DIABETES AND THE IMMUNE SYSTEM: All you need to know

Often doctors talk about how people with diabetes are prone to infections. Have you wondered why? If you have diabetes, have you wondered how you could prevent this from happening to you?

The fact is that infections are more common in people with diabetes than in those without the disease. These infections are even more likely to take a more complicated course in you if you have diabetes than if you do not have the disease. We discuss diabetes and the immune system in this post.

The Immune System

For you to have a better understanding of this topic we ought to discuss what the Immune system really is.

What is the Immune System?

The immune system is your body’s defense system. Made up of a network of cells, proteins and organs, this system helps protect the body against any harmful substances or germs that may make you sick. It keeps you free from infections.

The role of the immune system is to protect you from getting infections like bacteria or viruses, or limit such infections. You are not consciously aware of this system. As long as it is working properly you do not have issues and won’t even notice that it is working. The problem comes when this immune system becomes compromised for whatever reason.

When the immune system becomes compromised, it cannot fight germs, and you are likely to get infections that you would not have gotten if your immune system was working properly. The infection may even be more aggressive than it would have if your immune system was working properly.

What is it made up of?

The components of the immune system that actively fight infection are as follows:

The White Blood Cells

The white blood cells are manufactured in the bone marrow. They move around the body looking for infections. Once they find an infection, they launch what is called an immune attack. The white blood cells are also part of the lymphatic system. They play an important role in the immune system as they are the ones that will kill the infection directly.

Antibodies

Antibodies are also part of the immune system. They recognize substances called antigen on the surface of a toxin. Once recognized, these are marked for destruction by the antibodies.

The complement system

These are proteins which complement the action of antibodies.

The lymphatic system

The lymphatic system is made up of the lymph nodes, lymph vessels and the lymphocytes (white blood cells). These three work together to fight the infection. The lymph nodes filter the lymph fluid for the white blood cells(lymphocytes) to kill this infection.

The spleen

The function of the spleen is to destroy old or damaged red blood cells. It also removes (filters out) microbes (infections) from the body. The spleen is located between your diaphragm and your stomach.

The thymus

The thymus is an organ that is found between the breast bone and the heart. It is involved in the maturation of your lymphocytes (white blood cells). It also produces hormones that are involved in the immune system.

The bone marrow

The bone marrow is a sponge-like tissue found on the inside of your bones. Its main function is to produce the red blood cells, the white blood cells, and the platelets. The white blood cells play a role in fighting infection.

Other defense organs

  • Lungs: the lungs have got phlegm (mucous) that traps potentially harmful substances and the cilia (small hairs) that push this mucus up so that it can be coughed out.
  • Skin: the skin acts as a barrier against infections.
  • Digestive tract: the stomach has acid that kills microbes.
  • Others: these include saliva and tears which have got enzymes that kill bacteria.

Diabetes and the immune system

As earlier discussed when you have diabetes you are more prone to getting infections, and those infections are likely to complicate than if they were in a person without diabetes. Patients with diabetes may experience longer recovery times be it they get infections. This is because diabetes weakens your immune defenses.

The cause of this weakened immune system is thought to be due to elevated blood sugars. Infections thrive better when blood sugars are elevated. On top of this, high blood sugar weakens the body’s ability to respond to these infections or even to the treatment that may be given against this infection.

Diabetes may result in decreased blood flow to the organs due to damaged blood vessels. This will decrease blood flow to the organs of the body, hence slow the ability of the white blood cells to arrive at the site of infection and kill the infection or heal wounds.

Common infection in diabetes

People with uncontrolled diabetes (constantly high blood sugars) are more likely to be infected with unusual infections. Furthermore, they are affected more severely by the common infections such as influenza and Streptococcus pneumonia. To protect you immune system, as a person with diabetes, you are advised to constantly get screened for complications of diabetes and to get vaccinated against flu and pneumococcal diseases.

You are especially prone to the following infections:

Foot infections

Foot infections are the result of neuropathy (nerve damage) and poor blood supply. Nerve damage and poor blood supply are the result of constantly high blood sugar. Furthermore, these foot infections are more likely to take more time to heal in a person with diabetes as opposed to the one without diabetes. They are the commonest infections in diabetes.

Diabetic neuropathy simply means nerve damage by constantly high blood sugar. When your nerves are damaged especially in the feet, you get problems with sensation. As a result, you may get injuries that you may not notice. When these injuries are not treated, they may get infected. Poor blood flow associated with diabetes may lessen the ability to fight infections.

Yeast infections

Yeast infections are the other common infections in diabetes. The commonest sites of these infections are the vagina and the mouth. Yeast cells thrive very well in high blood sugars and replicate more quickly allowing the infection to become worse.

Urinary tract infections

Infections of the surgical site

Avoiding infections

Blood sugar control

Maintaining acceptable levels of your blood sugar is the single most important factor in helping the body’s ability to fight infections. Have yourself a blood glucose meter at home to monitor your blood sugar closely. Get checked for your HbA1c levels constantly to make sure that your long term blood sugar control in at acceptable levels.

Foot care

Foot infections are quite common in diabetes. To avoid these infections, foot care is very critical. Examine your feet daily and wear comfortable well-fitting shoes. Visit your doctor for annual foot examination. Keep your feet moisturized to prevent dryness and cracking of the feet. Avoid walking barefoot.

Urinary hygiene

Proper toilet hygiene is advised when you have diabetes. Women are advised to wipe from front to back to prevent transmission of bacteria to the vagina. Drink water frequently, empty the bladder regularly and urinate promptly after a sexual encounter.

Yeast infections

Avoid vaginal douches and spermicides and control your blood sugars promptly.

Boosting you immunity

Eat you way to health

Avoid foods that will raise your blood sugar levels and choose those that will keep your blood sugar steady. High fiber foods will do a great job of this.

Cut down on refined sugars and eat more fruits and vegetables.

Watch your portion sizes and keep your weight under control. Weight gain has been linked to decreased immunity.

Do not skip meals

Avoid processed foods. They weaken your immunity.

Test your blood sugar regularly

Sleep more

Sleeping more than 8 hours in a night boosts your immunity and prevents you from getting sick. Sleep restores your body and puts it on a reset button. Not getting enough sleep is associated with weight gain and more stress, all of which are linked to the development of type-2 diabetes.

Differentiate between sedentary lifestyle and the actual sleeping. Often times people spend the day in front of a TV thinking they are resting, or they sleep throughout the day in the name of getting enough sleep. This is called living a sedentary lifestyle.

Get moving

Exercise strengthens your immune system and helps you lower your blood sugars. By increasing your heart rate, exercise helps with increasing blood flow. The increase in blood flow helps transport fighters, the white blood cells around the body as surveillance against infections. Having diabetes means that you have to exercise regularly.

Choose the activities that you enjoy and get you a partner for moral support. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 30 minutes for five days in a week. Brisk walk, use a bike, swim, whatever you decide to do, get moving. More intense exercises may have the opposite effect and depress your immune system.

Exercise does help you maintain your ideal body weight, increase your metabolism as well as decrease insulin resistance, which is a plus in terms of boosting your immunity.

Keep your stress levels in check

Stress brings up a lot of negative things in your body. When you are stressed, you have a lot of cravings that may not be healthy for diabetes or your body in general. Stress also compromises your immune system and makes you more susceptible to infections. Activities like yoga or any other exercise may reduce your stress levels.

Other bad habits

Smoking does affect your immune system. If you are not smoking, DO NOT START smoking. Have you been smoking? DO STOP. Do you want to stop? Then click here. Smoking increases your risk of having heart diseases. It does compromise circulation to parts of the body, thus reducing your immunity. Smoking is also associated with a number of cancers. So it is very important to take a step to quit TODAY.

Alcoholic beverages contain refined carbohydrates which raise your blood sugar quickly. Harmful use of alcohol also compromises your immune defenses making you more susceptible to a number of infections. However moderate intake of alcohol does have some positive impact on your body.

Practice good hand hygiene. Constant washing of hands has been proven to reduce a number of infections. So keep those hands clean.

Keep yourself well hydrated at all times. Water flushes out all junk out of your body.

Supplements that may help boost you immune system

Before taking any supplements, be sure to discuss with your doctor as some supplements may interact with certain medications, or may not be good for your medical condition. Be sure not to replace your diet with supplements and only use them as an add-on if you are prone to such deficiencies and diet is not able to sufficiently provide these nutrients.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C has got a lot of benefits to the body. It helps control the stress hormone in the body thus increasing your immunity. It boosts your antibodies hence preventing viruses from entering your body. Vitamin C is a popular nutrient in fighting common cold. Vitamin C is found in fruits and vegetables such as oranges, strawberries, apples, tomatoes, cauliflower and many more. It is also known as ascorbic acid.

Vitamin E

Because of its anti-oxidant properties, vitamin E helps fight of infections. Vitamin E is found in whole grain products, green leafy vegetables and nuts.

Zinc

Zinc is also one of the very good supplements to boost your immune system. It is found in beans, nuts, oysters, poultry and dairy products.

Omega 3

Omega 3 fatty acids have anti-oxidants that boost your immune system. It is found in fatty fish such as tuna and salmon, and seed oils.

Vitamin B6

Found in food sources like eggs, cheese and fish, vitamin B6 improves your immune system by increasing production of antibodies that fight antigens in your body.

Vitamin D

We get Vitamin D from sunlight exposure. However, people with diabetes tend to have lower levels of vitamin D already hence the need for supplementation.

Conclusion

Controlling your blood sugar levels is the single most important aspect of boosting your immune system. Once your blood sugar levels are constantly high, you become immune-compromised and become prone to infections discussed above. Measures like keeping you HbA1c below 7%, annual influenza vaccinations, keeping your cholesterol under control may help reduce the incidence of infections in a person living with diabetes. Act now and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

If this article has been helpful to you or you have a question, please leave a comment below and I will be sure to get back to you.

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12 thoughts on “DIABETES AND THE IMMUNE SYSTEM: All you need to know

  1. Thank you so much for your detailed information about diabetes and immune system and What should we do about that that’s really helpful these days at the time of pandemic where we should keep our immune system healthy. Some information in this article is really helpful specially how to avoid infections and how to boost our immune system. 

  2. Boi Thank you so much for this article. I have no idea how the immune system correlates to diabetes and what type of connection they have. But your article has done very well at educating its audience and I Must admit that you have officially presented the most amount of information between the correlation of diabetes and the immune system than any other article that I have ever read even from web MD

  3. Hi Boi. Thank you for another great article. Im always learning something new form your site. I couldn’t agree more that immune system is crucial for our health and we should take care of it. Thank you for all your advices and recommendations. Some I already know but some are completely new to me, for example I didn’t know that Zinc is good for our immune system. Definitely I will include it more in my daily diet.

    1. Hello Cogito

      Thank you so much for going through the article. Yes, Zinc is very good for our immunity. It is a good thing indeed to include it on your diet.

  4. Interesting topic, I had no idea that elevated blood sugar levels presumably can make infections worse for people with diabetes.  Speaking of foot infections, a friend of mine actually had to have an amputation because of his diabetes causing such a terrible foot infection.  So important to follow the guidelines you present here – even wearing good shoes can make your life much healthier.

    1. Hi Max

      Thank you very much for the comments and all the best with your friend and continuing to control his blood sugar levels.

  5. There is an ongoing battle against this issue that has and is plaguing so many people all over the world and partly because of bad diet or even from inheritance but the good news is that because of ongoing research there have been great strides in bringing diabetes under control.  Diabetes has and can be beaten once it is understood and changing one’s lifestyle can bring successful management of this disease.

  6. I always knew that diabetics had compromised immune systems, but never actually thought about how hard they have to work to avoid infections. They need to take so much more care of themselves than people without diabetes in order to remain healthy. Even so, this article gives great advice for both diabetics and non-diabetics alike.

    1. Hi Michel

      You are very right. Taking care of our immune system is both for the diabetics and the non-diabetics. There are so many diseases out there besides diabetes that need one’s immunity to be strong. Thank you so much for going through the article

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