How Covid is driving Australia’s Type 2 Diabetes epidemic

Just when you thought you couldn’t blame Covid for anything else, there comes news that the pandemic is driving up cases of type 2 diabetes.

Research from Germany published in the diabetic journal, Diabetologia, has found people who develop COVID-19 are at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, with those who developed even mild cases of COVID-19 28% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than people who developed similar respiratory viruses.

Diabetes Australia Group CEO Justine Cain said the organisation was concerned that the pandemic could trigger a wave of future type 2 diabetes diagnoses.

“The research findings make it clear that Australia needs to start planning for the long-term health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including increasing numbers of people developing type 2 diabetes,” Ms. Cain said.

A healthcare worker measures blood glucose levels for a senior patient with diabetes while masked during the COVID pandemic
Research shows that people who develop COVID-19 are at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Photo: Getty

The Covid-19 pandemic and type 2 diabetes

Dr Emma Rees, a GP Specialist with additional qualifications in women’s health and the founder of digital healthcare solution, Femma, spoke to Yahoo Lifestyle.

The Covid pandemic has not only led to higher levels of diabetes being diagnosed, but also for some existing diabetics, poorer control of their condition.

“For many, the pandemic led to a much more sedentary lifestyle,” Dr Rees explains. “This means that the balance between how much energy we take in and how much energy we burn, in many cases tipped in favour of more energy in than needed.”

“This increases insulin resistance and also gives the pancreas more work to do to regulate blood glucose levels, leading to islet cell burnout (the cells that produce insulin) earlier. This means that more people developed diabetes, and existing diabetics found their condition harder to control."

She adds that, “One of the consequences of poorly controlled blood-sugar levels is that the immune system works less effectively. This also meant that diabetics were at a higher risk of Covid and the complications of covid.”

Due to COVID, people are leading a much more sedentary lifestyle - which can lead to developing diabetes. Photo: Getty
Due to COVID, people are leading a much more sedentary lifestyle - which can lead to developing diabetes. Photo: Getty


Preventing type 2 diabetes

To prevent type 2 diabetes from developing, Dr Rees says that we need to give our pancreas and islet cells less work to do, as this equates to ensuring we are not taking in more energy than we need.

“Being aware of dietary intake and eating foods with a lower glycaemic index is one step towards this. It is also important to enable energy to be metabolised by keeping active.

“For each of us, there is a balance between our activity levels and our food intake that can be achieved to minimise the risk of developing diabetes. It is worth reviewing your intake and energy needs with a dietician to find the right balance for you and where healthy changes for long-term improvement can be made.”

Dr Rees warns that some groups also have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

“People with first-degree relatives with the condition for instance. If you are at an increased risk, even if you are young and well, seek periodic expert review of your diet and well-being to enable you to make the best long-term choices.”

Understanding type 2 diabetes

“Type 2 diabetes is a long-term condition that occurs as a result of increasing insulin resistance,” Dr Rees explains, “The pancreas produces a hormone called insulin in response to the bodily intake of energy or glucose, a.k.a food.”

“Insulin regulates how the body uses and stores excess energy in the muscles, liver and fat cells. The more energy we take in, the more likely we are to place it in long-term storage units-fat cells. Fat cells don’t listen very well to insulin and so the more energy stored this way, the more insulin we need to regulate the process.”

Dr Rees says that in addition to this, over time, the higher levels of circulating insulin also cause the liver and muscle cells to stop listening - similar to when someone shouts a lot, after a while, people stop listening and it becomes a less than effective communication method!

“The pancreas keeps trying to produce even more insulin to overcome the resistance but eventually it can’t keep up with demand. As a result, glucose levels in the bloodstream start to rise and when they hit a certain level, diabetes is diagnosed. This is a different process to that which causes type 1 diabetes.”

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