Diagnoses of type 2 diabetes are on the rise in the U.S. And, like many other conditions, diabetes can impact a woman’s health in disproportionate ways.
Insufficient insulin or an inability to use the insulin your pancreas produces affects your whole body, from your energy levels and digestive system to your reproductive health. This American Diabetes Month, take a moment to learn about the connections between diabetes, your hormones, and your health, and what you can do to lower your risk.
What is diabetes?
Your pancreas produces insulin and other vital hormones responsible for regulating and using glucose, or blood sugar, for energy and digestion. Diabetes is a condition that affects the function of your pancreas and your body’s ability to use glucose for energy. Dysregulation of insulin disrupts your glucose levels, which can lead to a host of symptoms from increased urination to fatigue to more frequent urinary tract infections.
Type 1 diabetes develops when your pancreas no longer produces insulin or produces insulin in too small amounts to regulate your glucose levels. Most people develop type 1 diabetes as a child or adolescent and require life-long treatment.
A majority of individuals —up to 95% of all cases—develop type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body can no longer regulate or properly use the insulin your pancreas produces. Post-menopausal women and women over the age of 40 are most at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Due to hormonal changes during pregnancy, between 5-9% of women in the U.S. develop gestational diabetes in their second or third trimester. Gestational diabetes typically resolves after giving birth, but it does increase the possibility of developing type 2 diabetes within 15 years.
What you need to know: diabetes and women’s health
You cannot prevent or reverse type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, often arises from lifestyle habits and changes in a woman’s health.
Lack of exercise and weight gain are the primary risk factors. And while they remain a large part of the puzzle, we cannot overlook the role our hormones play. New studies report the less estrogen we have in our bodies, the greater our risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In fact, one long-term study found women who undergo early menopause have a 32% greater risk for type 2 diabetes post-menopause.
So, what role does estrogen play in our pancreas? According to recent research, it’s likely estrogen helps control the function of insulin and how your body produces and converts blood sugar.
As estrogen declines, whether due to menopause, autoimmune disease, or another condition, the hormones your pancreas produces can fall out of balance. As a result, glucagon, another hormone produced by the pancreas, can begin to create more and more glucose. At the same time, however, your insulin can lose its sensitivity (also known as insulin resistance) which allows it to convert glucose into energy.
Over time, your pancreas isn’t able to keep up with the high amount of blood sugar in your body, and prolonged insulin resistance can become type 2 diabetes.
How type 2 diabetes impacts women’s health
Due to our unique hormonal functions and shifts over time, additional health concerns can follow a diagnosis. For instance, did you know that women with diabetes are four times as likely to develop heart disease? We know that estrogen can act as a protector against the bad cholesterol that clogs arteries and decreases blood flow throughout the body. While there are numerous factors that contribute to heart disease, it’s important for both women with an existing diagnosis of diabetes and women entering menopause to keep an eye out for its early signs and symptoms.
Women with diabetes also experience more frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs). Type 2 diabetes decreases your circulation and can contribute to low estrogen levels, leaving your vaginal environment more vulnerable to harmful bacteria which can increase the frequency of UTIs.
Your regular menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause, all normal hormonal changes our bodies undergo, cause blood sugar levels to swing both high and low. These events themselves can lead to type 2 (or gestational) diabetes, but women with pre-existing diabetes also need to pay particular attention to managing blood sugar levels during these hormonal shifts to prevent further complications, like neuropathy and kidney disease.
How to treat (or prevent) type 2 diabetes
Treating type 2 diabetes is not one size fits all, since its symptoms and changes in blood sugar levels vary per woman. Regular exercise and eating a balanced diet remain the top recommendations to both prevent and help manage a diagnosis. Studies show eating less sugar, drinking less alcohol, and eating more plant-based meals can help lower your risk and symptoms.
It’s important to talk to a doctor about your risk of type 2 diabetes and get tested if necessary. Women with more risk factors, such as age, previous gestational diabetes, or a family history of type 2 diabetes, should undergo regular testing. Your doctor can also provide recommendations for diet and ways to exercise that can be beneficial to your health and overall wellbeing.