Diabetes And Your Immune System: What You Need To Know
Lifestyle changes can lower blood sugar and help you fight infections.
July 23, 2021
Individuals with chronic disorders often have weak immune systems and are thus more vulnerable to contracting and suffering from infectious diseases. For those with high blood sugar, including diabetics, the immune system issues are significant. Fortunately, better management of blood sugar levels can be helped by lifestyle changes. Let's explore the link between diabetes and your immune system.
What COVID-19 has taught us about immunity
Since the onset of COVID-19, we’ve learned that people with certain chronic health conditions—such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease—are more likely to get sicker from the virus and are at greater risk of dying from it, according to research. Those with diabetes have had a particularly difficult time fighting COVID-19; at the height of the pandemic (May 2020), one study found that one in 10 people with diabetes and COVID-19 died within a week of hospitalization.
That sobering statistic points to the strong link between diabetes and immune system health, and raises the important question: Can individuals with high blood sugar and those with diabetes boost their immunity in order to better their chances of surviving infectious diseases, such as COVID-19? The answer is yes, if blood sugar levels are managed closely and carefully, and lifestyle changes made and adhered to.
How diabetes affects the immune system
High blood sugar can impair the production of white blood cells—the immune-boosting cells you need to fend off infection. Another issue: Chronically high blood sugar triggers inflammation, which may lead to a dysfunctional immune response that does more damage than good, say scientists. The fallout: those with diabetes are more likely to get sicker when dealing with common infections, like a cold or flu, because their immune response may be suppressed.
According to one study, this is a possible theory behind why patients with diabetes who develop COVID-19 also experience worse outcomes.
What lifestyle changes can help boost your immunity?
Lifestyle changes can have a significant impact on the overall health of those with diabetes, as concluded in the Diabetes Prevention Program study. Researchers found that when subjects were able to lose at least 7% of their initial body weight through a healthy diet and exercising 150 minutes per week (brisk walking counted!), they could reduce the risk of prediabetes to diabetes by 58% in 3 years and 27% in 15 years.
Lifestyle changes can also positively enhance immunity, specifically. One recent study showed that lifestyle intervention can partly reverse the pro-inflammatory phenotype associated with obesity. Another study showed that optimal nutrient intake promotes optimal immune function and may limit the impact of novel, more virulent pathogenic viruses.
5 ways to keep your immune system strong
1. Fill up on the right foods. The good news: The foods you’re already eating to prevent sky-high blood sugar (like non-processed, nutrient-rich, fiber-filled, low-carb options) are exactly what you’ll want to chow down on when you’re looking to boost your immune system. A few good staples to add to your diet:
- Chickpeas – Not only is this plant-based protein rich in fiber, they’re also loaded with zinc, which white blood cells need to function effectively.
- Salmon – This heart-healthy choice is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to aid in supporting white blood cells, according to studies.
- Carrots – Not only do they check the veggie box when you’re looking to reach your servings goal per day, they’re also loaded with vitamin A, which also strengthens the body’s immune response.
- Walnuts – Packed with vitamin E, these low-carb nuts are a powerful antioxidant that can help aid your immune system so it can ward off infections.
2. Get moving. Exercise can help lead to better blood sugar control and reduce your risk of developing diabetes, which, in turn, can help your immune system if you do get sick. Consistent physical activity in any form will also boost your immunity in other ways: During and after exercise, the body naturally produces anti-inflammatory cells that improve its immune response, leading to lower incidence and intensity of symptoms in viral infections (potentially including COVID-19), according to a recent report. In other words, if you exercise regularly, you may still contract COVID-19, but you’re more likely to have a milder case than those who don’t exercise.
3. Keep blood sugar stable. If you’re already managing your diabetes, keep doing what you’re doing. Checking in on your blood sugar levels and making sure they remain relatively steady without major spikes and dips throughout the day is crucial to minimizing inflammation. If your levels are too high, follow some natural guidelines to lower blood sugar fast.
4. Limit stress. A little stress is OK; a lot of stress can wreak havoc on your body by keeping your stress hormones chronically high, triggering inflammation. Furthermore, people with poorly managed stress are more likely to have high blood sugar. The more you’re able to tap into stress-relieving strategies, like mindfulness or meditation, the better able you’ll be able to control the impact life’s stressors have on your body.
5. Get enough sleep. People who skimp on sleep aren’t doing themselves any favors. One study found that people who regularly get just 5 to 6 hours of sleep per night are at 28 percent increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Lack of sleep can also trigger inflammation, which, as we now know, spells trouble for your immune system. Research suggests that sleepers who skimp on the recommended 7 hours of sleep are more likely to get sick after exposure to a virus than those who get adequate rest most nights, which is between 7 to 8 hours for most adults.
There is a link between diabetes and immune system health. High blood sugar can harm your immune system, leaving you much more vulnerable to contracting (and faring worse with) infectious diseases, including COVID-19. Simple, daily lifestyle interventions can help keep your blood sugar levels in check while boosting your immune system. Of course, getting a COVID-19 vaccine is vitally important to help prevent getting and transmitting this virulent disease, together with following the CDC’s safety protocols: wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, and remain at least six feet from others.