The immune system and diabetes are closely intertwined.
But does diabetes really weaken immunity?
Keep reading to learn more about the relationship between diabetes and the immune system…
Type 1 Diabetes vs. Type 2 Diabetes
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are caused by problems with insulin—a hormone that regulates blood glucose (sugar).
Insulin is produced in the pancreas.
It regulates blood sugar by moving glucose from the blood and into your cells where it’s used to produce energy.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, meaning the immune system attacks healthy cells.
In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks healthy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
Without insulin, glucose gets stuck in the blood and causes high blood sugar.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or the body becomes resistant to insulin.
It usually develops later in life as a result of poor diet and lifestyle choices, like eating too much sugar.
Symptoms of Diabetes
Type 1 and type 2 diabetes share most of the same symptoms, including:
Increased hunger and thirst
Increased risk of infection
Of course, the main symptom of diabetes is high blood sugar.
If your blood sugar is too high for too long, it can even lead to a diabetic coma.
Over time, diabetes can have a variety of effects on the immune system.
But before we dive into those, let’s explore how the immune system works…
How the Immune System Works
The immune system is a collection of organs and cells that fight foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses.
The immune system is organized into three layers:
3 Layers of the Immune System
1st Layer: The skin and mucous membranes act as a physical barrier.
2nd Layer: The “innate immune system” provides a short-term response to general germs and bacteria.
3rd Layer: The “adaptive immune system” releases special white blood cells, called B cells and T cells, to attack specific pathogens.
Immune System Organs
Bone marrow: Spongy tissue in the bones that produces white blood cells.
Thymus: Gland-like organ above the heart that produces special immune cells called “T cells.”
Lymph nodes: Small, bean-shaped glands on the side of the neck that act as filters for germs.
Spleen: Located in the upper abdomen. It stores immune cells, breaks down blood cells, and triggers blood clotting.
Mucous membranes: Located throughout the body, including the respiratory and urinary tracts. The mucous membranes add a protective layer of sticky fluid between you and pathogens.
However, the most important part of the immune system is the gut.
Over half of the body’s antibodies are found in the walls of the digestive tract.
Antibodies are cells that detect foreign invaders.
The gut also contains healthy bacteria, called gut flora, that strengthen the gut lining.
Gut flora prevents germs and inflammation from entering the bloodstream.
When inflammation enters the bloodstream, it can cause chronic inflammation and promote diabetes.
Next, we’ll take a closer look at the relationship between diabetes and the immune system…
Immune System and Type 1 Diabetes
In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.
Over time, the patient loses their ability to produce insulin entirely.
This is why type 1 diabetics have to take insulin injections.
Although the cause of type 1 diabetes isn’t fully understood, it seems to be genetic.
However, researchers think that diet and environmental factors may trigger early symptoms.
Immune System and Type 2 Diabetes
In type 2 diabetes, high blood sugar makes the immune system go haywire.
Here’s what happens:
Step #1: High blood sugar causes chronic inflammation and insulin resistance
Step #2: Chronic inflammation damages insulin-producing cells in the pancreas
Ultimately, type 2 diabetes is an inflammatory disease.
Studies show that insulin resistance is connected to high levels of cytokines—inflammatory cells produced during the immune response. (1)
We still have a lot to learn about the immune system and diabetes, but one thing is for sure:
Chronic inflammation is closely involved.
Does Diabetes Really Weaken Immune Function?
People with diabetes are much more likely to develop infections.
This is because high blood sugar weakens the immune defenses.
At the same time, people with diabetes have poor blood circulation.
Ultimately, poor circulation can slow the body’s healing processes and lead to nerve damage.
According to a 2018 study, diabetics are more likely to get: (2)
Urinary tract infections
Surgical site infections
Yeast infections are one of the most common types of infections for diabetics.
In people with diabetes, yeast cells (Candida albicans) easily grow in the mucous membranes in the mouth, vagina and nose.
That’s because Candida’s favorite food is, you guessed it…SUGAR.
Even worse, Candida interferes with white blood cells.
It’s the perfect storm for weakened immunity!
How else does diabetes break down the immune system?
Diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage) can cause you to lose sensation in the feet.
This makes it very easy for small foot injuries to go unnoticed and become infected.
Once the foot is infected, it has a hard time healing because of poor blood flow.
Surprisingly, your blood pressure doesn’t even have to be that high for you to be at risk.
For example, one study found that people with slightly high blood sugar are more likely to get a surgical infection. (3)
These same patients tend to have longer recovery times as well.
Is Your Immune System Doomed, or Is There Hope?
There is hope!
You definitely aren’t doomed to infection and disease just because you have diabetes.
Most of the time, the people who have problems are the ones who don’t manage their blood sugar well.
In the end, high blood sugar is what hurts immunity.
On its own, diabetes doesn’t automatically disrupt basic immune functions.
As long as you do a good job of managing your blood sugar, your immune system can thrive.
Even with type 1 diabetes, where the immune system attacks healthy cells, the rest of the immune system can function just fine.
Manage your glucose wisely, and you’re no more or less likely to catch a cold.
How to Strengthen Immunity and Treat Diabetes Naturally
Whether you have type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes, a healthy diet and plenty of exercise can help you manage your symptoms.
Let’s take a closer look at how to treat diabetes and lower blood sugar naturally:
1. Eat Low-Glycemic Foods
The “glycemic index “measures how the body’s blood sugar responds to certain foods.
If a food is high on the glycemic index, it spikes blood sugar.
Foods with a low glycemic index, on the other hand, barely raise blood sugar at all.
Eating a low-glycemic diet is proven to reduce long-term blood sugar in diabetics. (4)
Foods with a low glycemic index include:
2. Limit Your Carb Intake
The body breaks down carbs into sugar, so it’s best to avoid carbs as much as you can.
In fact, eating too many carbs can be just as bad as eating sugar.
Over time, it can lead to insulin problems.
Planning your meals and counting carbs can improve blood sugar control, but the best solution is to follow a low-carb diet.
Studies show that a low-carb diet can help prevent blood sugar spikes and reduce long-term blood sugar levels. (5)
3. Eat More Fiber
Fiber slows digestion and sugar absorption.
But not all fiber is created equal…
There are two kinds of fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber.
Soluble fiber mixes easily with water in the gut and reduces blood sugar spikes. Examples include gums, psyllium, and pectins.
Insoluble fiber does not mix well with water and passes right through the digestive system. It’s good for treating constipation but bad for slowing blood sugar absorption. Examples include lignin and cellulose.
Different plants have different amounts of soluble and insoluble fiber.
Foods that are high in soluble fiber are vegetables, fruits, legumes, and oats.
However, you should avoid legumes, like peanuts, because they contain inflammatory compounds called lectins. Oats are also quite inflammatory.
4. Monitor Your Blood Glucose
Measuring your blood sugar is the best way to control it.
Measuring your blood sugar before and after meals will help you identify which foods spike blood sugar.
And it’s not all about blood sugar either…
You might find that certain foods make you foggy-headed and tired.
Try to measure your levels every day and document them in a log.
This way you’ll be able to see patterns develop over time.
5. Eat Foods High in Chromium
Chromium helps control blood sugar because it is closely involved in carb metabolism.
Ultimately, people with chromium deficiency are more likely to have problems digesting carbs.
Research shows that taking chromium supplements can support insulin control in people with type 2 diabetes. (6)
Chromium-rich foods include:
6. Boost Your Magnesium Intake
Magnesium is one of the most important minerals for mental health, cellular energy, and blood sugar levels.
Studies show that magnesium deficiency is linked to type 2 diabetes.
On the flip side, one study found that a high magnesium intake can reduce the risk of diabetes by up to 47 percent. (7)
Magnesium-rich foods include:
Dark leafy greens
7. Drink Plenty of Water
Regularly drinking water hydrates the blood and reduces the risk of diabetes.
Hydration is key for immunity, cellular energy, and blood sugar levels.
Plus, you need water in your system so that the kidneys can remove extra sugar through the urine.
Studies show that low water intake can increase the risk of high blood sugar. (8)
Electrolyte-enhanced water is best.
Together, electrolytes support hydration and help move glucose out of the blood and into the cells.
8. Exercise Regularly
Exercise improves insulin sensitivity.
Plus, exercise can help you lose weight, and obesity is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
At the same time, exercise helps the muscles burn more blood sugar.
Good forms of exercise include:
People with blood sugar issues should always test themselves before and after exercise.
Long workouts without eating can cause blood sugar to drop dangerously low.
9. Stress Management
You can’t manage diabetes if you don’t manage stress.
The bottom line is, stress affects blood sugar levels.
When the body releases stress hormones, like cortisol, blood sugar levels spike.
But reducing stress through yoga, meditation and breathwork can help you control blood sugar.
For example, studies show that yoga can improve insulin secretion in people with diabetes. (9)
10. Quality Sleep
Quality sleep reduces stress, promotes a healthy weight, and supports blood sugar control.
Poor sleep, on the other hand, disrupts hormones, increases appetite, and promotes weight gain.
When you don’t sleep well, stress hormones increase and blood sugar levels rise.
Try to get at least 8 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night.
If you have any more questions about the immune system and diabetes, feel free to contact us at Complete Care Health Centers.
We’re happy to answer any questions you may have.