Diabetes is a whole-body problem. The disease is marked by too high blood glucose, which affects the many cells fed by the circulatory system. The cells of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and the nerves that control its movement are no exception. People with diabetes have an elevated risk for a spectrum of GI disorders that can make life uncomfortable. Identifying the cause of GI discomfort is the first step toward getting the right treatment and finding relief.
According to Jack D. Bragg, DO, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Missouri, most diabetes-related GI issues stem from a problem with one thing: motion. The digestive tract is a finely tuned muscular machine. It pulls and pushes, expands and contracts, relaxes and squeezes to carry food from your mouth, down the esophagus, into the stomach, and, finally, through 25 feet of nutrient- and water-extracting intestine that ends in, well, your exit.
Nerves help orchestrate this digestive tour de force, says Bragg, by telling the muscles what to do. Uncontrolled diabetes, though, can damage the nerves, leading to some GI missteps. “It has to do with hyperglycemia [high blood glucose],” says Bragg. “We don’t know the exact mechanism.” We do know that blood glucose control can both prevent and improve GI dysfunction.
In this diabetes-related complication, an uncooperative stomach is slow to move food into the intestine, and does so unpredictably. The symptoms of gastroparesis include upper abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, bloating, lack of appetite, and reflux, the flowing backward of stomach contents into the esophagus. Wild, unexplained swings in blood glucose are another clue that you may have gastroparesis. For example, blood glucose may go low if food isn’t absorbed until after mealtime insulin takes effect; later, blood glucose levels may spike, when the stomach finally ushers food into the intestine and there’s not enough remaining insulin on board.
Treatment for gastroparesis can include dietary changes such as eating less fiber and eating smaller, more frequent meals. Medications are available as well that can spur muscle contractions in the stomach or help control nausea. Another option for some people is to have a gastric pacing device, similar to a heart pacemaker, surgically implanted to stimulate stomach movements.
In gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), sometimes called heartburn, stomach acid and partially undigested food move backward through the esophagus, escaping from the stomach and through the esophageal sphincter that normally prevents such backsliding. This can occur as a symptom of gastroparesis, says Hiroshi Mashimo, MD, PhD, a gastroenterologist at Harvard Medical School. “If the stomach doesn’t empty, it’s likely to reflux up,” he says. GERD may also result from diabetes-related nerve damage affecting the esophageal sphincter, Mashimo adds. One caution: Some diseases, such as a yeast infection in the esophagus, can masquerade as GERD, so don’t brush off symptoms. We can’t treat the gastroparesis or esophageal sphincter problems that contribute to GERD, but antacids and other medications can help to reduce or neutralize stomach acids (see “PPIs the Right Way,” below).
Diarrhea and Constipation
Diarrhea and constipation may also stem from diabetes-related gut movement issues. And the conditions may be related. “Diarrhea doesn’t mean fast motion; constipation doesn’t mean slow movement,” says Mashimo, happy to clear up a common misconception. “They can be two sides of the same coin.” Constipation, he says, is caused by slow movement of the bowels, which can cause a buildup of harmful bacteria in the colon that, in turn, triggers diarrhea.
Many people may not want to divulge their bathroom dramas to a doctor, or anyone, or may think that heartburn is common and no big deal. Everyone gets a tummy ache now and again, but if you have diabetes, GI symptoms may indicate that something is chronically wrong. “If it bothers you, it’s worth getting checked out,” says Bragg. With a proper diagnosis, you and your health care provider can come up with a plan to make your whole body feel a whole lot better.
PPIs the Right Way
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are among the most widely sold drugs in the world. The pills block the production of stomach acid and are considered highly effective in treating gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
The problem, according to gastroenterologist Hiroshi Mashimo, MD, PhD, is that 70 percent of PPI users take the medications incorrectly. “They aren’t getting proper instruction,” says Mashimo. “Most people equate PPIs as a stronger form of an antacid.” Antacids neutralize acid and are meant to be taken to quell symptoms as they occur. PPIs are part of a more long-term strategy. The right way to take them is in the morning, just before or with breakfast. Food “turns on” the body’s acid-making cells; the medication can then work to stop stomach acid production.