Could Nerve Damage Be Affecting Your Digestion?

A potential complication of diabetes is nerve damage, which can affect several areas of your body, including your digestive system. When this happens, a condition known as gastroparesis can set in, making blood sugar levels even more difficult to control.

Stomach Issues

Gastroparesis, also called delayed gastric emptying, is a disorder in which the stomach takes too long to empty its contents. Normally, the stomach contracts to move food down into the small intestine for digestion. Nerves control the movement of food from the stomach through the digestive tract. Gastroparesis occurs when the nerves in the stomach are damaged and the muscles of the stomach and intestines do not work normally. Food then moves slowly or stops moving through the digestive tract. In addition to the discomfort, it can also cause bacterial overgrowth from the fermentation of food. Also, the food can harden into solid masses called bezoars that may cause nausea, vomiting, and obstruction in the stomach. Bezoars can be dangerous if they block the passage of food into the small intestine.

Diabetes is a cause of gastroperisis, but gastroparesis also makes diabetes worse by making blood glucose control more difficult. When food that has been delayed in the stomach finally enters the small intestine and is absorbed, blood glucose levels rise. Since gastroparesis makes stomach emptying unpredictable, a person’s blood glucose levels can be erratic and difficult to control.

Signs and Symptoms of Gastroparesis

  • Heartburn
  • Pain in the upper abdomen
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting of undigested food—sometimes several hours after a meal
  • Early feeling of fullness after only a few bites of food
  • Weight loss due to poor absorption of nutrients or low calorie intake
  • Abdominal bloating
  • High and low blood glucose levels
  • Lack of appetite
  • Spasms in the stomach area

Dietary Changes

There are a variety of ways to test for gastroparesis (such as ultrasound, upper endoscopy, and a breath test), but your doctor may first suggest dietary changes such as six smaller meals to help restore your blood glucose to more normal levels. In some cases, your doctor or dietitian may suggest you try eating several liquid or puréed meals a day until your blood glucose levels are stable and the symptoms improve. Liquid meals provide all the nutrients found in solid foods, but can pass through the stomach more easily and quickly. These changes will help combat the digestive problems as a result of diabetes and also help your blood sugar and diabetes.

Insulin, Blood Glucose Control and Monitoring

If you have gastroparesis, food is being absorbed more slowly and at unpredictable times. To control blood glucose, you may need to:

  • Take insulin more often or change the type of insulin you take
  • Take your insulin after you eat instead of before
  • Check your blood glucose levels frequently after you eat and administer insulin whenever necessary

Treatment of Gastroparesis

The primary treatment goals for gastroparesis related to diabetes are to improve stomach emptying and regain control of blood glucose levels. Treatment includes dietary changes, insulin, oral medications, and, in severe cases, a feeding tube and parenteral nutrition.

Preventing Nerve Damage and Digestive Issues

Talk to your doctor about the changes that will help your diabetes and digestion. Follow his or her specific instructions with regard to medications and insulin in order to best manage your diabetes. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, keeping control of blood sugar is important as years of elevated blood sugar causes nerve damage. Here is what you can do to prevent nerve damage:

  • Keep your blood glucose as close to normal as you can.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Take care of your feet
  • Tell your doctor about any problems you have with your hands, arms, feet, legs, stomach, bowel, or bladder