Signs of Diabetes in Women

Natalie Stein
September 30, 2018
Signs of Diabetes in Women

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of diabetes can help with preventing type 2 diabetes

Diabetes signs in women are important because type 2 diabetes is becoming more prevalent and is irreversible once confirmed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 14.9 million women, or 11.7%, had diabetes in 2015, and 25.2% of adults 65 years and older had diabetes. [1] An additional 31.1% of women over 18 years old have prediabetes. Prediabetes can be known as several things, such as borderline diabetic, insulin resistance, but is commonly known as stage 1 diabetes. Once you have type 2 diabetes, diabetes cannot be cured, but managed through diabetic diets, exercise and lifestyle changes.

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Diabetes signs in women are even more important when you consider the following information. 

  • Lifestyle changes can prevent or delay the onset of diabetes if you have prediabetes, but only 1 in 7 (14.1%) of women with prediabetes know that they have it.
  • Self-management of diabetes can help prevent complications, but more than 1 in 5 women with diabetes do not know that they have it, as the signs of diabetes can be hard to spot.
  • If you recognize the signs of diabetes in women, you may be able to catch it earlier, and use programs such as Lark Health to help you make effective lifestyle and dietary changes to prevent complications.

Many of the signs of diabetes are the same for everyone, but women have some additional signs that men do not. In addition, women with prediabetes are more likely than men to progress to diabetes. Learn the signs, and you will be in a better position to get the medical help you need to stay healthy by preventing or delaying diabetes or complications of diabetes and live better and healthier. 

Have you seen Lark’s Best Prediabetes Diet for 2020?

What is Diabetes and Why Does It Happen?

Donuts and sugars are not part of a prediabetes diet plan.

Diabetes mellitus” literally means, “sugar urine disease.” It is a condition in which your blood sugar is abnormally high – so high that some sugar is excreted in your urine. It results from a disruption of normal glucose metabolism and the action of insulin (stay with me! Or, if you want to skip the background on Diabetes and how it develops, scroll down to the title “Diabetes Signs Unique to Women”.

When you eat foods with carbohydrates, your body breaks down the carbs into smaller components, or molecules of a type of simple sugar called glucose. The glucose enters your bloodstream, where it is transported to the cells of your body. A hormone called insulin, which is made by beta cells in your pancreas, enables the cells to pick up the glucose to use it for energy, or if your glucose level is high, store it as fat.

In diabetes, there is a problem related to insulin. Insulin may be lacking, or the cells of your body may be resistant to its effects, this is known as “insulin resistance”. The result is that the cells of your body are unable to transport glucose out of your bloodstream, and so your blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels remain too high, far above normal blood sugar levels.

Types of Diabetes in Women

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that occurs when your immune system attacks and destroys the beta cells of your pancreas. Without properly functioning pancreas, you do not have the insulin you need to clear glucose from your blood. Type 1 diabetes is linked to genetics. It tends to be triggered by an environmental event, such as a virus, and usually happens in childhood. [2]

About 5% of women with diabetes have type 1 diabetes. If you are wondering if you could be at risk of diabetes, consider the following risk factors.

You are at higher risk of diabetes if:

  • You live far north or far south of the equator, which may be related to a vitamin D deficiency.
  • You have a family history of type 1 diabetes.
  • You are White rather than African-American or Latino.

Diabetes signs in women under 40 could be diabetes 1 signs, especially if they come on suddenly and severely, as type 1 diabetes is most often diagnosed in children.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is far more common than type 1 diabetes. While type 1 diabetes results from beta cell destruction and lack of insulin production, type 2 diabetes begins with an increase in insulin production! (It’s based largely on lifestyle).

Here is how a classic case of type 2 diabetes develops. A woman repeatedly places higher demands on her insulin response by having unusually high blood sugar, often due to eating too much, consuming alcohol when prediabetic, or exercising too little. She produces increasing amounts of insulin to handle her high levels of blood glucose. Her body’s cells grow tolerant, and then resistant (remember insulin resistance?), to insulin’s effects, so the beta cells in the pancreas work harder to produce more insulin to keep up with demand. This begins insulin sensitivity and insulin resistance symptoms in females.

Eventually, two things happen to lead to higher blood sugar levels. [3]

  1. Insulin resistance becomes strong enough that blood glucose levels stay high. This is when prediabetes and then diabetes can be diagnosed.
  2. The pancreatic beta cells become exhausted and produce much less insulin. This happens in the later stages of diabetes.

Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include both genetic and lifestyle factors. You are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes if: [4]

  • You are overweight or obese
  • You have prediabetes
  • You do not engage in physical activity at least 3 times per week
  • You had gestational diabetes when you were pregnant or you have given birth to a baby over 9 lb
  • You have a parent or sibling with diabetes

Some characteristics are considered stronger risk factors for type 2 diabetes in women than in men. [5]

  • Certain job-related stressors, including night-work exposure and high job strain
  • Lower socioeconomic status
  • Less education
  • High testosterone

Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes is high blood sugar while pregnant. As many as 1 in 10 women develop it during pregnancy, and about half of those eventually develop type 2 diabetes. [6] Gestational diabetes is caused by insulin resistance, which is the result of hormonal changes and weight gain during pregnancy. There are not usually symptoms of gestational diabetes, so your prenatal care plan is likely to include tests for it. Failure to treat gestational diabetes can lead to high birthweight or premature birth.

Common Signs of Diabetes in Men and Women

Most of the signs of diabetes are common in both men and women. They can include:

Tingling or pain in the hands or feet is a diabetes symptom for women and men.
  • Unintentional weight loss, fatigue (and feeling sleepy after eating), and extra hunger (which can happen when your body does not properly use blood glucose), which comes from the foods you eat.
  • Excessive thirst and urination, as your body works to counterbalance the excess sugar in your system.
  • Impaired wound healing, numbness and tingling in your feet and hands, and skin infections, from damage caused by glucose in your bloodstream over time.

It is important to know that you might only detect these signs after your diabetes has progressed; that is, often, there are no prediabetes signs in women. That means you should contact your doctor immediately if you experience any of them. In addition, be aware that you could have diabetes or prediabetes without having any warning signs of diabetes. That is why it is best to let your doctor know if you have any risk factors.

Do I have Diabetes: Diabetes Symptoms for Women

Hormonal and other differences can cause signs of diabetes that are unique to women. These warning signs for diabetes include: [7]

  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is associated with diabetes and is a cause of infertility.
  • Yeast infections, since yeast can grow more easily when sugar levels are higher.
  • Urinary tract or bladder infections.
  • Sexual dysfunction, such as painful sex or lack of arousal.

How Diabetes Is Different in Women Than in Men?

For both men and women, diabetes is a condition of high blood sugar and insulin resistance. Uncontrolled diabetes increases the risk for complications such as heart disease, kidney disease, blindness, and amputations, in both men and women. However, there are some differences among women. As women tend to be diagnosed at higher BMIs than men, signs of diabetes in women with a BMI over 24 should be investigated. Check your BMI if you’re unsure what it is.

Greater Impact of Some Complications

Women experience some diabetes-related complications differently than men. These are some examples of complications that affect women more severely than men, according to research published in “Endocrine Reviews”. [8]

Extreme fatigue and high pressure headaches are a warning sign of diabetes in women.
  • 10% more physical limitations in women.
  • Nearly twice as much anxiety, and more cognitive impairment among women.
  • Increased risk of renal disease in women.
  • 10 to 33% risk of depression, compared to 8 to 14% in men.
  • 40% greater risk for coronary heart disease, with more fatal and nonfatal cardiac events in women.
  • 27% higher risk of stroke.

The reasons for these differences are not known, but there are some possible explanations. Some differences are likely to be hormonal. There is also the possibility of less accurate diagnosis of coronary heart disease in women due to differences in microvascular and other symptoms compared to men. [9]

Given the significant risk of complications with uncontrolled diabetes, as well as the dramatic reduction in risk that you can achieve by controlling your blood sugar, symptoms of type 2 diabetes in women should be taken seriously. Whether you are showing early signs of diabetes as a woman at the age of 40 or 60, you can take charge of your condition and work to reverse your presiabetes.

Increased Mortality among Women

With advances in healthcare, increased knowledge about diabetes management, and better awareness, you might expect that mortality related to diabetes would be lower now than 20 years ago. That is true for men, but it is not true for women. Signs of diabetes in women over 60, or even younger, should not be ignored, especially when considering that women with diabetes at age 40 are at greater risk for earlier mortality than men diagnosed at the same age.

According to research published in “Annals of Internal Medicine,” the all-cause mortality rate for men with diabetes decreased from 42.6 to 24.4 deaths per 1,000 people, while the respective figures for women reflected an increase from 18.4 to 25.9 deaths per 1,000 people. In addition, cardiovascular disease mortality dropped by over half in men, and by only 10% in women from 1971 to 2000. [10]

Study and Research Done on Diabetes in Women

The more we know about diabetes in women, the better we can prevent it and manage it when it does happen. Research is constantly underway to assess who gets prediabetes and diabetes, what the effects are, and what medications and other treatments are best for minimizing the impact. These are some facts on diabetes in women. [11]

  • 11.7% of women have diabetes, but only about 1 in 5 know it.
  • Each year, about 6.8 out of every 1,000 women in the U.S. develops diabetes.
  • 31.1% of women have prediabetes, and only 14.1% of them are aware of it.
  • Diabetes is the seventh-leading cause of death for U.S. women overall, but fourth for African American and Native American women. [12]
  • Heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and kidney disease – all higher among individuals with diabetes – are the first, third, fifth, and ninth-leading causes of death among women in the U.S., respectively. [13]

Care and Treatment of Diabetes in Women

Prediabetes and type 2 diabetes are largely preventable, or their onset can be delayed, with certain lifestyle choices. In addition, although the complications of type 2 diabetes can be severe, they can also be prevented or delayed with good management. Women can be proactive about their health by responding to symptoms of diabetes and knowing their treatment options.

Regular Checkups

Your care team consists of a variety of members who are experienced in diabetes treatment. Do what you can to find healthcare professionals whom you feel comfortable talking to about everything from blood sugar monitoring to lifestyle changes to sexual health. Then, be sure to schedule and attend your appointments as recommended. These are the standard checkups that women with diabetes should have. [14]

  • Primary care or endocrinologist checkups: every 3 months if you are on insulin, or every 4 to 6 months if not, including measurements of blood glucose, kidney function, and blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides).
  • Podiatrist: annually, to check for foot wounds and infections.
  • Dentist: every 6 months, with a special check for gum disease.

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle changes, such as improving your diet, increasing physical activity, and quitting smoking, can all lower blood sugar levels. The American Diabetes Association recommends the following healthy behaviors among women with diabetes. [15]

Omega-3s can help prevent diabetes in women
  • Losing extra pounds, with a goal of 5% of body weight linked to dramatic improvements in blood sugar and cardiovascular risk factors such as high cholesterol and blood pressure.
  • Increasing fiber intake from vegetables, whole grains, fruit, and legumes.
  • Including fish and low-fat dairy products as protein sources.
  • Planning a diabetes prevention diet.
  • Choosing more healthy fats, such as olive oil, avocados, and nuts, instead of butter and lard.
  • Avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages and limiting added sugars.
  • Using the diabetes plate method for meal planning – filling your plate half full with non-starchy vegetables such as tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, or broccoli, one-quarter full with lean proteins such as fish, eggs, or tofu, and one-quarter full with a healthy starchy food, such as a whole grain like whole-wheat spaghetti, beans, or a starchy vegetable such as sweet potatoes or green peas. Fruit, low-fat dairy, and healthy fats go on the side.
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Participating in regular physical activity, including both aerobic and strength-training exercises.
  • Managing sleep, anxiety, and other aspects of a healthy life.

Medication and Blood Sugar Monitoring

If lifestyle changes are not enough to get your blood sugar within range, your doctor may prescribe insulin or medications that reduce insulin resistance (make insulin more effective) in your body. These are some common options. [16]

  • Biguanides (metformin) – Increases insulin sensitivity.
  • Thiazolidinediones – Increase insulin sensitivity.
  • Sulfonylureas – Increase insulin release.

Self-management of diabetes requires taking medications properly, as well as measuring your blood sugar levels at least twice daily. Here is a handy guide of blood sugar levels throughout the day. Learning how to reduce blood sugar levels will help. This can be tricky, but you can develop strategies to remember. For example, you can have a special place to put your medications, use portable monitoring devices, and use Lark health app to log your blood sugar measurements.

For a more detailed breakdown of blood sugar levels, Lark has created a chart of blood sugar levels and what they mean.

Successful Diabetes Prevention and Management

Healthy behavior changes and the self-monitoring you need to manage diabetes can be difficult to achieve, but you can get help making them habits. Your care team can take the lead in teaching you what to do and supporting you as you do it.

  • A dietitian can help you create a balanced diet plan that is nutritious and carbohydrate-controlled, and helps you lose weight if needed.
  • An exercise physiologist can help you develop a safe exercise program that you enjoy.
  • A nurse can teach you how to take your medications and use your blood sugar monitoring device.
  • A social worker, counselor, or mental health specialist can help you manage stress associated with diabetes management and diagnosis.

Your care team is filled with experts and invaluable resources, but you can benefit from additional support that is available round-the-clock. Lark is ready to provide unlimited one-on-one support whenever you need it – no appointments or phone calls necessary. It is a health app that can chat with you anytime about all kinds of diabetes and health-related items. Just a few of the topics you might chat about are:

Calculate Your Risk of Diabetes

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  • Weight loss progress and barriers.
  • What was healthy and how you could have made better choices at your last meal.
  • Reminders to get active or break up sedentary time, take a deep-breathing break to relax, or take your medications.
  • Recent trends in your blood sugar measurements.

Talk to your doctor if you have signs of diabetes or you have risk factors for diabetes or prediabetes. Taking charge of your blood sugar can keep you healthy for years to come, and you have options for support as you do it. 

Written by Natalie Stein on September 30, 2018
Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Lark Health
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