Diabetes is a medical condition of high blood sugar levels due to inappropriate production or response to insulin. It can affect anyone irrespective of their age, gender, or race.
Diabetes takes a greater toll on women over men. The disease burden is more on women who are pregnant as it can affect both the mother and the baby. This is called as gestational diabetes and is seen in nearly 9.2% of pregnant women. Untreated gestational diabetes can lead to miscarriages, or the baby may be born with birth defects.
Symptoms of diabetes in women
Symptoms in women are almost similar to those in men and mainly include:
- Feeling excessively thirsty and hungry
- Frequent urination
- Weight loss or gain without a cause
- Blurred vision
- Skin infections, slow healing of wounds
- Sweet or fruity odor while breathing
- Mild numbness in hands and feet
However, there are some symptoms which are unique to women and include:
- Urinary infections
- Vaginal infections, vaginal thrush
- Oral yeast infections
- Sexual dysfunction (women with diabetes can have a low sexual drive either associated to depression or to the fluctuating glucose levels which can leave them tired and irritable)
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
What are the risk factors in women?
Certain factors increase the risk of women getting diabetes. They include:
- Age above 45 years
- Obesity or overweight
- Family history of diabetes
- Gestational diabetes
- Delivery of a baby with a birth weight more than 9 pounds
- High blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Less physical activity
- PCOS i.e. polycystic ovarian syndrome
- History of heart disease or stroke
Management of diabetes in women
It is more difficult to manage diabetes in women compared to men, irrespective of the stage of diabetes. The possible reasons include changes in the levels of hormones, especially in association with their menstrual cycles, use of birth control pills, or during childbearing age, or after menopause, all of which make it difficult to maintain the glucose levels.
Women can take certain measures to manage the symptoms, delay the progress and avoid the complications of diabetes.
Most of the patients get benefited by making certain changes to their lifestyle such as:
- Exercising regularly
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Regularly monitoring the blood sugar levels
- Consuming low carbohydrate foods while increasing the proteins and fiber content
When the lifestyle changes are not effective in managing the blood glucose levels, medications may be taken. Several medications are available in the market to manage diabetes. However, the most commonly used categories include:
- Insulin therapies (several forms of insulin are taken either as injections or inhalations)
- Biguanides which lower the blood glucose levels
- Sulfonylureas to increase insulin secretion by the pancreas
- Meglitinides to stimulate the pancreas to release high levels of insulin
Why is the difference?
The reasons why women with diabetes have higher disease burden over men are:
- difficulty in diagnosing the complications of diabetes in women
- women have different kind of heart diseases over men
- less aggressive treatment received by women for their risk factors for heart and other related conditions
- the hormones act differently in women
Complications with untreated diabetes
Although several complications can occur if diabetes is not managed properly, it is advisable for women to learn the signs and symptoms of certain complications which are listed below:
Heart disease: Most of the women diagnosed with diabetes are also found to have an underlying heart disease regardless of their age.
Eye damage: Diabetes can either cause impairment in the vision or can even lead to complete blindness if not managed well.
Food damage: Foot ulcers can occur which may be so severe that an amputation is required.
Eating disorders: Bulimia and binge eating are the two major eating disorders, both of which involve excess eating and can be even potentially life-threatening.
Infections: Bacterial and fungal skin infections are more common.
Nerve damage: This can lead to high sensitivity to pain or reduced sensation (numbness).
Therefore, women should go for regular check-ups to ensure they are healthy!
- Huxley RR et al. Risk of all-cause mortality and vascular events in women versus men with type 1diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol.2015 Mar; 3(3): 198-206.