With the many health-related awareness dates throughout the year, it can be easy for information on important topics to get lost in the stream of social posts and catchy phrases. However, we encourage people with mental illness to learn about the effects of diabetes.
When faced with this diagnosis, remember: The prevention and management of diabetes is important, because diabetes and mental health are connected.
What’s the Connection?
Diabetes is a serious health condition that results from uncontrolled levels of sugar in the bloodstream. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form, accounting for 90-95% of diabetes cases. Its major risk factors include being physically inactive, being over 45 years of age, genetic history of diabetes and being overweight.
Research suggests that there are complex links between diabetes and mental health conditions, such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia — connections that are not fully understood. For example, studies show that people who are diagnosed with depression are 60% more likely to develop diabetes than the general population.
One study found that people with serious mental illness who had never taken psychiatric medication were more likely to have blood sugar levels meeting diagnostic criteria for type 2 diabetes and less likely to be obese compared to the general population. In other words, SMI may be a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes unrelated to issues with weight. However, more research is needed to better understand this potential relationship.
Additionally, some people experience abnormal blood sugar levels during the onset of schizophrenia and related disorders, even though they don’t yet have diagnosable diabetes. This may, in part, be due to lifestyle choices often related to symptoms, such as a poor diet or physical inactivity, or as a result of medications used in treatment.
Many medications can change the way your body and brain send signals that help manage appetite, energy and cravings for certain foods. These signaling pathways also affect obesity, metabolic, cardiovascular and mental health conditions — and they are influenced by changes in body functions that keep your health balanced. This includes changes in how your body regulates energy, responds to inflammation and how it manages hormones — all of which are also key factors in preventing or managing type 2 diabetes.
None of this means that people who are managing mental illness and other chronic health conditions are unable to improve their health, or that they must simply accept weight gain or type 2 diabetes as an unavoidable outcome. If you’re feeling discouraged, there is hope, and you can do something about it. You have more control over your health than you may realize.
Forge a New Path
How we care for our bodies — everyday behaviors or habits — can reinforce the factors that can either lead to chronic illness and worsening outcomes or a new path to better health. To prevent or manage type 2 diabetes, you can change the risk factors that are within your control with a few simple steps.
Maintain a Healthy Diet
For example, small changes to your diet can have a positive impact. Your stomach and brain work together in very important ways — this is known as the gut-brain axis. Incorporating whole, unprocessed foods such as vegetables, whole grains and lean meats gives you nutrients and energy that are important for efficient functioning of your body, much of which occurs through processes that begin in the gut.
Start small and build on each step. Add an extra vegetable at dinner or swap out potato chips for popcorn as a snack. Choices that contain protein and fiber can help you feel full and reduce cravings. One study even found that people who ate a high protein breakfast had lower blood sugar levels and reduced appetite later in the day.
Physical activity is an important part of improving your physical and mental health. Exercise can help reduce blood pressure, improve sleep, improve cognitive function and lower insulin resistance. Exercise has also been shown to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, trauma and other mental health conditions, and the multitude of benefits builds as it becomes a regular part of self-care.
If you’re currently inactive, you can get started with stretching, taking a daily walk and finding ways to incorporate other types of physical activity into your life. As you add movement to your daily routine, you may find yourself feeling better, more motivated and even excited to try new activities. Get creative and make it fun.
Sleep is also key to good health. How long and how well you sleep can affect your health in many ways, influencing inflammation and metabolism, body weight and mood. Promote sleep quality by limiting artificial light exposure before bedtime, minimizing light in your bedroom when you are ready to go to sleep, and maintaining a cool room temperature to help you fall and remain asleep.
Find Peer Support
Peer support can be a great resource for understanding type 2 diabetes and how you can change or improve factors that are within your control. Peer support can help you find additional resources, learn new strategies and feel more confident about your ability to manage diabetes. It also provides social interaction and connection, which is important to overall health. You may even discover a new exercise partner.
It’s important to advocate for your health with your physician and other providers. Talk to your doctor about any medications that may have weight gain as a side effect. If you are taking one of these medications, ask about ways to manage this side effect or ask about other medication options.
There is a clear connection between mental and physical health. NAMI leaders and members have always understood the unique challenges of managing a mental health condition, as well as conditions that frequently co-occur, like type 2 diabetes. Everyone should feel empowered to manage their health, reduce risks and improve outcomes. You are not alone — and you can do it.
For more information on how protecting and strengthening physical health has the added benefit of improving mental health, visit NAMI Hearts+Minds. You can also find out more by contacting your local NAMI.
“Just as there are multiple ways to game plan for an opponent, there are many ways to address your weight and different strategies may work for different people” - NFL Alumni Association, Huddle Up: Let’s Talk Obesity.