The Link Between Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease

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People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those without diabetes. In fact, according to one study, 32.2% of type 2 diabetics around the world are diagnosed with a heart condition–and type 1 patients may have an even higher risk. But why is this?

In this article, we’ll explore the link between diabetes and cardiovascular disease and discuss natural strategies to protect your heart and overall health.

How can diabetes affect your heart?

Diabetes can impact your cardiovascular system in a variety of ways:

Elevated blood sugar 

Elevated blood sugar (hyperglycemia) can harm the heart by triggering:

  • Inflammation
  • Oxidative stress (a condition in which excess unstable molecules called free radicals damage cells, proteins, and DNA)
  • Endothelial (the inner lining of the blood vessels) dysfunction

The vascular damage from inflammation and oxidative stress can also impact the nerves controlling the heart, leading to diabetic autonomic neuropathy. This condition disrupts the regulation of heart rate and blood pressure, raising the risk of serious cardiovascular issues like heart attack and stroke.

Endothelial dysfunction also impairs vasodilation and promotes plaque buildup, which can lead to atherosclerosis (thickening or hardening of the blood vessels), which substantially increases the risk of heart disease. This condition accounts for nearly 80% of all diabetes-related deaths.

Diabetes stiffens the heart muscle, as well, causing fluid retention and, potentially, heart failure. And to make matters even worse, diabetics–especially women, due to hormonal changes or complications during pregnancy–often develop high blood pressure, further increasing cardiovascular risks.

What’s even more troubling is nerve damage from diabetes can mask chest pain or discomfort, making it more difficult to detect heart disease until it’s advanced. So be proactive and combat cardiovascular issues before they become a major problem.

Genetics

The link between diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk also involves genetic factors. 

In a comprehensive study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers conducted an in-depth analysis of DNA sequences from over 250,000 individuals of varied backgrounds, identifying 16 new genetic risk factors for diabetes and one for coronary heart disease (CHD).

Many genetic sequences that raise diabetes risk also suggest increased CHD risk. Researchers identified eight specific gene variations affecting both conditions, which are linked to:

  • Immunity
  • Cell proliferation (growth and division, resulting in greater numbers of cells)
  • Heart development

These findings suggest that targeting these overlapping biological pathways could be an effective way to manage both diseases. 

Furthermore, in studies on mice, researchers are investigating one specific gene called FABP4, targeting promising ways to treat both diabetes and heart disease.

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Interestingly, another finding showed that DNA variants associated with obesity or high blood pressure appeared to significantly elevate CHD risk as compared to those affecting insulin or glucose levels.  

Of course, medical treatment for one disease won’t necessarily lower the risk of developing the other. Researchers even found that certain medications that lower the likelihood of developing one disease may inadvertently increase the risk of the other. 

So it’s critical to discuss treatment options carefully with your healthcare provider, opting for natural, holistic therapies whenever possible. 

Lifestyle habits

Diabetes is often accompanied by other conditions that exacerbate cardiovascular risks, such as obesity and high blood pressure. And many people amplify these risks for themselves further by engaging in unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as:

  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Poor diet

Each of these factors alone can harm heart health, but when combined with diabetes, the overall impact may be particularly severe.

So, if you partake in any of the above habits, consider making some changes–even if they’re small and gradual. Research shows switching to healthier lifestyle habits can extend the lives of diabetes patients by three to 10 years or more, while also improving their quality of life.

Even a modest amount of weight loss due to dietary changes and exercise can lower blood pressure, reduce heart disease risk, and even potentially reverse diabetes.

Inflammation, diet, and obesity

Inflammation is another significant factor in heart disease risk for diabetics. And to a great extent, it’s something you can control through diet and weight loss. 

Chronic inflammation plays a major role in the development of heart disease, as well as other complications of diabetes. 

A groundbreaking study from the Washington University School of Medicine found that immune cells called macrophages contribute to this inflammation by producing fatty acids (lipids), which build up in arteries, leading to atherosclerosis. 

However, mice that were unable to produce fat in their macrophages did not develop diabetes or inflammation–even on a high-fat diet. This suggests that blocking fat production in these cells might prevent inflammation in diabetics.

Researchers are also revisiting drugs that modify cell lipid content, which may affect macrophage membranes and reduce diabetes complications. However, you can minimize inflammation naturally with healthy lifestyle habits. 

How can diabetics prevent heart disease?

Here are some effective, natural strategies that can boost your heart health while also helping you manage your diabetes.

Lifestyle modifications

  • Follow an anti-inflammatory, heart-healthy diet. Eat whole foods, incorporating a variety of antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts to improve blood sugar control and heart health. Opt for healthy fats like olive oil and avocado, and avoid sugary, highly processed options.
  • Exercise. Regular physical activity helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol while supporting a healthy weight. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each week.
  • Reduce stress. Chronic stress can contribute to both cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Techniques like meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness can help you relax while lowering blood pressure and glucose levels.
  • Try acupuncture. This traditional Chinese medicine technique aims to balance the body’s energy flow. Studies suggest it can improve blood flow, reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and stabilize blood glucose and heart rate.
  • Get a massage. Massage therapy can improve circulation, reduce stress, and lower blood pressure–all of which strengthen heart function. It may also diminish blood sugar levels.
  • Try other mind-body tools. Research shows treatments like biofeedback can reduce stress and support cardiovascular wellness. Biofeedback uses sensors to monitor functions like heart rate, helping you consciously manage stress and improve heart health by learning to control these typically involuntary functions.
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Natural supplements 

Research shows that a number of natural supplements have potential benefits for heart health in diabetics, as well as non-diabetics. Some of these include:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, and fish oil, omega-3s help minimize inflammation and improve cardiovascular health.
  • Magnesium: This mineral, found in leafy greens and whole grains, helps regulate blood sugar levels and is crucial for a healthy heart.
  • Cinnamon and turmeric: These spices are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and can even help improve insulin sensitivity.
  • Garlic: 70% of U.S. adults with diabetes have high or borderline high cholesterol levels. Garlic supplements can help, while also reducing blood pressure and improving blood flow.

There is a direct link between diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But you can reduce your risk, naturally–and more simply than you may think.

Try integrating the above lifestyle tips into your routine, and be sure to discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider before heart-related symptoms arise. You can take charge of your health and live a longer, more vital life.

References:

Cardiovascular Risk in Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus – PMC

Prevalence of cardiovascular disease in type 2 diabetes: a systematic literature review of scientific evidence from across the world in 2007–2017.

Diabetes as a cardiovascular risk factor: An overview of global trends of macro and micro vascular complications

Casual blood glucose and subsequent cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality among 159 731 participants in Cohort of Norway (CONOR) | BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care

The link between diabetes and atherosclerosis – Lucia La Sala, Francesco Prattichizzo, Antonio Ceriello, 2019

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Diabetes and Atherosclerosis | SpringerLink

How hyperglycemia promotes atherosclerosis: molecular mechanisms | Cardiovascular Diabetology | Full Text

Diabetic Cardiomyopathy | Circulation Research

Impact of Diabetes on Cardiovascular Disease: An Update – PMC

Diabetes, Hypertension, and Cardiovascular Disease

Women and Heart Disease | cdc.gov

Cardiac autonomic neuropathy: Risk factors, diagnosis and treatment

Identification of new susceptibility loci for type 2 diabetes and shared etiological pathways with coronary heart disease | Nature Genetics

Long Term Effects of a Lifestyle Intervention on Weight and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Individuals with Type 2 Diabetes: Four Year Results of the Look AHEAD Trial – PMC

Physical Activity Levels and Diabetes Prevalence in US Adults: Findings from NHANES 2015–2016

Learn how people with type 2 diabetes can live longer

Fatty acid synthesis configures the plasma membrane for inflammation in diabetes | Nature

Cardiovascular Outcomes in Patients With Diabetes and Kidney Disease: JACC Review Topic of the Week

A Heart-Healthy Diet for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention: Where Are We Now? – PMC

Nutrients and Dietary Approaches in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus and Cardiovascular Disease: A Narrative Review – PMC

Exercise training: can it improve cardiovascular health in patients with type 2 diabetes? | British Journal of Sports Medicine

Physical Activity/Exercise and Diabetes: A Position Statement of the American Diabetes Association – PMC

Effect of aerobic exercise, slow deep breathing and mindfulness meditation on cortisol and glucose levels in women with type 2 diabetes mellitus: a randomized controlled trial – PMC

Mind–Body Interactions and Mindfulness Meditation in Diabetes – PMC

Mobile biofeedback of heart rate variability in patients with diabetic polyneuropathy: a preliminary study

Acupuncture for Treating Hypertension and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus as Comorbidities in Patients with COVID-19 – PMC

Connective Tissue Reflex Massage for Type 2 Diabetic Patients with Peripheral Arterial Disease: Randomized Controlled Trial

The Effect of Massage on Diabetes and its Complications: A Systematic Review

THE EFFECT OF BIOFEEDBACK ON HYPERTENSION AND DIABETES: PREL…

Effect of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on Cardiovascular Outcomes in Patients with Diabetes: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials – PMC.

Magnesium and type 2 diabetes – PMC

Effects of magnesium supplementation on improving hyperglycemia, hypercholesterolemia, and hypertension in type 2 diabetes: A pooled analysis of 24 randomized controlled trials

The Impact of Curcumin, Resveratrol, and Cinnamon on Modulating Oxidative Stress and Antioxidant Activity in Type 2 Diabetes: Moving beyond an Anti-Hyperglycaemic Evaluation

Anti-Hyperglycemic and Insulin Sensitizer Effects of Turmeric and Its Principle Constituent Curcumin – PMC

Hypercholesterolemia in diabetes and glucose intolerance in the U.S. population

Potential Health Benefit of Garlic Based on Human Intervention Studies: A Brief Overview

 

Author
Carrie Solomon

Carrie Solomon is a freelance health writer, web copywriter, and passionate wellness enthusiast. She’s on a mission to help wellness-focused companies everywhere educate, engage, and inspire their audiences to make the world a healthier, happier place. Learn more about her at copybycarrie.com or on LinkedIn.

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