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6 Sneaky Diabetes Symptoms That You Might Not Realize

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There’s a reason that estimated 7.3 million Americans with diabetes remain undiagnosed: The condition often starts out with symptoms that are easy to brush off. “Because diabetes runs in my family, I’ve waged my own personal battle against this disease for years,” says women’s health and nutrition expert Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, author of Radical Metabolism (Buy on Amazon, $13.99).

“And it has a lot of sneaky symptoms that you wouldn’t expect — for example, frequent urination is one that a lot of people don’t realize can be connected to diabetes. Also, often times hypoglycemia — where the blood sugar seems to dip too low — can actually be an early warning sign for diabetes.” Read on for more symptoms that might warrant a visit to your doctor.

Urinary Tract Infections

Diabetes compromises the immune system, making it harder to fight off infection, and causes nerve damage that may make it more difficult for your bladder to empty, leaving women who have the condition more susceptible to UTIs. If your infections are recurring, ob-gyn Laura Corio, MD, author of The Change before the Change (Buy on Amazon, $18), recommends seeing your doctor to get treated, and to test your blood sugar levels. 

Easy Rx: If your blood sugar levels are in a normal range, D-mannose might be an option. The simple sugar contains the same antibacterial components found in cranberry juice, but without all the fructose. And while it is a sugar, D-mannose isn’t absorbed by the body and isn’t metabolized like other sugars, so it won’t easily get into your bloodstream and raise blood sugar, says Dr. Corio. For the reason, it tends to be a safe option for people with diabetes. Instead, D-mannose passes directly through the kidneys and balder, coating the urinary tract and making it extremely difficult for E.coli to stick. 

Skin Tags

These painless noncancerous growths can appear anywhere on the body, but they’re most common in spots like the neck, chest, eyelids, and armpits. And a study published in the International Journal of Dermatology found that there was an increased risk of diabetes in people who had multiple skin tags. Skin tags are usually harmless, but Cindy Geyer, MD, Medical Director at Canyon Ranch Wellness Resort in Lenox, Massachusetts, advises having them assessed by your doctor.

Easy Rx: Surgery is the best way to get rid of skin tags, and it’s a quick, outpatient procedure that can be done right in your doctor’s office. But if your skin tag is small — 1/8 of an inch in diameter or less — there are do-it-yourself cryotherapy kits that get good reviews from users. Similar to wart removers, these products freeze the skin tag, which encourages it to fall off in about two weeks. The kits contain a freezing liquid — which you apply to your skin tag with the provided applicator. One to try: Compound W Skin Tag Remover (Buy on Amazon.com, $35.99). Be sure to follow the directions carefully and to keep the treated area clean and covered with a bandage while it heals. 

Vision Loss

Diabetes increases the risk of diabetic retinopathy, cataracts and glaucoma, since excess sugar in the body can block blood vessels that go to your retina, the part of your eye that processes visuals. That’s why it’s so important to see your eye doctor yearly for a comprehensive eye exam, where they can take a close look at your retinas for warning signs of the conditions. What’s more, taking steps to control your diabetes can help make sure your vision stays sharp.  

Easy Rx: As you know, exercise is key for helping control blood sugar. But a quick spurt of exercise can also keep your eyes healthy. University of Wisconsin researchers found that getting in some form of movement every day, whether that’s cleaning up around the house or taking a 20-minute walk, lowers your risk of vision loss by 54 percent. What’s more, the American Heart Association found that doing small spurts of exercise for 10 minutes instead of getting in one longer session every day resulted in better blood sugar control than longer workout sessions. You should also try to limit screen time, or at least take breaks every hour, as this can deteriorate eye health over time. Northwestern University researchers also found that long periods of blue light exposure can disrupt the ability to regulate blood sugar levels. And of course, eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, which contain key nutrients for eye health like lutein and zeaxanthin, can help keep your eye sight sharp. 

Brain Fog

It’s easy to assume feeling weary and jumbled is an unavoidable fact of life. Not so, say Stanford researchers, who identified an undiagnosed culprit draining millions of women: “covert” blood-sugar spikes. The study monitored people whose blood-sugar testing showed they were healthy — no signs of prediabetes. But for more than 53 percent of the subjects, blood sugar rapidly spiked to prediabetic or even diabetic levels after meals — even though the food wasn’t high in sugar. Why that’s a concern: “When blood sugar spikes, the pancreas secretes insulin to drive glucose down — and the resulting dip can trigger fog, low moods and fatigue,” notes integrative physician Fred Pescatore, MD. “And since insulin stores excess glucose as fat, repeated spikes can lead to weight gain.” 

Easy Rx: Starting the day with whey protein curtails blood-sugar spikes from the get-go, research in Diabetologia suggests. Drinking a whey shake lowered glucose spikes by 28 percent — an effect that persisted for three hours and helped participants sidestep energy dips. “Whey protein triggers the release of substances that assist insulin in bringing blood sugar into balance,” notes Dr. Pescatore, who suggests adding 20 to 25 grams of whey powder to a daily smoothie. “Plus, amino acids in whey protein are used by the body to make neuro­transmitters that keep brain cells firing at their peak.” The proof: In a British study, subjects who had a whey-enriched breakfast performed 180 percent better on cognitive tasks than those who didn’t consume whey.

Skin Pigmentation

Insulin is a hormone that normally unlocks the body’s cells to let in fuel (aka glucose) after a meal — but it fails to do so in many US women. As Sara Gottfried, MD, explains, cells stop responding properly to insulin, which in turn causes circulating levels of the hormone (and blood sugar) to stay high. This elevated insulin can result in darkened skin patches, known as Acanthosis nigricans, in the folds of the underarms, neck and groin, as well as over the joints of fingers and toes. Dr. Gottfried notes that affected areas may also develop a velvety texture and/or an off odor, which is a by-product of sugar-seeking yeast. See your primary-care doctor if you notice skin darkening — in some cases, Acanthosis nigricans is a sign of type 2 diabetes, which requires close medical management.

Easy Rx:  A plant-based diet can improve symptoms of insulin resistance by up to 60 percent — and not just because the low calories lead to weight loss. New research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore shows that antioxidants in pigmented vegetables help repair the cellular damage that’s at the root of faulty glucose transit, so cells are better able to process sugar. Dr. Gottfried’s rule for ensuring you get enough: Eat 1 pound per day of colorful non-starchy veggies like one large carrot (four ounces), one cup of broccoli (four ounces.), a medium beet (six ounces) and two ounces of greens. And for a fast fix, try a citrus spot eraser, like Yes to Grapefruit Daily Mineral Lotion (Buy on Amazon, $12.99). When applied topically, vitamin C–rich grapefruit lotion helps inhibit the over-production of melanin (the pigment that gives skin its color). Plus, the fruit’s flavonoids promote cell turnover for healthier skin while its alpha hydroxy acids dissolve dead skin cells. Applied daily, most users see brighter, more even skin in as little as 4 weeks. 

Headaches

The brain needs a steady influx of blood sugar to function at its peak and stay pain-free — so if your blood sugar dips too low or high, it can raise your risk of headaches.

Easy Rx: “When you get a headache related to blood sugar, I recommend stirring 1/4 teaspoon of salt into a glass of water and drinking it down,” says Gittleman. Salt alkalinizes the body, which reduces headache-causing inflammation, and it also helps the body metabolize blood sugar so it can be used by our cells.”

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Reverse Diabetes (Buy on Amazon, $12.99). 

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