Diabetes, Digestion and Gastroparesis: What You Need to Know
In the post we explore how diabetes can impact the gut and go in-depth into gastroparesis, a common problem among those with diabetes.
Most people living with diabetes are aware that, when not properly managed, this disease can lead to a number of critical health conditions, including cardiovascular problems, nerve damage, retinopathy, and kidney disease. These major conditions tend to get most of the press surrounding diabetes. However, did you know that diabetes and the high blood sugar associated with it can also play a role in digestion? It’s true and if you’re among the more than 34 million Americans who are currently living with diabetes, it’s possible that the little rumble in your gut or those bouts of nausea are trying to tell you something.
Are My Stomach Issues Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
You’ve surely seen commercials and read headlines about treatments for irritable bowel syndrome or IBS. This is condition that’s actually used to describe a number of different gastrointestinal symptoms, and the amount of people who are dealing with IBS might surprise you. It’s estimated that about ten to fifteen percent of the U.S. population suffers from some sort of IBS related symptoms. That’s a lot of people. The good news for those with IBS is that the condition, while it does cause some discomfort, usually does not damage the intestinal track, which might lead to further and more serious intestinal issues.
If you are experiencing bloating, gassiness, nausea, or stomach discomfort, it very well might be IBS. You should make plans to see your doctor who will give you an exam, review your medical history, and determine if it is, in fact, IBS. However, if you’re living with diabetes, particularly if you experience regular highs in blood sugar, it’s likely that irritable bowel syndrome is not the cause of your gut problems. Unfortunately, you might be facing a more serious condition among diabetics called gastroparesis.
Diabetic Gastroparesis - What Is It?
Diabetic Gastroparesis is a condition that usually occurs in individuals who have been living with diabetes for a decade or more and experience high blood sugar levels. Gastroparesis is extremely serious because it impacts the way your stomach muscles work and the way your body digests food.
In a healthy person, the stomach muscles tense (or contract) to move food through the digestive tract. This process is controlled by the vagus nerve. In someone suffering from gastroparesis, high blood sugar has damaged the vagus nerve so profoundly that the stomach muscles are unable to function properly and move food effectively through the GI tract.
When this happens, the stomach does not empty, and food remains in the body longer than it should. There are number of reasons this is dangerous and must be medically addressed as soon as possible.
This not only impacts digestion, it makes it difficult manage blood sugar levels and insulin treatments around the foods you eat because these foods are not moving through the gastrointestinal system and being emptied in the normal fashion.
The Dangers of Gastroparesis
Gastroparesis is nothing to take lightly. One reason is when food remains in the body longer it can do a number on how high and low your blood sugar becomes. It’s somewhat of a viscous circle. High blood sugar is what probably led to the Gastroparesis, at the same time, having the condition is making it far more difficult to control your blood sugar and manage your insulin treatment plan, thereby, furthering the related gastro complications, which in turn, compound the difficulty of managing your blood sugar highs and lows.
One of the biggest dangers of gastroparesis is malnutrition. This can occur because the condition often makes it difficult for the body to absorb the key vitamins and nutrients in food. Plus, one of the symptoms of gastroparesis is feeling prematurely full (as food has remained in the stomach). This can dramatically limit appetite to the point you simply don’t consume enough food to sustain the body. Eventually, this improper nutrition can result in the onset of anemia. Additionally, there is the danger that undigested food in the stomach hardens into what’s called a “bezoar”, blocking the stomach entirely and keeping food from moving into the small intestine.
Gastroparesis can also cause frequent vomiting which can lead to severe dehydration, something that all those living with diabetes should avoid.
Symptoms of Gastroparesis
One of the big tells that you might be experiencing gastroparesis is feeling overly full. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out the feeling we’ve all experienced after gorging on a big meal - bloating, discomfort, maybe even pain. You often hear someone say, “I feel stuffed.” Well imagine feeling this way after only consuming a small amount of food or even a tiny snack. This is a common symptom of gastroparesis. Others include:
– Heartburn or Acid Reflux
– Frequent Vomiting
– Abdominal Bloating
– Weight Loss
– Trouble Controlling Blood Sugar
How Is Gastroparesis Diagnosed?
There are a few “gastric emptying tests” your doctor can use determine whether or not you’ve developed the condition. Most likely, it’ll be done using scintigraphy, a process during which you consume a special meal or drink containing a safe amount of radioactive material. A device which measures radioactivity is then placed over your stomach to measure the speed at which the test food or drink moves through the GI tract. If this movement is unusually slow, chances are it’s due to gastroparesis.
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, see your doctor right away. It is the only way to know for sure if you are suffering from gastroparesis.
Can Gastroparesis Be Cured?
Unfortunately, once developed there is no cure for gastroparesis. However, there are things you can do to manage the condition and its symptoms.
If you have gastroparesis, this will likely be more of a challenge. Ask your doctor if you should test your blood sugar more frequently. If you’re not already using one, you might also inquire about switching to a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) device which can provide continuous blood glucose readings.
There are numerous medications that can help treat gastroparesis, including Dramamine, which is available over the counter. Your doctor will go over all your options.
- Eating Habits
Eat frequent small meals that are low in fat and fiber, as both can exacerbate the symptoms of gastroparesis.
- Cut Out the Bad Stuff
Avoid alcohol and, if you’re currently smoking, it’s time to quit. Booze and tobacco will only make matters worse.
- Drink Plenty of Water
It’s important to avoid dehydration, especially if you’re prone to frequent vomiting due to gastroparesis. For adults, figure 6 to 10 cups each day.
- Be Active
Physical activity is known to aid in the digestive process.
- Talk to Your Doctor
Again, if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of gastroparesis see your diabetes physician as soon as possible. Your doctor will help you formulate a plan of action, which might include removing certain prescription and over-the-counter medications that can contribute to digestive problems from your diabetes treatment plan.
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