New Diabetes Cases Might Be Linked to COVID-19—and Scientists are Hurrying to Figure Out Why
Diabetes falls under the umbrella of a COVID-19 "high-risk" medical condition, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which means that those who already have the diagnosis have an increased chance of complications and even death as the result of a coronavirus diagnosis.
But a review and meta‐analysis published in the journal Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism this winter presents a fascinating wrinkle: A coronavirus infection might trigger a new cause of type 1 or type 2 diabetes. (By the way, here's what makes type 1 and type 2 different.)
Using data from eight studies including 3,711 COVID-19 patients that were performed in Italy, the U.S. and China during the first half of 2020, 492 people (more than 14%) later developed a new case of type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Like much research related to this novel coronavirus, the science is still preliminary and scientists are still unsure if the association is causal.
According to pediatrician Dyan Hes, M.D., who discussed this topic with CBS News earlier this week, "We have to follow the patients and see: did they actually have a family history of autoimmune or Type 1 diabetes, or was it just COVID? Was that the only risk factor?"
A Chinese study in the April 2020 journal Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice appears to be the first research to hint at a connection between elevated blood sugar and the coronavirus. The type 1 link is "not surprising," Hes added, since this involves the body's immune cells attacking pancreatic beta cells that make insulin. Genetics and environmental factors (including viruses) can also lead to type 1, per the CDC.
"We're still learning so much about COVID-19, but it's definitely interacting with different parts of our bodies. We need more research to say for sure, but other viruses have been linked to an increase of type 1 diabetes, and unfortunately, it seems like this coronavirus may be having a similar effect," explains Lisa Valente, M.S., RD, a registered dietitian and EatingWell's nutrition editor.
While the relationship between type 1 and viral infections has been known for years, emerging research hints at the fact that type 2 diabetes—which is often thought of as lifestyle-related—may also be impacted by an autoimmune response within the pancreas. (Including those aforementioned beta cells.)
"If scientists could figure out how or if viral infection can damage beta cells, or what role viruses play in the development of the disease, it would be a real turning point," Katie Colbert Coate, Ph.D., a diabetes researcher and instructor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told The Washington Post.
Experts are unsure how many of those 14 % of coronavirus patients may have family history, another autoimmune condition or other risk factors for diabetes, so some of the top diabetes-focused scientists in Australia and the United Kingdom have created a global registry, CoviDIAB, to build a database of information about coronavirus-related diabetes cases.
"Regardless of this latest research, I think continuing to try and minimize your exposure to COVID-19 by social distancing, wearing your mask and washing your hands is important right now," Valente says.
If you know you had COVID-19, tune in with your body. If you notice anything out of the ordinary that may indicate diabetes—such as peeing a lot/more than usual, excessive thirst or hunger or even unexplained nausea—and talk to your doctor.
"A healthy diabetes-friendly diet is really a healthy, balanced eating approach for all of us. So aim to eat a lot of vegetables, and balance out meals with complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats," Valente suggests, whether you've tested positive for the coronavirus or not. Our diabetes meal plan for beginners can help guide you along.