and reducing the risk of complications in people who already have diabetes.

Preventing diabetes: top lifestyle tips

Many of these recommendations will be familiar: they are much the same as those to ward off heart disease.

  • See your doctor regularly for all tests and checkups recommended for your age and health status. Have your blood glucose tested by at least age 45 – earlier if you have risk factors for diabetes.

  • Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control.

  • Get regular exercise. This helps lower blood glucose, promote weight loss and reduce stress. Aim to do some type of aerobic exercise (i.e. that raises your pulse rate) at least 30 minutes most days. Check with your doctor if you've been inactive and you're about to start a new exercise programme.

  • Maintain a healthy weight and lose weight if you need to. Adietician can help you with a suitable weight loss plan.

  • Follow a healthy diet. Choose unrefined carbohydrates like whole-grain bread, brown rice, whole grain pasta and whole oats, and a rich variety of fruits and vegetables, including pulses (e.g. beans, lentils). These foods help keep blood glucose at a more constant, healthy level, and should make up the bulk of your diet.

  • Avoid foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, highly refined and processed food, and those with added sugar and salt. Skip the white bread, white rice, pastries, cakes, sweets and sugared sodas – these can make blood glucose spike rapidly.

  • Limit alcohol to maximum 2 drinks per day for men, 1 for women.

  • If you smoke, stop. Ask your doctor about smoke cessation options that can help.

  • Manage your stress levels.


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Dr. May currently works as a fulltime endocrinologist and has been in private practice since 2004. He has a variety of interests, predominantly obesity and diabetes, but also sees patients with osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, men's health disorders, pituitary and adrenal disorders, polycystic ovaries, and disorders of growth. He is a leading member of several obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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