In the U.S., diabetes — or diabetes mellitus (DM) — is full-blown epidemic, and that’s not hyperbole. According to the CDC, an estimated 29 million Americans have some form of diabetes, nearly 9 percent of the population, and even more alarming, the average American has a one in three chance of developing diabetes symptoms at some point in his or her lifetime.
The statistics are alarming, and they get even worse. Another 86 million people have prediabetes, with up to 30 percent of them developing type 2 diabetes within five years. And perhaps the most concerning, about a third of people who have diabetes — approximately 8 million adults — are believed to be undiagnosed and unaware.
That’s why it’s so vital to understand and recognize diabetes symptoms. And there’s actually good news. While there’s technically no known “cure” for diabetes — whether it’s type 1, type 2 or gestational diabetes — there’s plenty that can be done to help reverse diabetes naturally, control diabetes symptoms and prevent diabetes complications.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes mellitus is a metabolic disorder that results from problems controlling the hormone insulin. Diabetes symptoms are a result of higher-than-normal levels of glucose (sugar) in your blood.
With type 1 diabetes, symptoms usually develop sooner and at a younger age than with type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes also normally causes more severe symptoms. In fact, because type 2 diabetes signs and symptoms can be minimal in some cases, it sometimes can go diagnosed for a long period of time, causing the problem to worsen and long-term damage to develop.
While it’s still not entirely known how this happens, prolonged exposure to high blood sugar can damage nerve fibers that affect the blood vessels, heart, eyes, limbs and organs. In fact, hyperglycemia or high levels of blood sugar is a telltale sign of diabetes (both type 1 and type 2) as well as prediabetes. When left untreated, diabetes can cause complications like an increased chance of coronary heart disease, trouble getting pregnant or a risky pregnancy, vision loss, digestive issues, and more.
While at least certain diabetes mellitus symptoms usually become obvious after some time, some people with type 2 diabetes have symptoms so mild that they go totally unnoticed. This is especially true among women with gestational diabetes, the type that develops during pregnancy and usually only lasts for a short period of time. Women with gestational diabetes often have no noticeable symptoms at all, which is why it’s important for at-risk women to be tested and monitored in order to prevent complications and ensure a healthy, vibrant pregnancy.
Facts and Prevalence of Diabetes
- It’s estimated by the American Diabetes Association that 37.3 million Americans have one of three forms of diabetes (type 1, type 2 or gestational). This equals about 11.3 percent of the population or about one in every 11 people.
- Nearly 1.9 million Americans have type 1 diabetes, including about 244,000 children and adolescents.
- Within his or her lifetime, an American has a one in three chance of developing diabetes at some point.
- Another 96 million people have prediabetes (when blood glucose levels or A1C levels — from the a1c test — are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes). Without intervention, up to 30 percent of people with prediabetes develop type 2 diabetes within five years.
- Almost one third of people with diabetes (around 8.5 million, according to the American Diabetes Association) are believed to be undiagnosed and unaware.
- About 283,000 Americans under age 20 are estimated to have diagnosed diabetes, approximately 0.35% of that population.
- Diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2019.
- Type 2 diabetes is the leading cause of diabetes-related complications, such as blindness, non-traumatic amputations and chronic kidney failure. In fact, diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease, and it’s called diabetic kidney disease. It also raises the risk for heart disease, stroke and reproductive/fertility problems.
- Gestational diabetes (the type triggered by pregnancy and hormonal changes) affects about 4 percent of all pregnant women, especially Hispanic, African-American, Native American and Asian women, along with those who are over 25 years old, above their normal body weight before pregnancy and who have a family history of diabetes.
- People with diabetes have a 50 percent higher risk for death than people without diabetes within a given time frame.
- Medical costs for people with diabetes is on average twice as much as for those without.
People develop diabetes when they stop releasing or responding to normal amounts of insulin in response to consuming foods with carbohydrates, sugar and fats. In healthy people, the pancreas releases insulin to help with the use and storage of sugar (glucose) and fats, but people with diabetes either produce too little insulin or fail to respond appropriately to normal amounts of insulin — ultimately causing high blood sugar.
Insulin is a crucial hormone because it allows macronutrients to be properly broken down and transported to cells to be used for “fuel” (or energy). We need insulin to carry glucose through the bloodstream to cells in order to provide enough energy for muscle growth and development, brain activity, and so on. Insulin lowers the amount of sugar in your bloodstream, so as blood sugar levels drop, normally so does secretion of insulin from the pancreas.
Type 1 diabetes (also called “juvenile”/young diabetes) is different than type 2 diabetes because it occurs when insulin-producing cells of the pancreas get destroyed by the immune system, therefore no insulin is produced and blood sugar levels go unmanaged. Type 1 diabetes tends to develop at a younger age, usually before someone turns 20 years old.
In fact, a condition called latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA) is a disorder where the progression of autoimmune β-cell failure is slow. LADA patients usually do not require insulin, at least during the first 6 months after a diabetes diagnosis.
With type 2 diabetes, insulin is produced but it’s either not enough or the person doesn’t respond to it appropriately (called “insulin resistance”). Type 2 diabetes usually occurs in people over age 40 (although it’s becoming more prevalent in children), especially those who are overweight.
The underlying causes of diabetes are multifaceted. The disease can develop due to a combination of factors, including a poor diet, high levels of inflammation, being overweight, a sedentary lifestyle, genetic susceptibility, high amounts of stress, and exposure to toxins, viruses and harmful chemicals.
One’s genetics contribute to the risk of developing type 1 diabetes, apparently specifically increased by certain variants of the HLA-DQA1, HLA-DQB1 and HLA-DRB1 genes.
The risk for type 2 diabetes goes up substantially when someone has the following characteristics:
- being over the age of 45
- being overweight or obese
- leading a sedentary lifestyle
- family history of diabetes (especially parent or sibling)
- family background that is African-American, Alaska Native, American Indian, Asian-American, Hispanic/Latino or Pacific Islander American
- history of heart disease, high blood pressure (140/90 or above), high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol below 35 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or triglyceride level above 250 mg/dL
- hormonal imbalances, including polycystic ovary syndrome
Common symptoms and signs of type 1 diabetes include:
- frequently feeling thirsty and having a dry mouth
- changes in your appetite, usually feeling very hungry, sometimes even if you’ve recently eaten (this can also occur with weakness and trouble concentrating)
- fatigue, feeling always tired despite sleeping and mood swings
- blurred, worsening vision
- slow healing of skin wounds, frequent infections, dryness, cuts and bruises
- unexplained weight changes, especially losing weight despite eating the same amount (this happens due to the body using alternative fuels stored in muscle and fat while releasing glucose in the urine)
- heavy breathing (called Kussmaul respirations)
- potentially a loss of consciousness
- nerve damage that causes tingling sensations or pain and numbness in the limbs, feet and hands (more common among people with type 2 diabetes)
Type 2 diabetes can cause all of the same symptoms described above, except they normally start later in life and are less severe. Many people develop type 2 diabetes symptoms in midlife or in older age and gradually develop symptoms in stages, especially if the condition goes untreated and worsens.
Other common type 2 diabetes symptoms include:
- chronically dry and itchy skin
- patches of dark, velvety skin in the folds and creases of the body (usually in the armpits and neck). This is called acanthosis nigricans.
- frequent infections (urinary, vaginal, yeast and of the groin)
- weight gain, even without a change in the diet
- pain, swelling, numbness or tingling of the hands and feet
- sexual dysfunction, including loss of libido, reproductive problems, vaginal dryness and erectile dysfunction
Symptoms Caused by Diabetes Complications
While diabetes itself often causes the symptoms described above, it’s also possible to experience many complications from diabetes that cause other, usually more drastic and harmful symptoms.
This is why early detection and treatment of diabetes is so important — it can greatly decrease the risk of developing complications like nerve damage, cardiovascular problems, skin infections, further weight gain/inflammation and more.
How likely are you to experience complications? Several factors influence whether you will develop worsened symptoms or complications due to diabetes, including:
- how well you control blood sugar levels, including potentially becoming hyperglycemic (having abnormally high blood sugar)
- your blood pressure levels
- how long you have had diabetes
- your family history/genes
- your lifestyle, including your diet, exercise routine, stress levels and sleep
The Diabetes Prevention Program conducted a randomized clinical trial over three years and found that diabetes incidence in high-risk adults was reduced by 58 percent after they followed intensive lifestyle intervention compared to 31 percent after taking medication (metformin).
Both were significantly more impactful at preventing complications compared with taking a placebo or not making lifestyle changes. And the positive changes lasted at least 10 years after the study was done.
1. Nerve Damage (Neuropathy)
A full half of all people with diabetes will develop some form of nerve damage (diabetic neuropathy), especially if it goes uncontrolled for many years and blood glucose levels remain abnormal.
There are several different types of nerve damage caused by diabetes that can cause various symptoms: peripheral neuropathy (which affects the feet and hands), autonomic neuropathy (which affects organs like the bladder, intestinal tract and genitals), and several other forms that cause damage to the spine, joints, cranial nerves, eyes and blood vessels.
Signs of nerve damage caused by diabetes can include:
- tingling in the feet, described as “pins and needles”
- burning, stabbing or shooting pains in my feet and hands
- sensitive skin that feels very hot or cold
- muscle aches, weakness and unsteadiness
- rapid heartbeats
- trouble sleeping
- changes in perspiration
- erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness and loss of orgasms caused by nerve damage around the genitals
- carpal tunnel syndrome
- proneness to injuries or falling
- changes in the senses, including hearing, sight, taste and smell
- trouble with normal digestion, including frequent stomach bloating, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, nausea, vomiting
2. Skin problems
One of the areas affected most and quickest by diabetes is the skin. Diabetes symptoms on the skin can be some of the most easy to recognize and earliest to show up. Some of the ways that diabetes affects the skin is by causing poor circulation, slow wound healing, lowered immune function, and itching or dryness.
This makes yeast infections, bacterial infections and other skin rashes more easy to develop and harder to get rid of.
Skin problems triggered by diabetes include:
- rashes/infections that are sometimes itchy, hot, swollen, red and painful
- bacterial infections (including vaginal yeast infections and Staphylococcus bacteria, also called staph)
- styes in the eyes and eyelids
- fungal infections (including candida symptoms that affect the digestive tract and fungus in skin folds, such as around the nails, under the breasts, between fingers or toes, in the mouth, and around the genitals)
- jock itch, athlete’s foot and ringworm
- necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum
- blisters and scales, especially around infections
- folliculitis (infections of hair follicles)
3. Eye-Related Problems
Having diabetes is one of the biggest risk factors for developing eye problems and even vision loss/blindness. People with diabetes have a higher risk of blindness than people without diabetes, but most only develop minor problems that can be treated before they worsen.
Diabetes affects the outer, tough membrane part of the eyes; the front part, which is clear and curved; the cornea/retina, which focus light; and the macula. According to the National Diabetes Association, almost everyone with type 1 diabetes eventually develops nonproliferative retinopathy, and most people with type 2 diabetes also get it.
Symptoms of diabetes related to vision/eye health can include:
- Diabetic retinopathy (a term for all disorders of the retina caused by diabetes, including nonproliferative and proliferative retinopathy)
- nerve damage to the eyes
- macular degeneration
- seeing spots, vision loss and even blindness
Natural Ways to Help Control Diabetes Symptoms
Diabetes is a serious condition that comes with many risks and symptoms, but the good news is it can be managed with correct treatment and lifestyle changes. A high percentage of people with type 2 diabetes are able to reverse and manage their diabetes symptoms completely naturally by improving their diets, levels of physical activity, sleep and stress levels. And although type 1 diabetes is harder to treat and manage, complications can also be reduced by taking the same steps.
With diabetes care, studies have found that interventions, such as nurse-led talks, having a home aid, diabetes education, pharmacy-led interventions, and education on dosing and frequency of medications, can help improve quality of life in people with diabetes.
So while most people with diabetes use medicine as part of their diabetes care, here are some invaluable natural ways to treat diabetes.
1. Keep Up with Regular Checkups
Many people with complications of diabetes won’t have noticeable symptoms (for example, nonproliferative retinopathy, which can cause vision loss or gestational diabetes during pregnancy). This makes it really important that you get checked out by your doctor regularly to monitor your blood sugar levels, progression, eyes, skin, blood pressure levels, weight and heart.
To make sure you don’t put yourself at a higher risk for heart problems, work with your doctor to make sure you maintain near normal blood pressure, blood cholesterol and triglyceride (lipid) levels.
Ideally, your blood pressure shouldn’t go over 130/80. You should also try to maintain a healthy weight and reduce inflammation in general. The best way to do this is to eat an unprocessed, healthy diet as well as exercise and sleep well.
2. Eat a Balanced Diet and Exercise
As part of a healthy diabetes diet plan, you can help keep your blood sugar in the normal range by eating unprocessed, whole foods and avoiding things like added sugars, trans fats, processed grains and starches, and conventional dairy products.
Physical inactivity and obesity are strongly associated with the development of type 2 diabetes, which is why exercise is important to control symptoms and lower the risk for complications, such as heart disease. The National Institute of Health states that people can sharply lower their risk for diabetes by losing weight through regular physical activity and a diet low in sugar, refined fats and excess calories from processed foods.
3. Control Blood Sugar to Help Stop Nerve Damage
The best way to help prevent or delay nerve damage is to closely regulate your blood sugar levels. If you suffer from digestive issues due to nerve damage affects your digestive organs, you can benefit from taking digestive enzymes, probiotics and supplements like magnesium that can help relax muscles, improve gut health and control symptoms.
Other problems like hormonal imbalances, sexual dysfunctions and trouble sleeping also will be greatly reduced when you improve your diet, nutrient intake, stress levels and condition overall.
4. Help Protect and Treat the Skin
People with diabetes tend to have more bacterial, fungal and yeast infections than healthy people do. If you have diabetes, you can help prevent skin problems by managing your blood sugar levels, practicing good hygiene and treating skin naturally.
Doctors also recommend you limit how often you bathe when your skin is dry, use natural and mild products to clean your skin (instead of many harsh, chemical products sold in most stores), moisturize daily with something mild like coconut oil for skin, and avoid burning your skin in the sun.
5. Safeguard the Eyes
People who keep their blood sugar levels closer to normal are less likely to have vision-related problems or at least more likely to experience milder symptoms. Early detection and appropriate follow-up care can save your vision.
To help lower the risk for eye-related problems like mild cataracts or glaucoma, you should have your eyes checked at least one to two times yearly. Staying physically active and maintaining a healthy diet can prevent or delay vision loss by controlling blood sugar, plus you should also wear sunglasses when in the sun. If your eyes become more damaged over time, your doctor might also recommend you receive a lens transplant to preserve vision.
6. Consider a Form of Fasting
In mice, researchers have been able to reverse some symptoms of diabetes and restore pancreas functions by putting them on a version of the fasting-mimicking diet. This is a diet that involves severe caloric restriction for five days out of the month.
It follows the same principle as fasting by temporarily depriving the body of food to take advantage of health benefits like increased fat burning and reduced inflammation. However, because the study only involved mice as well as human cells in lab conditions, the researchers do not recommend trying this at home to treat diabetes.
A 2018 report concluded medically supervised fasting may eliminate the need for insulin in some patients with type 2 diabetes. Participants fasted for 24 hours three days a week for several months. On fasting days, they ate dinner. On non-fasting days, they ate lunch and dinner. Low-carb meals were advised throughout.
The study was small, with just three participants, but it found all three participants were able to discontinue insulin within five to 18 days. Two ended up stopping all diabetes medications. While these results are promising, any changes in nutrition should be medically-supervised — and not attempted alone.
A 2022 published in the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism also considered how intermittent fasting can impact type 2 diabetics. A three-month intermittent fasting diet was used for 36 people with diabetes; nearly 90 percent of participants, including those who took blood sugar-lowering agents and insulin, reduced their diabetes medication intake after intermittent fasting.
- With type 1 diabetes, symptoms usually develop sooner and at a younger age than with type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes also normally causes more severe symptoms. In fact, because type 2 diabetes signs and symptoms can be minimal in some cases, it sometimes can go diagnosed for a long period of time, causing the problem to worsen and long-term damage to develop.
- While diabetes itself often causes the symptoms described above, it’s also possible to experience many complications from diabetes that cause other, usually more drastic and harmful symptoms. This is why early detection and treatment of diabetes is so important — it can greatly decrease the risk of developing complications like nerve damage, cardiovascular problems, skin infections, further weight gain/inflammation and more.
- One of the areas affected most and quickest by diabetes is the skin. Diabetes symptoms on the skin can be some of the most easy to recognize and earliest to show up. Some of the ways that diabetes affects the skin is by causing poor circulation, slow wound healing, lowered immune function, and itching or dryness.
- Having diabetes is one of the biggest risk factors for developing eye problems and even vision loss/blindness. People with diabetes have a higher risk of blindness than people without diabetes, but most only develop minor problems that can be treated before they worsen.
- You can treat diabetes symptoms naturally by keeping up with regular checkups, eating a balanced diet and exercising, controlling blood sugar to help stop nerve damage, protecting and treating the skin, and safeguarding the eyes.