Both heart disease and diabetes are dangerous illnesses, especially if left untreated. These two health conditions share commonalities, from how widespread they are, to the ways in which you can help prevent or manage their potentially devastating health effects.
Heart disease is a catch-all bucket for several types of issues that affect the heart and the blood vessels. Coronary artery disease (CAD), the most common type of heart disease, is the narrowing or blockage of the blood vessels that transport blood and oxygen to the heart. Heart attacks, arrhythmia, shortness of breath and fatigue are possible signs of CAD and CAD can increase your risk of a stroke.
You may also hear the term cardiovascular disease (CVD) used interchangeably with heart disease. Actually, CVD is the bigger umbrella. While all heart diseases are CVDs, not all CVDs, stroke for example, are heart diseases.
Perhaps the most important thing is this: the leading cause of death worldwide is cardiovascular disease. In the U.S., one person dies every 34 seconds from CVD and heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What About Blood Sugar?
If you want another scary fact, here you go: With diabetes, you’re twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke than someone without diabetes—and at a younger age. The longer you have diabetes, the more likely you are to have heart disease.
According to government statistics, more than 37 million Americans have diabetes—that’s about 1 in 10—and approximately 90-95% of them have type 2 diabetes. And those stats don’t even include those with prediabetes. This post shares that nearly 50% of American adults have either prediabetes or diabetes.
Most relevant to today’s blog is one of the three types of diabetes related to how your body manages blood sugar. Types 1 and 2 and gestational diabetes are categorized as diabetes mellitus.
The latter, gestational diabetes, is a type of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy, possibly related to hormonal changes that interfere with the pregnant woman’s ability to properly to use insulin.
Type 1 diabetes, sometimes known as juvenile diabetes because it usually first presents in young children or adolescents, is a life-long, chronic autoimmune disease that prevents your pancreas from making insulin, the hormone that regulates the amount of sugar in your blood. People with type 1 diabetes need shots of insulin daily and careful glucose monitoring to help your pancreas do its job.
Type 2 diabetes is the most prevalent kind and is a result of your pancreas not making enough insulin or not using that insulin properly, usually because of insulin resistance.
Neither type 1 nor 2 is curable, but you can learn to live with either. If blood sugar control is left unmanaged, without any bodily regulatory oversight, sugar builds up in your blood to dangerous levels that can result in a host of other health problems, including heart disease and stroke.
Even if you don’t have diabetes, it’s possible to still have too high (or too low) blood (glucose) sugar; you could fall into the category of prediabetes, which leaves you with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Blood Sugar and Heart Health
And if you want to know “does blood sugar damage your heart?” and “is there a link between blood sugar and heart disease?” the simple answer to both questions is “yes.” Unmanaged blood sugar can lead to diabetes and factor into developing heart disease.
However, despite the scary stats, it’s not necessarily all gloom and doom. Blood sugar and heart health are intertwined—and there are ways to help prevent—and reduce your risk of complications from—heart disease and type 2 diabetes. We’re getting to that.
How Does High Blood Sugar Affect the Heart?
Let us count (just some of) the ways. When it comes to high blood sugar, it’s not just that glazed donut you have to be concerned about. Eating carbohydrates (the sugar and starches in food), especially the simple carbs (white rice, white bread, etc.), can increase your glucose levels as your body turns those carbs into sugar, which enters your blood.
And if you eat too many added sugars, you may see a rise in blood pressure, chronic inflammation, and unwanted weight—all three contribute to heart disease.
If your blood sugar levels are elevated, it can lead to narrower, stiffer artery walls, which in turn can lead to coronary artery disease.
High blood pressure can damage your artery walls. And guess what. High blood sugar can raise your blood pressure. The combination—a recipe for heart disease.
High levels of cholesterol in your blood can increase your risk of heart disease. People with diabetes are at higher risk for having high cholesterol.
The buildup of fatty plaque forming in your arteries is known as atherosclerosis. Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a blockage or narrowing of the blood vessels that reduces blood flow to your legs and arms. Some studies have shown a connection between diabetes mellitus and atherosclerosis and other studies point to diabetes mellitus as a major risk factor for PAD, with diabetics having more than a two-fold increased prevalence of PAD, compared to the general population.
A Healthy Diet Delivers
If you’ve had enough of reading about the bad stuff, here, as promised, are some ways that you can write, or rewrite, your own script when it comes to maintaining healthy blood sugar levels that will also benefit your heart health.
Over the last few decades, research has unveiled a very strong connection between diet and blood sugar.
Although this article offers advice on diet for those with diabetes, it’s just smart advice in general when it comes to keeping your blood sugar levels in a reasonable range. For example, think of your diet as a lifestyle, not something that will come and go, and pick the foods that best fit your tastes and lifestyle. Focus on meal planning, a well-balanced diet, and portion size.
Enjoy lean proteins, like chicken, fish and low-fat dairy as examples. And yes, to the vegetables and fruits, but focus on those that are less starchy and are lower on the glycemic index. As for fruits, too much of a good thing is probably not good if you already have diabetes, but an apple a day, berries, and citrus fruits should be okay.
Go for the “good” fats, nuts, olive oil and avocado. And, of course, fatty fish (think salmon!) that pack a bonus of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. And stick with the complex carbs when possible, such as whole grains and whole wheat, sweet potatoes, brown rice, and beans.
Stay away from sugar-spikers that can also create sugar cravings: foods that are processed, sugary beverages, packaged snack foods and super sweet desserts like cake and candy are best eaten in moderation (or less, if you have diabetes).
And not so coincidentally, not only are these tips and foods good for keeping your blood glucose levels in check, but they also are heart healthy.
Do More with Your Weight
Don’t just “watch” your weight, especially if it keeps going up. Be proactive. Obesity and being overweight may raise your blood glucose level. Losing weight may help reverse that trend.
For instance, one study in people with type 2 diabetes found losing 2% of their body weight improved their blood sugar control. Further research showed that losing 5% body weight helped improve blood pressure, blood sugar and the “good” (HDL) cholesterol. All keys to warding off heart disease. Read more here.
Would it surprise you to learn that exercise has numerous blood sugar benefits that in turn translate into heart-healthy advantages?
Let’s bottom-line it. When you exercise, your muscles use blood sugar to get and keep you going. In addition, exercise also helps increase insulin sensitivity.
For example, one study included 14 women and 7 men between the ages of 21 and 59 years with a body mass index (BMI) of 27.5-45.5. During the study’s 8- week time period, they engaged in one hour, three times/week of aerobic exercise. MRIs measured insulin sensitivity in the brain during pre-endurance and post-endurance training.
The researchers found that the exercise regimens returned insulin activity to the same level as someone with a healthy BMI. Further, the change in insulin sensitivity also increased metabolism, lowered feelings of hunger and decreased abdominal fat.
While regular and prolonged exercise may be the ultimate goal, when it comes to movement, even a little can help.
For example, a recent study published in the scientific Journal Sports Medicine found that walking even two to five minutes after a meal helped to improve blood glucose management from spiking. Sharp increases or quick drops in blood sugar may increase the risk for both diabetes and heart disease.
The meta-analysis analyzed seven studies, evaluating the effect that sitting, standing and walking had on blood sugar levels, with study participants asked to stand or walk for two to five minutes every 20-30 minutes throughout the day.
In its story on the study, CNN reported that study co-author Aidan Buffey advised that “…intermittent light-intensity walking throughout the day saw a greater reduction of glucose by an average of 17.01% compared to prolonged sitting.”
Even intermittent standing showed some results, leading Buffey to suggest that “…breaking prolonged sitting with standing and light-walking breaks throughout the day is beneficial for glucose levels.”
If you have diabetes, read more about exercise in this post.
Physical activity has benefits beyond lowering blood sugar. Exercise and movement are also important for maintaining (or getting to) a healthy weight, reducing stress levels, and keeping your heart in the pink. Just another reminder of the interconnection between blood sugar and heart health.
Fire Your Smoking Habit
We’d be remiss if we didn’t share two more important lifestyle behaviors that have a big impact on both glucose levels and cardiovascular disease.
The first is smoking. Don’t start it, don’t do it, and if you’re doing it, do what you can to stop it. Smoking is a major cause of cardiovascular disease, including coronary heart disease. It’s the culprit in about one of every four CVD deaths and even non-smoker’s exposure to second-hand smoke has harmful effects and can lead to coronary heart disease and stroke.
Smoking also has detrimental effects on your blood sugar levels, increasing your risk of getting diabetes by 30% – 40%. For those with diabetes, smoking increases your risk of long-term complications from the disease. Some research has shown that non-smokers generally have lower hemoglobin A1C levels (a measure of your blood glucose levels) compared to smokers.
Ah, the lures of alcohol. This one’s a little tricky because there’s been so much publicity about the protective benefits of red wine, in particular, for your heart. Some studies have shown an association between moderate alcohol consumption and a reduced risk of fatality from heart disease.
But as this article explains, it’s hard to tease out whether the benefit is truly a result of the alcohol or whether it’s related to those drinkers being better educated with higher incomes and therefore more likely to eat heart-healthy.
That’s one reason why you shouldn’t be drinking with the expectation of heart health benefits. In fact, some people should not drink alcohol at all. If you do choose to drink, moderation is key.
Excessive drinking can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure or stroke, and contribute to other conditions like obesity that are problematic for your heart.
As for alcohol and blood sugar, there’s some confusion. For those with diabetes, a drink or two daily may improve insulin sensitivity and managing blood glucose levels and may lower your blood sugar. But it’s possible that the latter may be to dangerously lower levels. And if you drink in excess, that can lead to higher blood sugar levels. Read more here.
If you don’t have diabetes, and choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation and test your blood glucose levels as needed.
The bottom line: There is a connection between blood sugar and heart health. Protect your heart by managing your blood sugar. The tips above should help, and here’s one more. Stay on top of your medical tests, including testing (or self-testing) your blood sugar levels, monitoring blood pressure and knowing your cholesterol numbers.