Does COVID-19 Trigger Diabetes?

We have heard stories about people losing their sense of smell or taste after contracting COVID-19, but have you heard of the virus triggering diabetes?

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By Julia Shen

We have heard stories about people losing their sense of smell or taste after contracting COVID-19, but have you heard of the virus triggering diabetes? Recent data reveals that this may actually be true. Scientists saw a drastic increase in the number of cases of diabetes in the past year, particularly in patients with COVID-19 who had no previous history of diabetes. In fact, a study from the United Kingdom revealed that in a sample of hospitalized patients with COVID-19, approximately 14 percent developed diabetes while only 4.9 percent of the regular population did so.

Certain enteroviruses, which are serious viral diseases that occur mostly in children, have been previously linked to diabetes. The viruses themselves cause symptoms, such as fever, muscle aches, and sneezing, all of which are unrelated to the development of diabetes. Yet, there were more frequent tendencies for patients diagnosed with the enterovirus to develop diabetes. Even in the early 2000s, during the SARS-CoV outbreak, many patients with SARS-CoV developed diabetes. The respiratory illness did not have symptoms that correlated with diabetes, so the correlation went largely unexplained. Now, however, scientists have paid closer attention and proposed multiple explanations for the connection between the virus and disease.

One of the many theories of viruses triggering diabetes is that the SARS-CoV-2 virus could be directly attacking insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. As a result, the body would be unable to create the amount of insulin required to regulate blood sugar levels and trigger the cell’s consumption of glucose. Another theory suggests that the virus may be controlling the insulin-producing cells indirectly. In this theory, the virus would be infecting the bloodstream or cells in the pancreas that supply the insulin-producing cells with oxygen and nutrients. Infected cells would be unable to carry out their tasks efficiently; cutting off this supply would then limit the efficiency of the insulin-producing cells and create the same effect mentioned in the previous theory. An additional theory is that the virus is infecting organs such as the intestines, causing the body to be less efficient in breaking down glucose. In this case, the virus is not attacking the insulin-producing cells but rather those that use the insulin to break down the sugar.

Another proposal that may coexist with the previously stated theories is that the patient may be at a “tipping stage,” taking only a “small push,” such as quarantine inactivity or COVID-19 medication, to develop diabetes. This “tipping stage” is prediabetes, a condition where patients have higher-than-average blood sugar levels, but not extreme enough to be labeled as diabetes. It is possible for patients to have prediabetes for years without diagnosing or even recognizing it. The “small push” can therefore be inactivity, as the human body breaks down considerably less glucose when stationary than when active, causing a higher concentration of sugar in the bloodstream. A more probable explanation, however, is the COVID-19 medication itself, as patients are often treated with steroids, which raise blood sugar.

At first glance, forming a correlation between the virus itself and diabetes seemed like a far reach. Yet, I bring another proposal to the table. Alternative factors, such as quarantine inactivity, may have led to the disease spike. Overweightness and obesity account for 65 to 80 percent of diabetes. Considering the “quarantine 15,” an observational study that suggests that the average American has gained more than half a pound every 10 days in quarantine, diabetes development is not surprising. Since scientists focus more on patients with COVID-19 that were hospitalized, it is important to recognize that hospitalized COVID-19 patients tend to have weaker immune systems or underlying health conditions, which could have made their bodies more susceptible to disorder when inactive.

Still, statistics have proven an uptick in diabetes cases over the years. Therefore, it is important to take preventative measures. For example, practicing proper hygiene and social distancing will help limit the spread of the virus. To prevent the possibility of developing diabetes, maintain a healthy, balanced diet and stay active. Especially when many of us are stuck at home with little to no exercise in our daily routines, it is crucial that we take time every day to work out. While quarantine has made it more difficult to keep up with healthy habits, perhaps the desire to not develop diabetes will act as a motivation.