A to Z Health Guide

Diabetes and Your Eyes, Heart, Nerves, Feet, and Kidneys

Diabetes is a serious disease that can affect your eyes, heart, nerves, feet and kidneys.  Understanding how diabetes affects your body is important.  It can help you follow your treatment plan and stay as healthy as possible.

How do health problems from diabetes begin?

If your diabetes is not well controlled, the sugar level in your blood goes up.  This is called “hyperglycemia” (high blood sugar).  High blood sugar can cause damage to very small blood vessels in your body. Imagine what happens to sugar when it is left unwrapped overnight. It gets sticky. Now imagine how sugar “sticks” to your small blood vessels and makes it hard for blood to get to your organs. Damage to blood vessels occurs most often in the eyes, heart, nerves, feet, and kidneys. Let’s look at how this damage happens.

  • Eyes.  Having high levels of sugar in your blood for a long time can harm the tiny blood vessels in your eyes. This can result in vision problems or blindness.
  • Heart. High blood sugar may also harm larger blood vessels in your body that supply oxygen to your heart and brain. Fat can build up in the blood vessels as well. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
  • Nerves. Nerves carry important messages between your brain and other parts of your body. Having high levels of sugar in your blood for many years can damage the blood vessels that bring oxygen to some nerves. Damaged nerves may stop sending pain signals.
  • Feet.  Diabetes can harm your feet in two ways. First, it can damage your body’s nerves. Nerve damage stops you from feeling pain or other problems in your feet. Another way that diabetes can cause damage to your feet is from poor blood circulation. Poor blood flow makes it hard for a sore or infection to heal. If sores don’t heal and get infected, it can lead to amputation.
  • Kidneys.  Think of your kidneys like a coffee filter. They keep the things you need inside your body, but filter out wastes and extra fluid. Your kidneys are filled with tiny blood vessels. Over time, high blood sugar can cause these blood vessels to get narrow and clogged. As your kidneys get less blood, less waste and fluid is taken out of your body. Kidney disease that is caused by diabetes is called “diabetic kidney disease.” It is the number one cause of kidney failure in the United States.

How serious is kidney disease?

Having kidney disease is very serious— even without diabetes. Without treatment, it can lead to:

  • Heart and blood vessel disease. Heart disease is common in people with kidney disease. In fact, most people with kidney disease do not die from kidney failure — they die from heart disease.
  • High blood pressure. Your kidneys help control blood pressure. But once your kidneys are damaged, they may not be able to do that very well.
  • Anemia (low blood cell count). Anemia means your body does not have enough red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body. Most people with kidney disease get anemia.
  • Mineral and bone disorder. Kidney disease causes your bones to lose calcium. Some calcium may end up in parts of your body where it does not belong, like your heart and blood vessels. This can lead to heart disease.
  • Kidney failure. Your kidneys filter wastes from your blood and manage other functions of your body. There are five stages of kidney disease. Treatment in the early stages can help keep kidney disease from getting worse. If your kidneys fail, you will need treatment with dialysis for the rest of your life, or a kidney transplant. To learn more about dialysis or a kidney transplant, call the NKF Cares Patient Help Line toll-free at 855.NKF.CARES (855.653.2273) or email nkfcares@kidney.org.
  • Serious problems from diabetes. Having kidney disease makes your diabetes worse. You are more likely to develop heart disease, stroke, blindness, nerve damage, and foot amputations from diabetes if you also have kidney disease.

How do I know if I have kidney disease?

Kidney damage can cause protein to leak into your urine. This protein is called "albumin." Your healthcare provider can test your urine for albumin. This test helps find kidney damage at an early stage in people with diabetes. You should have this simple urine test at least once a year.

What happens if I have kidney disease?

Your healthcare provider will create a special treatment plan for you. This may include taking medicines, limiting salt and certain foods, getting exercise, and more.   You will also need regular checkups to monitor your kidney function. Having kidney disease or diabetes does not mean your kidneys will fail. Finding and treating it early can help keep kidney disease from getting worse.

How can I prevent kidney disease and other problems from diabetes?

Controlling blood sugar is the best way to protect your eyes, heart, nerves, feet, and kidneys. It lowers your risk for all health problems from diabetes. This is true for all people with diabetes— with or without kidney damage. Ask your healthcare provider what you need to do to control your blood sugar.

What else can I do to protect my eyes, heart, nerves, feet, and kidneys from diabetes?

Work with your healthcare team to develop a treatment plan that helps you manage diabetes.

  • Get regular exercise.
  • Lose weight, if you need to.
  • Eat healthy foods and follow your diabetes meal plan.
  • Take all your medicines as instructed by your healthcare provider.
  • Get regular checkups for your eyes.
  • Get regular checkups for your feet. Be sure to wear shoes that fit properly and check your feet every day for injuries, blisters, or redness.
  • If you smoke, ask your healthcare provider about a plan to help you quit.

Where can I get more information?

The National Kidney Foundation has free booklets that provide more information about diabetes. Call the national toll-free number 855.653.2273 and ask for free booklets on diabetes.  You can see these and other titles at www.kidney.org/store.

Date Reviewed: November 2014

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