Asthma and diabetes. Is there a link?

March 12, 2012

Using an inhaler

It is believed that more than 300 million people worldwide have asthma. And close to 300 million are living with diabetes. But before we talk about a link between these two conditions, it will help to talk what each condition is.

What is asthma?

Asthma, pronounced AZ-ma, is a lung disease that causes a person's airways to narrow. Airways are how air gets into and out of your lungs. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, an asthma attack can make it hard for a person to breathe and cause coughing, wheezing, and chest tightening. If not treated, it can be very dangerous.

There are many ways to treat and control asthma. But there is no cure. Even if a person with asthma feels fine, the disease can pop up again at any time.

What is diabetes?

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), diabetes "is a group of diseases characterized by high blood glucose levels that result from defects in the body's ability to produce and/or use insulin."

What does that mean? Basically, it means that a person with diabetes can't create or properly use insulin, which helps control blood sugar levels. And when blood sugar levels are high, it can cause many different symptoms.

There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. The ADA offers this list of common symptoms for each type:

Type 1 diabetes

  • Frequent urination
  • Unusual thirst
  • Extreme hunger
  • Unusual weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness

Type 2 diabetes (often people with type 2 diabetes have no symptoms)

  • Any of the type 1 symptoms
  • Frequent infections
  • Blurry vision
  • Cuts/bruises that are slow to heal
  • Tingling/numbness in the hands/feet
  • Skin, gum, or bladder infections

Both types need to be taken seriously and treated by a doctor. The National Diabetes Education Program says that, without the right treatment, diabetes can lead to other conditions. These include heart attack and stroke, eye problems that can lead to trouble seeing or blindness, nerve damage and kidney problems.

So, are asthma and diabetes connected?

Now that we know more about each condition, let us look into possible connections between them. Below, we will present information pulled from two studies that say that there may be a link. Keep in mind that, while studies may show a connection, there is no firm proof that shows either asthma or diabetes to be a direct cause of the other.

Study No. 1

The first study was published in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Here, we will present a shortened summary based on an article found on Reuters.com

In this study, researchers looked at 2,000 3- to 21-year-olds with diabetes. They found that 11 percent had asthma. This is higher than the roughly 9 percent rate among all people in the U.S. within that age range. When the researchers looked just at a group that has type 2 diabetes, a full 16 percent had asthma.

There were two main findings from this study:
  1. Kids with diabetes may have a higher-than-average rate of asthma.
  2. Those with both conditions seem to have a tougher time keeping their blood sugar under control.

The study found no firm reason why children with both conditions have a harder time keeping blood sugar controlled. But the researchers have two possible ideas.

The Reuters article reports: "Some past research … has found that people with poorly controlled diabetes are more likely to show dips in lung function over time than those with well-controlled diabetes. But the reasons for that are not known."

The second idea is that "... it may simply be tougher for kids with type 1 diabetes to control their blood sugar when they have another chronic health problem."

Study No. 2

The second study, as reported on WebMD.com, followed two groups of people from 1964 to 1983. The first group was made up of 2,392 people with asthma. The second group was made up of 4,784 people without asthma.

During those 19 years, a higher percentage of asthma sufferers developed diabetes than did those who did not suffer from asthma.

The conclusion: "People with asthma were at higher risk for developing diabetes."

This study was conducted by a group lead by Young J. Juhn, MD, MPH, of the Mayo Clinic. The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in San Francisco.

But Juhn cautions that further study is needed before a definite link is proven.

Juhn says in a news release: "While it's important … to be aware of the increased risks of … diabetes in those with asthma, these findings should be taken with caution."

What does all this mean to you?

If you or someone you care about has asthma, you should work with a doctor to be tested often for diabetes and other conditions. There is no guarantee that an asthma sufferer will develop diabetes. But the two studies discussed here could mean that you are more at risk than a person without asthma.

Building a long-term relationship with a doctor can have a positive impact on your overall health, especially if you already have asthma or another condition.

Controlling the conditions

If you have asthma or diabetes -or both - learning how to control your condition can help you lead a better life. The most important thing for either condition is to work closely with a physician to create a medical treatment plan. But the following tips can help you deal with asthma or diabetes on a daily basis.

Asthma control tips

Asthma.com says one of the best ways to control asthma is to "know your triggers." Triggers are things like pets, allergies, and even things you eat that can cause an asthma attack. After working with your doctor to create a treatment plan, you should pay attention to those things that cause your asthma to get worse. And then you can work to stay away from those things in your life.

Asthma.com also has some great tips for helping you remember to take your asthma medicine.

  • If you have coffee every morning, keep your medicine next to your favorite coffee mug.
  • If you have a cell phone, set its alarm for twice a day-once in the morning and once in the evening-to remind you to take your medicine.
  • Work with a friend, who is also on medicine, to call each other daily.
  • If you use a computer every day, program a start-up reminder or a daily e-mail.
  • Each time you get a new supply of medication, make a note to refill it on your calendar one week before the medicine is due to run out.

One more tip: eat right. Eating healthy foods is good for anyone. And it just might help those with asthma control their symptoms.

WebMD.com points out that "many doctors suspect that the specific foods you eat might have a direct impact on your asthma." The site lists the following as good advice for people with asthma:

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat foods with omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, tuna, and sardines.
  • Avoid trans fats and omega-6 fatty acids. Look at the labels to make sure foods you eat don't contain these things.
  • Keep a healthy weight, as overweight people tend to have more trouble controlling asthma.

Diabetes control tips

While studies may show a connection, there is no firm proof that shows either asthma or diabetes to be a direct cause of the other.

The National Diabetes Education Program, on its website, suggests following your diabetes meal plan. If you do not have one, ask your healthcare team to help you develop a meal plan. Good rules of thumb are to:

  • Eat healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, fish, lean meats, chicken or turkey without the skin, dry peas or beans, whole grains, and low-fat or skim milk and cheese.
  • Keep fish, lean meat, and poultry portions to about 3 ounces. Bake, broil, or grill it.
  • Eat foods that have less fat and salt.
  • Eat foods with more fiber such as whole grain cereals, breads, crackers, rice, or pasta.

The program also suggests other well-being tips such as:

  • Doing things, like brisk walking, which get you moving 30 to 60 minutes every day.
  • Staying at a healthy weight by using your meal plan and moving more.
  • Asking for help if you feel down. Talking to a friend or family member, even someone from your place of worship. You can also get professional help from a counselor.
  • Learning to cope with stress. Stress can raise your blood glucose. While it is hard to remove stress from your life, you can learn to handle it.
  • Stoping smoking. Ask for help to quit.
  • Taking your prescribed medicines even when you feel good.
  • Checking your feet every day for cuts, blisters, red spots, and swelling.
  • Brushing your teeth and floss every day to avoid problems with your mouth, teeth, or gums.
  • Testing your blood glucose one or more times a day. Keep your doctor in the loop.
  • Checking your blood pressure if your doctor thinks you should.
  • Reporting any changes in your eyesight to your healthcare team.
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