High-blood sugar affects the body in a myriad of ways, none of them good. Diabetes is a nasty, insidious disease, leading to cardiovascular disease, stroke, retinopathy and blindness, kidney failure, and obesity. Does diabetes affect the skin as well? Yes, unfortunately our most visible organ doesn’t escape its devastating grip. How diabetes affects the skin is both fascinating and terrifying. Let’s delve into it.
Does Diabetes Affect The Skin?
Long-term type 2 diabetes with chronically elevated glucose levels does a number on the skin because of how it affects nerves and blood vessels. Reduced blood flow is responsible for many of the complications, like dry skin, slow-wound healing, infections, and diabetic rashes. I’ll go into more detail on each one of these conditions below:
1. Diabetes And Dry, Itchy Skin
Diabetics are susceptible to dry, itchy skin. Poor circulation, high-blood sugar, and infections are all culprits behind this annoying condition with itchiness being most common on the lower legs. Elevated blood-glucose levels cause the body to lose moisture in the tissues, and this includes the skin.
Although dry skin in itself isn’t harmful, it can lead to diabetic ulcers on the feet, which can be serious. Itchy skin is prone to cracking and infection, and can also be the result of a skin infection. Moisturizing soaps, serums, and creams can help, as can showering instead of bathing, especially in low-humidity conditions.
2. Glycation And Diabetes
Glycation is a natural-occurring process in the skin, leading to advanced glycation end products or AGEs. This process happens when sugar molecules cross link with proteins. Basically, proteins become sugar coated. The body reacts to this process by creating antibodies, increasing inflammation, which is seen in the skin. Unfortunately, AGES like to gravitate to elastin and collagen in the skin, changing type 3 collagen into the more fragile type 1 collagen.
You know those deep wrinkles you see in some people? What you’re seeing is glycation. More AGEs are produced in those who eat a high-sugar diet and those with high-blood sugar. This is why diabetics have more glycation. AGES affect collagen in the skin leading to a host of negative effects like wrinkling, decreased elasticity, uneven skin tone, inflammation, and accelerated aging. AGEs are indeed aging.
3. Collagen And Diabetes
Inadequate blood supply, not only affects collagen, but the fat that lies beneath it. This leads to changes in the skin because collagen is the glue that holds the body together, and is the main structural protein within connective tissue. It provides both strength, firmness, suppleness, and elasticity to the skin, tendons, cartilage, and bones. Unhealthy blood-sugar levels damage collagen, this is why diabetics’ skin wrinkles prematurely.
I toss a scoop of collagen powder in my smoothie a few times a week to maintain healthy blood sugar, and counteract the visible signs of aging on my skin. Collagen is essential for reducing fine lines and wrinkles, improving elasticity, and increasing moisture. I like this brand of collagen.
4. Bacterial And Fungal Infections
Infections can be dangerous for diabetics, especially bacterial ones. Diabetics are more prone to infections because of poor circulation, nerve damage, and decreased immunity. Infections can occur anywhere on the body, including the scalp. Excess sugar in the blood causes yeast infections on the skin, and provide the perfect breeding ground for bacteria to grow, allowing infections to quickly develop.
Those with diabetes should check their skin frequently for any signs of infection, such as swelling, blistering, itchy rashes, and dry, scaly skin. Immediate action needs to be taken if anything looks suspicious to prevent infections and long-term complications.
I use ozonated olive oil for skin infections and for anti-aging.
5. Diabetes And Skin Tags
Skin tags are very common, in fact, half the population will have them at one time or another with obese people being at the highest risk. They are caused by insulin resistance, and can appear individually or in groups. Skin tags are often seen alongside acanthosis nigricans, which you’ll read about below.
Skin tags can be removed by freezing or burning or by surgically removing them. A better preventative option is to control insulin levels, which is the reason skin tags develop in the first place. Other methods always come with the risk of infection, which can be particularly dangerous for diabetics.
6. Slow Wound Healing
Poor circulation, nerve damage, infections, diabetic neuropathy, and poor immunity all inhibit wound healing, particularly on the feet. This can lead to diabetic ulcers especially if blood-sugar levels have been poorly controlled for years. Slow wound healing is serious because it can be a gateway to secondary infections.
All wounds should be carefully monitored in diabetics for this reason. Endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs), responsible for the formation of blood vessels and wound healing, are decreased in the circulatory systems of diabetics, preventing wounds from healing as they should.
7. Diabetic Skin Rashes
Thrush is a type of diabetic rash caused by a yeast infection, occurring on the tongue or in the mouth. An overabundance of sugar stimulates the growth of yeast. Anti-fungals can help but won’t resolve the underlying problem. Diabetic eczema is a dry, itchy skin rash common in those with diabetes. High-sugar levels, as well as fluctuating sugar levels, trigger this form of eczema, causing patchiness, boils, and skin weeping.
Although, topical creams can mitigate uncomfortable itchiness, rashes may continue to occur until blood-sugar levels are managed. Erythasma is another type of rash common in those with diabetes. It is characterized by scaly patches that are red and brown. It is commonly found in skin folds on the neck, groin, and armpits. Obese people tend to suffer the most from this type of rash.
8. Acanthosis Nigricans And Diabetes
Acanthosis nigricans is hyperpigmentation of the skin characterized by thick, dark patches. It is most often seen on the neck, armpits, stomach, groin, and forehead, appearing in body folds and creases. This asymptomatic condition is associated with insulin resistance, prediabetes, diabetes, obesity, and those with darker skin. It may also be the side effect of medications, including insulin.
It is theorized, that acanthosis nigricans is caused by high levels of insulin, that stimulate the proliferation of fibroblasts and keratinocytes in the skin by binding to IGF-s receptors. Although, acanthosis nigricans is benign in nature, its appearance signals a more serious underlying condition or disease.
9. Diabetic Blisters
The good news is diabetic blisters are quite rare. They most often appear on the lower extremities, such as the toes, feet, and legs, and can sometimes be fairly large. They tend to occur in clusters, appear spontaneously, and are filled with a clear fluid. Although, these blisters sound like they would be painful, they typically aren’t, and usually heal on their own without scarring.
Diabetic blisters resemble the type of blisters you get after burning yourself, except the surrounding area isn’t swollen and red. They are usually treated with antibiotic creams and bandaged for protection. Controlling blood sugar is the key to preventing them, and accelerating the rate at which they heal.
I know it’s a big long word that doesn’t sound good, and it doesn’t look good either. Xanthelasma is characterized by scaly, bumpy patches that form on the eyelids, corners of the eyes, and the surrounding areas. These soft, yellowish patches are deposits of cholesterol, forming just below the skin.
They can be caused by high-blood sugar, high-blood pressure, obesity, and disturbances in fat metabolism. One more reason to control your blood sugar, blood-pressure, cholesterol levels, and weight. While unsightly, xanthelasma deposits aren’t harmful in themselves, and can be removed.
If you have diabetes, you’ve most likely noticed changes in your skin. Blisters, rashes, skin tags, and itchy skin can all result from insulin resistance and high-glucose levels. While many of these conditions aren’t life threatening, they are annoying as they affect the way you look.
Diabetic infection, on the other hand, can lead to long-term complications so extreme care needs to be taken to prevent innocuous skin conditions from becoming more serious. Prevention is key when it comes to diabetes.
Are you diabetic? How has it affected your skin? Let me know in the comments:)