Diabetes in an Age of COVID-19
Guest Writer| Oct 03,2021

As we go about our lives attempting to live in harmony with COVID-19, it is necessary to consider how we can protect ourselves and our loved ones. In America, 2 in 3 adults is overweight, and 1 in 5 children are overweight (1). These adults and children have higher risks of developing type 2 diabetes and many other comorbidities. Over 10% of Americans suffer from diabetes, and more than 88 million Americans struggle with pre-diabetes (2). These conditions are incredibly dangerous, and they are among top 5 killers of Americans every year (3). It has been shown time and time again that COVID-19 disproportionately affects those with underlying conditions like diabetes. Luckily, diabetes is something that we can take control over in many ways with our lifestyle choices. If we are privileged enough to have the means to take steps towards improving our health, we could save millions of lives.

1. Sleep

The first thing we can all do to maximize our health in this time is to get better sleep. When we sleep, our bodies are able to focus on cellular repairs that are not possible while we are awake. These processes allow us to have better balance, focus, energy, mood, and so much more. Sleep is especially important for diabetes patients because it helps the body regulate blood glucose levels (4). Sadly, the less we sleep, the more glucose remains in our bloodstream, and the less we are able to clear our blood sugar with insulin. 

To improve sleep, it is often suggested that patients spend less time on technology before bed, get adequate exercise throughout the day, get enough time out in the sun (this is not possible for everyone depending on time of year and location), and make sure to relax before hitting the hay.

2. Stress

Stress is incredibly common, and it can wreak havoc on our bodies. First, stress elevates cortisol hormone levels and makes it challenging to be connected to our bodies natural signals. Hormones throughout the body tell us when we are hungry, thirsty, tired, and much more. When we are stressed, it is much more difficult to notice these feelings, and we tend to either over or under eat, not exercise, clench our jaws and tense our shoulders, and take shallow breaths (5). All of these actions leave our bodies overwhelmed and in need of relaxation. For diabetes, this is all extremely problematic. High stress levels make it challenging to take care of ourselves, and making lifestyle choices that promote self care are critical when battling diabetes. 

To decrease stress in our lives, there are many hobbies and habits we can adopt. First, not all stress reducing activities work for everyone, but it is great to try out new forms of self care to see what works for you. Many people swear by yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, aroma therapy (or simply just lighting a candle!), painting, walking, and much more. Making an effort to take deep breaths throughout the day can help dramatically reduce cortisol levels, and getting 30 minutes of exercise or more each day can help bring awareness back to the present and away from the worries of the future (6).

3. Diet! 

Diet is one thing that many of us cannot always control. Some of us live in households that pack the pantries with processed foods, and many of us live with other people with food preferences that may not align with our health goals. When we are able to eat nourishing foods, we heal our bodies from the inside out; food is our medicine, and it can drastically improve our health. For diabetes, there are some diet choices that have been shown to help and possibly cure the disease. On the other hand, many easy food choices worsen the disease.

Processed foods
In the United States, processed foods are a typical staple. They line the shelves, and tickle our taste buds with salty, oily deliciousness. Sadly, the more processed the food is, the fewer nutrients it retains. When we eat a whole food, like a potato for example, we get many beneficial nutrients, minerals, and fiber. As we process this food, we remove much of its fiber, leaving pure carbohydrates with few other benefits. If you or someone you know struggles with diabetes, processed foods can do a lot of harm (7).

First, because there is no beneficial fiber to slow the spike of glucose entering the bloodstream, the body will be bombarded with salt, oil, and sugar, and it will need insulin to quickly clear the glucose from the blood into body tissues. Many people with diabetes suffer from insulin resistance, meaning that their tissues are not as responsive to insulin trying to clear glucose out of the bloodstream. They suffer from higher blood glucose levels, which can lead to organ damage, blurry vision, and many other issues related to osmotic pressure throughout the body.

High glycemic sugary foods
High glycemic foods refer to quick sugars that lead to rapid blood glucose spikes once ingested. This is dangerous for diabetes patients because consuming these foods can worsen insulin resistance. The high spike in blood glucose overwhelms the body, signalling to the pancreas to release insulin from its beta cells. The insulin works quickly to clear the sugar out of the bloodstream, attempting to pack it away in various tissues; for a diabetic, the tissues do not often respond, leading to elevated blood sugar and a rapid drop in energy (8). This cycle is vicious, and one way to combat it is to eat low glycemic foods. 

Low glycemic foods act like a slow burn of glucose in the body instead of a quick bombardment. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains, vegetables, potatoes, pumpkin, and hearty fruits are wonderful low glycemic foods. To help them digest slowly and release glucose to the blood at a slower rate, it is important to eat these carbohydrates with healthy fats, fiber, and proteins. One example is eating fruit along with nuts or seeds to create a balanced snack. If you love sugary foods, just try to opt for more whole food versions, and always couple them with a protein or fat to help with blood glucose levels (9).

Fruits and veggies
One way to drastically improve health, especially for diabetes patients, is to incorporate more vegetables and lower sugar fruits into the diet. Fruits and veggies are packed with phytonutrients, minerals, vitamins, prebiotics, and fiber. The fiber that comes with fruits and veggies allow us to slow digestion, remain regular bowels, slow blood sugar spikes, and maintain energy (10). For diabetes, this is incredibly helpful. (Studies show that moving towards a plant based diet increases insulin sensitivity, and significantly improves blood glucose levels.

4. Exercise

Another way to improve health and reduce symptoms of diabetes is to engage in exercise daily. This could look like going for a 30 minute walk, trying out some yoga, lifting weights, or even just dancing around the kitchen to your favorite songs. Exercise is incredibly important for our stress levels, bone health, strength, sleep, and so much more (11). When it comes to diabetes, it is critical because it improves insulin resistance. Muscle cells need to take up glucose, but diabetic patients have cells that do not respond well to insulin, and in turn, don’t take up glucose. When a muscle tissue moves, it increases its sensitivity to insulin; if a diabetic patient is able to engage in daily muscle constriction, their insulin sensitivity will improve greatly (12). 

As you can see, there are so many ways to take care of ourselves in this stressful time. By making small changes throughout the day, we can improve our health, and improve our immunity. Each category mentioned above has been studied many times, and it is amazing how much control we have over our health. Because so many people struggle with diabetes and prediabetes, it is critical that we share this information and help the people we love take care of themselves and protect themselves from COVID-19. 

Written by Ainsley Fleming-Wood: Hello! I’m Ainsley Fleming-Wood, and I am currently studying Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. Academically, I am interested in biochemistry, medicine, public health, and anything science or health related. I hope to get my RD and a PhD in Biochemistry; I would love to continue researching how lifestyle and nutrition can impact health and disease. I am also an aerial acrobat and circus artist. I perform and teach aerial silks, trapeze, acrobatics, and lyra. I love to paint, meditate, do yoga, and spend lots of time cooking healthy food. 


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