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Hard To Digest

Author: Kalia Doner

Diabetes related nerve damage can cause mild to severe digestive problems. Here are the signs and solutions.

Chronically uncontrolled blood sugar levels can wreak havoc on all parts of  your body, including nerve functions. Sixty to seventy percent of those who have had diabetes for 25 years or more report some symptoms of what is called diabetic neuropathy. This complication appears to be more frequent in people who are overweight, have elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure and are 40 or older – as well as in people who have problems controlling blood glucose levels.

Neuropathy most commonly affects the arms and legs, but for around half of those who have diabetes, the digestive system is the affected area. The result is gastroparesis, or delayed gastric emptying, a disorder in which the stomach takes too long to empty its contents.

To make matters worse, once gastroparesis sets in, abnormal food digestion can make blood glucose levels fluctuate widely.

Cascade of Causes

Researchers are studying the effects of glucose on nerves to find out exactly how prolonged exposure to high blood glucose levels causes neuropathy. They suspect that the high levels damage the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients to the nerves, as well as cause chemical changes in the nerves themselves. Other possible triggers for these changes include autoimmune factors that cause inflammation in nerves and lifestyle habits such as smoking and alcohol use.

Whatever the cause, the result is that nerves to the stomach are damaged or stop working. Particularly vulnerable is the so-called vagus nerve, which is the master switch for the passage of food through the stomach and intestines. If the vagus nerve is damaged, the muscles of the stomach and intestines don’t work correctly and passage of food through the system is slowed down or stopped altogether.

Signs and symptoms can range from mild to severe and include heartburn, nausea, vomiting undigested food, an early feeling of fullness when eating, weight loss, abdominal bloating, erratic blood glucose levels, lack of appetite, gastroesaphageal reflux and spasms of the stomach wall. In addition to these problems, gastroparesis can lead to an overgrowth of intestinal bacteria associated with the fermentation of food. Food can also become compacted into hard masses called bezoars, which can lead to nausea and vomiting. Bezoars can be dangerous if they block the passage of food into the small intestine.

The Power Of Diet?

Making small dietary tweaks can ease symptoms substantially for some people. Doctors often suggest that you eat six small meals a day so less food enters the stomach each time you eat. Several liquid meals a day may also be helpful to stabilize blood glucose levels and ease symptoms. You may want to eliminate high fat from your diet since fat slows digestion. Avoid high-fiber foods as well. These foods, such as oranges and broccoli, contain material that can not be digested, and the indigestible part will remain in the stomach too long, possibly forming hard masses called bezoars.