Diabetes is a Women’s Health Issue
When we think of women’s health, Diabetes might not come to mind immediately. However, it’s a common condition for many American women: it affects 1 in 9 adult women in the U.S. Also, two-thirds of children and adolescents diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes are female. New research shows that men and women with Diabetes experience this condition differently. Unfortunately, women face more complications from Diabetes and worse health outcomes. Women’s symptoms and risks for developing Diabetes are unique to men’s risks. Here are a few examples of how women with Diabetes experience this condition differently from the way men do, and why we center a whole-person, personalized approach to treating Diabetes.
It’s a leading risk factor for heart disease in women
Diabetes in women increases the risk of a heart attack by four times (in men, it doubles the risk of a heart attack). Women with Diabetes are also more likely to die after their first heart attack. The reasons why are still being studied, but the American Heart Association cites these possibilities:
- Women with Diabetes are less likely to receive acute treatment
- Women patients are less likely to be recommended for cardiac procedures
- Conditions like high cholesterol may be more prevalent in women than in men, which also increases the risk of heart disease
Hormones can affect Diabetes (and vice versa)
During the menstrual cycle, hormone levels change. Progesterone, which increases during ovulation, is associated with increased insulin resistance. Hormonal fluctuations are a natural part of the menstrual cycle. For people living with Diabetes, however, this natural fluctuation can profoundly affect their health.
Another area where research is still underway is the link between PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) and Type 2 Diabetes. Women with PCOS are four times as likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes, and more likely to have insulin resistance. In fact, more than half of women with PCOS develop Type 2 Diabetes by age 40.
On the flip side, high insulin levels as a result of Diabetes may interact with hormones that regulate menstrual cycles. Women with Diabetes are more likely to experience missed or irregular periods. In some cases, they may have anovulation, which is when ovulation doesn’t occur. Menstrual irregularities can impact a woman’s fertility, making it essential for women with Diabetes who wish to conceive and their providers to be aware of them.
Gestational Diabetes is the second most common medical condition during pregnancy (after perinatal mental health conditions). Women with Diabetes in pregnancy have a 50% risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes later in life, and it can affect the health of your baby, so it’s important to test for Gestational Diabetes.
Diabetes can impact sexual health
Sexual health is an important aspect of well-being, too. Pain during sex isn’t something to be ignored. While more studies are needed, there are common symptoms or infections that women with Diabetes are more likely to experience. Vaginal dryness is one of the most prevalent — women with Diabetes are two times more likely to report this condition. Yeast infections and UTIs are also more common in women with Diabetes. These infections can also cause inflammation and pain during sex.
Women patients with Diabetes also report changes in libido and ability to orgasm. Sexual issues are often overlooked but deserve treatment too. A provider can help rule out if there’s an underlying condition or give advice for a healthy sex life.
Diabetes is linked to a higher risk of depression
Women have a risk that’s twice as high as men for developing depression. Being diagnosed with Diabetes raises this risk by two or three-fold. Depression is a serious mental health condition that can affect a person’s ability to complete tasks, think clearly, and get restful sleep. Part of what may increase the risk of depression may be the stigma associated with Diabetes and “Diabetes distress.” Diabetes distress describes the feelings of frustration and stress of managing a chronic condition. A lack of support in managing the aspects of Diabetes care, such as doctor’s appointments, lab testing, and having to monitor blood glucose levels constantly, contributes to Diabetes distress.
Patients with Diabetes deserve holistic care from providers who understand their unique experiences with this condition. All the unknowns around the relationship between hormones and Diabetes, for example, underscore the need for more research. Historically, women’s health is under-studied (only 9% of medical schools in the U.S. offer women’s health as an elective), leaving dangerous gaps in how nearly half of our population is treated. At Alpha, we’re changing that by training all our providers in women’s health so that our patients receive whole-person care for any treatment they’re seeking.
While Diabetes’s impact on a woman’s health can seem overwhelming, the good news is that people with Diabetes can successfully manage this condition. Early diagnosis and proper treatment significantly reduce the health risks associated with Diabetes. With personalized care, people living with Diabetes can lead healthy lives wherever they are in their treatment.