When it comes to diabetes, we talk a lot about symptoms of low blood sugar like shakiness, anxiety, hunger, and high blood sugar like frequent urination, losing weight, thirst, blurred vision, or in extreme cases, diabetic ketoacidosis. These are the symptoms most people would associate with diabetes — a chronic condition in which the pancreas doesn’t produce or use insulin properly, leading to dangerously high or low blood sugar levels. However, what they may not know is that diabetes can cause a much wider range of symptoms than just those listed above. Whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, or love someone who does, it’s important to be aware of all the symptoms that might tag along with diabetes.
As Raynald Samoa, M.D., told the City of Hope blog:
People know a little more about diabetes than they did 10 years ago. But now that diabetes is becoming more and more common, what we’re seeing is that people minimize it, like it’s a cold: ‘Oh, well, everyone else has it.’
Diabetes is certainly more complicated than a common cold, so we partnered with Diabetes Alive to ask our communities to share a “surprising” symptom of diabetes that doesn’t get talked about as much as it should. Diabetes is there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, even if you “look great” on the outside. By being open and honest about all the things it can do to your body, hopefully we can help others with diabetes feel less alone, and raise awareness of the many challenges you’re dealing with every day. Loved ones: These are just some of the symptoms your friend or family member may be coping with. Your support goes a long way.
1. Memory Loss
Having too low or too high blood glucose levels can cause problems with short-term memory, like forgetting words or directions. Some studies have suggested that there also may be a connection between high blood sugar levels and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Memory and mental sharpness can be impacted,” Jaime Cline said. “After numerous years of low blood glucose levels, I struggle with memory loss. My mental clarity can be impacted, especially in the hours after a low glucose event.”
2. Foot Injuries
Over time, high blood sugar levels can lead to nerve and/or blood vessel damage in your feet. You might lose feeling in your feet and not notice a cut or sore, and your feet may not get enough blood or oxygen. It can also take longer for injuries to your feet to heal, and you might notice problems like dry skin, calluses and foot ulcers.
“From a medical standpoint, it’s very easy to seriously injure your feet. A busy day at work caused a serious cyst to form on my big toe that led to an infection of the bone and blood,” Joe H. said. “I was septic for six months and became a right leg below knee amputee.”
3. Emotional Effects on Blood Sugar Levels
Emotions like anxiety and excitement cause stress hormones to be secreted into the bloodstream. As a result, glucose is secreted into the bloodstream, as the body believes it needs more sugar for energy. While bodies without diabetes counteract this by secreting more insulin, those with diabetes do not produce enough insulin to lower their blood glucose. If you have diabetes, you would notice that your blood glucose level went up as a result of your anxious or fearful mood.
“I was initially really surprised by how much [my daughter’s] emotions affected her glucose readings. You obviously expect that being high or low will affect someone’s emotional state, but seeing how much being upset or excited actually caused her levels to change was quite surprising to me,” said Nixie Anker, whose daughter has type 1 diabetes.
Diabetic neuropathy is caused when high blood sugar levels injure nerves in the body, most commonly in the legs and feet. It can cause pain, numbness, tingling and loss of balance, as well as autonomic nervous system issues like problems controlling body temperature, bladder problems and increased heart rate at rest.
“Neuropathy and the pain it causes the body. It’s invisible and debilitating. I may not look sick but my hands and feet feel like they are touching hot lava rocks with every touch and step! My legs feel wrapped in thick prickly ropes and I always have a relentless fever!” Cindy A. said.
5. Yeast Infection
An increase in blood sugar levels can cause yeast to overgrow, leading to yeast infections. There are medications and topical treatments that can help, though people with diabetes may continue to get infections periodically.
“I think one surprising symptom is yeast infections. When you have elevated blood sugars you’re more prone to very ‘stubborn’ yeast infections,” Christel Oerum from Diabetes Strong said.
A particularly bothersome symptom of diabetic neuropathy is itching, caused by high levels of inflammatory cytokines circulating the body. Other problems like kidney or liver disease or adverse effects of medications can cause itching as well.
“For me, it is the localized itch from diabetic kidney disease. It drives me insane. Most people don’t realize that itching itself is a diabetic symptom,” Elizabeth M. said.
“Neuropathic itch. I am not sure how common it is, but mine is a complication after 16 years of type 1 diabetes. A lot of people know about neuropathy pertaining to pain, tingling or numbness, but neuropathic itch of the scalp is just as maddening. It’s an itch that is not relieved by scratching… it’s an itch that torments you in your sleep. It’s an itch that leads to injuries if you cannot consciously moderate your reflexes and impulses at all times,” explained Liz W.
7. Sleepiness and Low Energy
With diabetes, your body has difficulty turning glucose into energy, so you might feel fatigued when you have low blood sugar. In addition, you may have an overall sense of unwellness due to other diabetes symptoms, or feel tired due to waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, check your blood sugar or eat a snack.
“If you don’t produce insulin (or produce very little) or your body isn’t able to utilize the insulin it produces, it can’t move the glucose into the cells and you’re practically starving, as also happens if you don’t eat a whole day — you’ll get sleepy and your energy will be low,” Oerum said.
Managing diabetes is stressful, and it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed and alone. Diabetes can also lead to complications and side effects that may worsen diabetes symptoms, and vice versa — lifestyle choices associated with depression like unhealthy eating and infrequent exercise can also make diabetes worse. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you’re struggling with depression and see if you can try therapy and/or new strategies for better diabetes management.
“Diabetes left uncontrolled can cause depression and anger in a lot of people. It did with me and my relationships with those closest to me suffered tremendously,” Joe H. said.
Gastroparesis is also known as “delayed gastric emptying,” or the stomach working too slowly to empty its contents. Diabetes can lead to damage of the vagus nerve, which controls the digestive tract.
“My stomach emptying has decreased by 25 [percent] due to nerve damage,” Bailey S. said.
10. Positive Life Skills
Of course, diabetes can cause a number of challenging symptoms. But you may also notice it has given you some unexpected life skills, like being able to manage your health, communicate more effectively, appreciate friends and family more and feel gratitude on the good days.
“On the positive side — because of my diabetes, I’m extremely flexible. I am able to pivot very well and bounce back after a setback. I’m very empathetic and sensitive to other people’s struggles. I don’t take things for granted because of my health, I’m very grateful for each healthy and happy day I’m given!” Cline said.
If you have diabetes and any of these symptoms sound familiar, know that you have many other “dia-buddies” out there going through the same thing, and your doctor may be able to help you find some coping strategies. Check out these articles featuring advice and support from others in the diabetes community:
- 9 Things Healthy People With Diabetes Do
- Mental Illness: The Diabetes Complication We Don’t Talk About
- 20 Things People Don’t Realize You’re Doing Because You Have Diabetes