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 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 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 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 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 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
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 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.
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.
Avoid vaginal douches and spermicides and control your blood sugars promptly.
Boosting you immunity
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 fatty acids have anti-oxidants that boost your immune system. It is found in fatty fish such as tuna and salmon, and seed oils.
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.
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.
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.