How does diabetes affect your body organs?

Diabetes is a common disease that affects 34 million Americans. It’s a disease that can be managed with a treatment plan, but it can lead to a plethora of health problems if people with diabetes don’t take medication or actions to control their high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia).

Organs in particular, such as the heart, brain, and kidneys, can be negatively affected by chronically elevated blood sugar, which can lead to other comorbidities (other conditions). For people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, finding an effective treatment plan is critical to avoiding these problems.


The heart is part of the circulatory system, also known as the cardiovascular system. The circulatory system also includes blood vessels that help transport oxygen and nutrients to organs and tissues, as well as harmful carbon dioxide and other toxins or waste products in the body.

The four main parts of the circulatory system include the heart, arteries, veins, and capillaries. Each section has a specific job:

  • Capillaries: Facilitates the exchange of oxygen, nutrients, and waste between the rest of the body
  • Veins: Brings deoxygenated blood back to the heart
  • Arteries: Arteries carry oxygenated blood from the heart to the entire circulatory system as the heart replenishes oxygen in the blood
  • Heart: Uses blood vessels to pump blood throughout the body

The American Heart Association recognizes diabetes as one of the seven modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD), which includes all types of heart disease, stroke, and vascular disease.​​​

The most common type of cardiovascular disease, coronary artery disease, is caused by the buildup of plaque (cholesterol deposits) on the walls of arteries.

People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than people without diabetes.

Over time, diabetes can cause damage to the blood vessels and nerves that control the heart. Therefore, the longer a person has diabetes, the higher their chances of developing heart disease.

In addition, people with diabetes often have other conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high triglycerides.

What you can do to prevent heart disease


The kidneys are bean-shaped organs, about the size of a fist, located under the ribcage next to the spine. They are part of the kidney system, which also includes the ureters, bladder, and urethra.

The kidneys act as a filtering system, removing waste, excess fluid, and acids from the body. This filtration is designed to maintain a healthy balance of water, salts and minerals in the blood. The kidneys also produce important hormones such as vitamin D and erythropoietin.

Over time, high levels of sugar in the blood caused by diabetes can damage the blood vessels in the kidneys and impair their ability to cleanse the body. This causes waste and fluid to build up in the blood. This type of kidney disease is called diabetic nephropathy.

If left untreated, diabetic nephropathy can lead to kidney failure, which can be life-threatening.

About 30% of people with type 1 diabetes develop kidney failure. For those with type 2 diabetes, 10 to 40 percent are affected.


High blood sugar levels can affect cognition, especially thinking and memory. Research has also shown that diabetes can alter the structure of the brain. Because of these changes, people with diabetes have an increased risk of cognitive decline and are 50 percent more likely to develop dementia than people without diabetes.

Studies have shown that people with diabetes have lower gray matter density and volume in all parts of the brain. Gray matter is a major component of the central nervous system and plays a role in everyday human functions. If gray matter is less dense or bulky, it can affect a variety of neurological functions.

Diabetes can also damage the small blood vessels in the brain, which can lead to stroke or brain tissue death. It can also cause problems between certain communication pathways in the brain.


Uncontrolled diabetes has been shown to reduce lung function. This reduction can lead to milder complications, such as asthma, or more serious complications, such as pulmonary fibrosis. Despite established links, the mechanisms behind lung dysfunction in diabetics are not as clear as they are in other organs. Some theories suggest it may be caused by inflammation.

Research suggests that blood sugar-lowering drugs may play a role in the development of lung disease in people with diabetes. A study found that different drugs may affect the lungs. For example, a common diabetes drug, metformin, is thought to treat lung disease, while insulin can make lung disease worse.


Diabetes is closely related to the pancreas, because the pancreas produces insulin, and when it doesn’t make enough or doesn’t make any insulin at all, it causes high blood sugar.

Type 1 diabetes is caused by a lack of insulin production. Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, occurs when the body becomes resistant to insulin. This puts pressure on the pancreas as it tries to produce more than it usually needs.

Type 2 diabetes is associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer. Both pancreatic cancer and diabetes can be a cause or a consequence of both diseases. Diabetes increases the risk of pancreatic cancer, and having pancreatic cancer can sometimes lead to the development of diabetes.

Who gets pancreatic cancer—and why

mouth and teeth

Saliva contains glucose. When diabetes is uncontrolled, high glucose levels in saliva help harmful bacteria grow, which bind to food to form a soft, sticky film called plaque. Some types of plaque can lead to cavities or tooth decay, while others can lead to gum disease and bad breath.

Gum disease may be more severe in people with diabetes and take longer to heal. In turn, having gum disease can make it difficult to control your blood sugar.

Unremoved plaque can harden over time into tartar and collect above the gum line. Tartar makes it harder to brush and clean between teeth. Red, swollen gums that bleed easily, a sign of unhealthy or inflamed gums called gingivitis.

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If gingivitis is not treated, it can develop into a gum disease called periodontitis. In this condition, the gums can break away from the teeth and create spaces called pockets, which can slowly become infected. This infection can last a long time.

If periodontitis is left untreated, the gums, bones and tissues that support the teeth can be destroyed. Teeth may become loose and may need to be extracted.

Facts About Gum Disease That Might Surprise You

stomach and small intestine

High blood sugar levels can damage the vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem all the way to the abdomen. This damage inhibits the normal functioning of the stomach, preventing it from emptying food properly. This condition is called gastroparesis.

Food a person eats passes through the stomach more slowly than expected, which can lead to complications such as:

  • dehydration
  • Stomach acid leaks out of the stomach and into the food pipe – a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Malnourished body cannot properly digest food
  • Unpredictable changes in blood sugar levels

About 20% to 50% of people with diabetes develop gastroparesis.

what to eat with gastroparesis


Eye symptoms such as blurred vision are often some of the early symptoms of diabetes. Over time, diabetes can lead to diabetic retinopathy, which can lead to vision problems and blindness.

It is caused by damage to blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the eye. High sugar in the blood can damage the retina and the blood vessels around it.

This damage causes new but weaker blood vessels to grow to make up for those that are no longer functioning.

Diabetic retinopathy can also lead to other complications involving the eye, such as:

  • Diabetic macular edema: New, fragile blood vessels in the eye begin to leak fluid and blood into the retina, causing swelling of the macula at the center of the retina.
  • Neovascular glaucoma: This secondary glaucoma occurs when new blood vessels close above the corner of the eye, where the cornea meets the iris.

Vision problems caused by diabetes should be treated promptly. Since the condition is usually irreversible, treatment will help prevent the condition from getting worse or progressing to complete blindness.

Key elements for managing and preventing diabetes complications


When the sugar in the blood of people with diabetes continues to rise, it can lead to poor blood circulation. This in turn compromises skin health and impairs wound healing.

While skin diseases can happen to anyone, there are certain conditions that only occur in people with diabetes, including:

  • Diabetic skin disease: This condition appears as small, brown, and round lesions on the tibia. Diabetic skin disease occurs in about 55% of people with diabetes.
  • Diabetic lipid necrosis: Diabetic lipid necrosis occurs in less than 1% of people with diabetes. It appears early as a red bump on the lower leg of the body that develops into a flat, shiny, yellow and brown raised lesion.
  • Diabetic blisters: Diabetic blisters look the same as blisters that form after burns, but they are not painful. They tend to develop in clusters.
  • Explosive xanthomatosis: This skin condition appears as small yellow and red bumps.

Another skin condition common to diabetics is foot ulcers. Usually found on the big toe and ball of the foot, diabetic foot ulcers can be mild or severe. The Wagner Ulcer Classification System is typically used to determine the severity of these ulcers on a scale of 0 to 5, where 0 is a lesion that may have healed and 5 is a case of severe gangrene (tissue death) caused by the ulcer.

How diabetes affects your skin

sex organs

When it comes to the male sex organs, damage to the vascular system can lead to reduced blood flow. Impaired communication between nerves can also cause problems because it impairs the body’s ability to pump blood to the penis. These two problems can lead to erectile dysfunction in men with diabetes.

In women, nerve damage from diabetes can lead to vaginal dryness. Women can also suffer from insufficient blood flow to the reproductive organs due to damage to the blood vessels, which makes it difficult for blood to reach these organs.

Both men and women with diabetes can experience fertility problems. Diabetes can cause low testosterone levels, which can affect sperm count and lead to decreased libido. Sperm health is largely dependent on glucose metabolism, which is negatively affected as it is compromised in diabetics. Mature sperm have difficulty fertilizing an egg, and their motility is affected.

In people without diabetes, insulin binds to specific receptors in the ovaries to help drive the production of hormones that maintain reproductive tissue and regulate ovulation. This process is hindered in people with diabetes who do not have enough insulin or who are insulin resistant.

Diabetes has also been linked to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition caused by high testosterone levels in women. It can lead to impaired ability to ovulate, making it difficult for people to get pregnant.

Overview of PCOS and Infertility

VigorTip words

Living with diabetes can be difficult, especially if it is not controlled. This condition can affect many different organ systems and lead to comorbidities that negatively affect your health. Following your diabetes treatment plan can reduce your risk of developing other health problems. There are many treatment options for people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, and sticking with your plan is critical to your overall health.