Diabetes and Enteropathy: What You Need To Know

If you or a loved one has diabetes, you are likely familiar with the term diabetic neuropathy. The high blood sugar associated with diabetes can cause progressive nerve damage, or neuropathy, that in turn can cause a variety of undesirable complications. Here we’ll talk about a common, but especially unpleasant, aggravation of diabetic neuropathy.

Peripheral neuropathy, which affects the feet and legs as well as other parts of the body, is the likely the most discussed form of diabetic nerve damage. But diabetes can also cause autonomic neuropathy, which is damage to the autonomic nervous system. This system—you guessed it—controls automatic processes in the body such as heart rate control, respiratory function, urinary tract function, and your gastrointestinal tract. In fact, gastrointestinal (GI) complications are common in those with diabetes, and there are several potential GI complications that may have more to do with your diabetes than what you had for dinner last night.

Photo: AdobeStock/magicmine
Photo: AdobeStock/magicmine

What are the symptoms?

Diabetes Therapy notes, “Up to 75% of people with diabetes may experience GI symptoms.” That’s a concerning statistic, and the first step in addressing a potential complication is to be aware of the symptoms. The most common manifestation of GI troubles are gastroparesis and enteropathy. Since we’ve already discussed gastroparesis here, this article will discuss the signs and symptoms of enteropathy, which causes complications further along the GI tract in the intestines.

As you may imagine, the symptoms of enteropathy are not pleasant: diarrhea, constipation, and fecal incontinence. Oh joy.

Up to 60% of long-standing diabetes sufferers may experience constipation. Because of the effects of hyperglycemia over of time, the nerves on the intestinal walls become damaged. Because of this damage, the intestines are not able to move things along and can become backed up. This intestinal statis can cause small intestinal bacteria overgrowth, which causes diarrhea. Someone with diabetic enteropathy may experience diarrhea and constipation at the same time, which causes overflow incontinence, which is the worst of both worlds.

As if that weren’t enough to cause stress, hassle, and potential embarrassment, the World Journal of Diabetes also notes, “acute hyperglycemia has been shown to inhibit external anal sphincter function and decrease rectal compliance, potentially increasing the risk of fecal incontinence.” Basically, you could find yourself having difficulty ‘holding in’ your bowel movement.

Photo: AdobeStock/nito
Photo: AdobeStock/nito

An added challenge is that some diabetic medications are associated with gastrointestinal side effects. So enteropathy may be difficult to diagnose, and your doctor will likely make changes to your medications and/or diet in order to rule out other causes before proceeding with tests for enteropathy.

Article continues below

Our Featured Programs

See how we’re making a difference for People, Pets, and the Planet and how you can get involved!

“NEXT” for treatment and prevention

Support Research

Fund Diabetes research and care at The Diabetes Site for free!