How is Diabetes Related to the Vascular System?

The Basics of the Vascular System

Our vascular system is also called the circulatory system, because it circulates blood to and from parts of our bodies. There are three types of vessels in the circulatory system:

    • Arteries – like large main highways that carry nutrients and oxygen to parts of the body.
    • Capillaries – tiny blood vessels like alleyways or side roads that carry oxygen rich blood to tissues.
    • Veins: blood vessels that carry blood from the body (like legs, feet, and organs) back into the heart
What is a blood clot?

Venous Vascular disease happens when something goes wrong with this system. Either something is blocking or weakening blood vessels, or affecting the flow of blood. This may happen because of something sudden, or due to weeks, months, or even years of build-up.

How is Diabetes Related?

Diabetes is often known as a “blood sugar condition” and it can have serious outcomes. When someone has diabetes, it means their body can’t process sugar well. If sugar can’t be processed properly, it stays in the blood. The longer someone has elevated blood sugar, the more it can damage the blood vessels. This can cause blood vessels to get really narrow, or even become clogged. The effects of damaged blood vessels can impact your body in different ways:

    • Diabetes and our eyes (Diabetic Retinopathy): diabetic retinopathy is a condition that affects the tissues at the back of the eye. Uncontrolled diabetes leads to heightened levels of sugar in the blood, which then blocks blood vessels in areas like your retina (the back of your eye). When those blood vessels are blocked for a long time, the body tries to build new pathways for the blood. However, those new vessels are often weak and can leak easily.

      Undiagnosed diabetic retinopathy can lead to blindness, so it’s important to not only know your risk for diabetes, but to talk to your provider about any vision problems you may be having as soon as you notice them.

    • Diabetes and our kidneys (Diabetic Nephropathy): diabetic nephropathy happens in a similar way to diabetic retinopathy. Instead of the blood vessels in your eyes being affected, the blood vessels in your kidneys are damaged due to uncontrolled diabetes. Your kidneys function to remove waste from your blood, so when they’re damaged, it can lead to a lot of different issues. Some of the major ones include holding a lot of extra fluid in your body (known as edema) and high blood pressure (known as hypertension).
    • Diabetes and atherosclerosis (blood vessel hardening): atherosclerosis is a condition that is caused by plaque build-up in the arteries, causing them to harden and limiting blood flow. Plaque is made up of fats, cholesterols, and other substances.
      High blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and insulin resistance caused by diabetes leads to blood atherosclerosis. Over time, the excess blood sugar in the vessels causes them to narrow, which can slow blood flow. Imagine pipes in your house, slowly getting clogged and damaged over time. When blood flow decreases to certain parts of the body, this can cause a variety of problems, such as coronary artery disease leading to a heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease (in the legs).


What Can You Do?

The risks of uncontrolled diabetes are dangerous and can lead to many different issues. The best way to avoid these issues is to be aware of your risk for diabetes, especially if you carry excess weight, are over the age of 50, and/or don’t have an active lifestyle.

Talk to your provider about your blood sugar levels and any symptoms you may have experienced so that you can get an accurate understanding of your risk for pre-diabetes or diabetes. If you are diabetic, your care team can provide resources to help you navigate living with diabetes, and how to avoid worsening complications.

For more information about diabetes and vascular disease, check out our flyer here: