Health experts found another troubling link between COVID-19 and how it affects the body. The SARS-CoV-2 virus can cause blood clots and pneumonia, but new research links COVID-19 infection to possible diabetes development. Research confirmed this by finding an increase in new cases of diabetes within the last year.
COVID-19 infection can cause sever inflammation throughout the body, wreaking havoc on major organs. According to two new studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), SARS-CoV-2 can target and impair the body’s insulin-producing cells. As a result this can increase the risk of diabetes. When there is insulin insufficiency, blood glucose levels begin to rise. This is a hallmark symptom of diabetes.
In The Beginning Of The Pandemic
In the early days of the pandemic, doctors noticed that a high percentage of people who contracted COVID-19 had diabetes. More diabetics were hospitalized than other people, and this was initially observed in China in January 2020. Health experts cautioned diabetics to practice more safety measures to avoid COVID-19 infection. Now, it seems that there is a bidirectional relationship between diabetes and COVID-19
A bidirectional relationship means that two conditions can actually increase the chances of both conditions or just one condition. Hundreds of clinicians submitted reports to health registries about the uptick in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes cases during the pandemic. The common thread was that people developed the condition during COVID-19 infection or shortly thereafter. Additionally, a November 2020 analysis found that about, “…14.4% of people hospitalized with severe COVID-19 were newly diagnosed with diabetes”.
The New NIH Studies
The latest research from the NIH confirmed infection of pancreatic beta cells in autopsy reports from people who died from COVID-19. As is the case in type 1 diabetes, beta cells in the pancreas don’t secrete enough insulin. This means that the body cannot properly metabolize food post meal, and blood glucose spikes up as a result. Several studies found that SARS-CoV-2 may target insulin-producing beta cells in a preferential manner.
Beta cells and other cell types in the pancreas have ACE2 receptor protein, neuropilin 1 (NRP1), and TMPRSS2 enzyme protein. SARS-CoV-2 depends on these in order to enter and infect human cells. What’s concerning is that the studies found that COVID-19 infection can alter the function of pancreatic tissues that contain beta cells. This leads to reduced insulin production and release from pancreatic tissue. Some research even pointed to the fact that infection caused death to some or all beta cells.
What About The Cells That Survive?
Well, COVID-19 infection also seems to alter the fate of surviving cells. After single-cell analysis of surviving pancreatic cells that were infected, studies found that they appeared to have undergone reprogramming. The reprogramming found that those cells started producing more glucagon and less insulin. Glucagon is a hormone that encourages the liver’s breakdown of glycogen to glucose.
Is This Unique To COVID-19?
In the past, scientists observed other viruses and their link to diabetes. Such was the case for enteroviruses, which cause diseases like hand, food, and mouth disease. Additionally, some people who contracted SARS-CoV, which caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in the early 2000s developed diabetes afterward. Viral infections cause widespread inflammation in the body. The body responds by producing stress-related hormones, including cortisol, which work to reduce inflammation. Unfortunately, stress hormones also cause blood sugar spikes, which may not subside even when the infection clears.
COVID-19 patients commonly receive steroidal treatments, which may spike blood sugar levels even higher. It’s possible that these steroids also contributed to the rise in diabetes cases after COVID-19 infection. If patients already had prediabetes, blood sugar levels were already higher than normal. The COVID-19 infection, then, only pushed those people toward full diabetes.
More research on this topic is still necessary to get a better understanding of COVID-19’s relationship with diabetes onset. For now, take preventative measures to keep yourself safe. If you have prediabetes, consider altering your diet and engaging in regular exercise to naturally improve blood sugar levels. Improving gut health may also help balance blood sugar.