Diabetes and the Heart: 4 Ways to Improve Vascular Health

Brown paper bag with food in it and the word diabetes on the bag.Just over 1 in 10 Americans have diabetes. This is an alarmingly high number of people considering diabetes is one of the leading causes of heart disease. So let’s take a look at:

  • What is diabetes?
  • Why is diabetes dangerous?
  • How does diabetes contribute to cardiovascular disease?
  • What is the role of gut bacteria in diabetes and cardiovascular disease?
  • 4 ways to lower your risk of diabetes and cardiovascular problems

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a metabolic condition in which your body doesn’t effectively produce or use insulin leading to high blood sugar levels. There are several different types of diabetes. The main types of diabetes are:

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is thought to be an autoimmune disorder. It generally surfaces during childhood and is a lifelong condition. Patients need to take insulin daily since their body cannot create it on its own. About 5-10% of diabetes cases are Type 1.

Type 2 Diabetes 

Type 2 diabetes is a condition that is developed over time and is generally diagnosed in adulthood. However, younger and younger people are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and should be monitored if they’re high risk. With type 2 diabetes, your body doesn’t use insulin properly and therefore cannot keep your blood sugar levels within a normal range.

Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes develops in pregnant women who never had a diabetes diagnosis prior to becoming pregnant. While it will go away after the baby is born, these women are at a higher risk for Type 2 later in life. Their children are also at high risk for Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Prediabetes

Prediabetics have higher than normal levels of blood sugar but do not have full-blown Type 2 diabetes yet. They are able to make lifestyle changes that reduce their risk of complications associated with prediabetes like Type 2 diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular diseases. 

Here we are going to focus on Type 2 diabetes since it is the most common diagnosis.

Diabetes involves several body organ systems. Originally it was thought to only affect the pancreas since it’s the organ that produces the hormones to regulate your blood sugar levels. But since your pancreas has exocrine and endocrine functions, it affects much more than just the pancreas. 

The exocrine functions allow it to provide the small intestines with digestive enzymes that help to break down your food.
The endocrine functions create hormones like insulin and glucagon that are sent right into your blood to control sugar levels. 

Why is diabetes dangerous?

Insulin is secreted to balance the sugar levels after we eat and distribute extra sugar into the liver and muscles to be stored. 

When sugar levels are too low, glucagon will activate this stored sugar and have it be released to keep the sugar levels normal.

Diets high in sugar create a surplus of sugar that your body can no longer store in the muscles and liver. The extra sugar creates problems because:

  • It’s stored as fat on your body
  • Puts stress on your organs
  • Creates a constant state of inflammation throughout your body
  • Causes your body to struggle to regulate blood sugar levels on its own

This will lead to symptoms like:

  • Visual disturbances
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Fatigue 
  • High blood pressure
  • Nerve damage
  • Cracked or dry skin
  • Other diseases like obesity, cardiovascular disease, ketoacidosis, and problems with your liver, kidneys, or other organs

Cardiovascular diseases are the most common cause of death among diabetics. 

 

How does diabetes contribute to cardiovascular disease?

Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) is strongly associated with metabolic changes within the cells. This causes them to dysfunction and results in oxidative stress and constant states of low-grade inflammation

Oxidative stress and systemic inflammation are the causes of most diseases. When they are caused by hyperglycemia and poor insulin control, it affects the cells in the circulatory system. The circulatory (cardiovascular) system consists of your heart and blood vessels (arteries, capillaries, veins, etc).

Your cardiovascular system transports nutrients and oxygen to all of your other body parts and organs. During states of chronic inflammation or oxidative stress your body is trying to focus on getting back to homeostasis which puts normal maintenance-type jobs on hold. 

If your body is constantly being stressed — like it is with diabetes — the organs associated become stressed/overworked and start to malfunction. Since your pancreatic hormones directly affect the blood vessels this puts additional stress on the vessels and your heart. Which leads to diseases like atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), obesity, heart disease, and hypertension.

What is the role of gut bacteria in diabetes and cardiovascular disease?

Woman pricking her finger to check her diabetesThe first intervention usually done with prediabetics or newly diagnosed diabetics is dietary controls. While you’d think cutting sugar out of the diet would be enough, there are a few other factors at hand when it comes to how the gut affects the severity of diabetes. 

Studies have shown that prediabetic and diabetic patients have lower bacterial diversity than non-diabetics. One particular bacterial strain that has been noticeably low in these patients is Akkermansia muciniphila. When this strain was increased there were great differences in glucose homeostasis and insulin control

Metformin is commonly prescribed for prediabetic and diabetic patients. Metformin has interesting effects on the gut microbiota. While it helps to increase butyrate-producing bacteria (a short-chain fatty acid that helps improve health) it was also found to increase Escherichia (a bacteria shown to cause intestinal problems like diarrhea). So while Metformin has some microbial improving qualities it also has others that do the opposite explaining common side effects of the medication.

Studies have shown that the higher microbial diversity the better control patients were able to have over their diabetes. This then reduces the risks of cardiovascular diseases related to diabetes. To get more microbial diversity eat foods that have polyphenols, prebiotics, probiotics, or postbiotics. Or check out a supplement like Atrantil that provides you with polyphenols, prebiotics, and postbiotics bringing balance to your gut without adding bacterial strains directly.

4 ways to lower your risk of diabetes and cardiovascular problems

So now that you know the risk factors and how diabetes can be dangerous, let’s talk about getting it under control. Here are some of the top ways to control your diabetes that you can discuss with your doctor.

1. Fasting

**Quick disclaimer on fasting: consult with your doctor to create a safe strategy and to figure out your caloric goals on both fasting and non-fasting days to make sure you don’t make your problems worse.**

Fasting was a controversial topic for diabetic patients since the insulin control within the body isn’t consistent. However, there have been several successful studies with using a 5:2 fasting regimen for getting glycemic control. 

One study focused on well-controlled diabetic patients. They implemented a 5:2 fasting (5 days normal diet : 2 days at 500-600 calories) versus a caloric restriction diet (1200-1500 calories/day). No other changes were made in the lifestyles of the participants. The control was similar between both groups and it was found to be a safe method of dietary control for diabetic patients. However, the patients in the fasting group found it easier to maintain their weight loss as opposed to the caloric restriction group.

2. Focus on eating the right foods

There are a lot of tempting foods that you’ll want to eat, however, a lot of them are high in everything you shouldn’t have. Focusing on foods that will support good health can help you to keep your levels just right. Some of the main foods you should look at getting into your diet if you have diabetes or heart issues include:

  • Vegetables 
  • Fruits (ones that are low in fructose) — pomegranate is great for both coronary diseases and diabetes control because of its polyphenols 
  • Whole grains (avoid the overly-processed, white grains)
  • Lean proteins 
  • Nuts (pistachios are great for the heart and diabetic health)
  • Dairy
  • Healthy fats (avocados, fish, olive oil, etc.)

3. Monitor your insulin levels regularly

Sometimes it can slip your mind to test your blood sugar as you should. But keeping on top of your checks can help you to monitor which foods aren’t right for you. And it can also help you to know how frequently you should be eating to better plan out your meals and snacks.

4. Find the best exercise for you

Sometimes diabetes will affect your legs and feet and cause you to be unable to keep up with certain workout routines. Fortunately, there are a lot of options when it comes to getting your blood moving which will help to reduce your diabetic symptoms and keep your cardiovascular system healthy. Check out workouts like:

  • Walking
  • Cycling
  • Swimming
  • Resistance exercises like weights and resistance bands
  • Flexibility and balance exercises like tai chi and yoga

As always talk to your doctor about what will be the best method for you to get your diabetes under control. It’s so important for your longevity and heart health to make sure your symptoms aren’t controlling your life. The information in this article is not meant to prescribe, diagnose, treat, or override the plan of action created by your healthcare provider. 

If you think this information would help someone you know or love, give it a share.

Check out these articles if you want to learn more about the benefits of fasting!

Fasting: Is it good for you?

Types of Fasting and the Differences

To Fast or Not To Fast: Is Time-Restricted Eating Good for Gut Health?

Diabetes and the Heart: 4 Ways to Improve Vascular HealthDiabetes and the Heart: 4 Ways to Improve Vascular Health