If you thought cholesterol was your heart’s only enemy, think again. For diabetes patients, excess sugar in the bloodstream may be changing the way your heart beats.
OMRF scientist Ken Humphries, Ph.D., is studying how diabetes causes cells in the heart to create more free radicals, which can damage the muscle tissue, leading to arrhythmia or sudden death.
“The normal fasting glucose blood level—the amount of sugar in the bloodstream when we haven’t just eaten—is about 5 grams,” said Humphries. “That’s because when there’s glucose in the bloodstream, our cells are quick to absorb it or use it as fuel.”
Five grams of sugar for every 5 liters of blood isn’t much, especially when you consider there are 39 grams of sugar in a can of cola.
To deal with all that sugar, our bodies create insulin, which allows the cells to absorb the glucose. But in diabetic patients, the cells are resistant to the insulin or the body makes too little insulin, which leaves sugar in the bloodstream.
“You wouldn’t think of sugar as toxic, but when there’s too much of it in and around our tissues, it can damage cells,” he said. “And in the heart, it can lead to cardiomyopathy, which means heart muscle becomes diseased.”
The effect of diabetes on the heart can be deadly. In fact, men with diabetes are twice as likely to experience heart failure as men their age without the disease. It’s even worse for women with diabetes, who are five times more likely to have heart failure.
Humphries said the increased risk of heart failure occurs because diabetes causes both cardiovascular disease and cardiomyopathy. He’s hoping to find out if diabetes damages the mitochondria within the heart cells, causing the creation of more free radicals.
“Diabetes is a complex disease and, sadly, one that is affecting more and more Oklahomans,” he said. “The more we understand about how the disease works, the better we’ll be able to treat it in the future.”