The barrier of hypoglycemia in diabetes

Here’s the link to the article. I’d missed this one, even if it’s a few years old (from December 2008). It is a great article and it covers a lot of stuff – I’ve decided to quote extensively from it below:

“Glycemic control, a worthwhile goal for people with diabetes, is limited by the barrier of iatrogenic hypoglycemia (1). Iatrogenic hypoglycemia 1) causes recurrent morbidity in most people with type 1 diabetes and many with advanced type 2 diabetes and is sometimes fatal, 2) compromises physiological and behavioral defenses against subsequent falling plasma glucose concentrations and thus causes a vicious cycle of recurrent hypoglycemia, and 3) precludes maintenance of euglycemia over a lifetime of diabetes and therefore full realization of the vascular benefits of glycemic control. […] Unfortunately, maintenance of euglycemia over a lifetime of diabetes cannot be accomplished safely with currently available treatment methods because of the barrier of hypoglycemia (1). […]

Hypoglycemia is a fact of life for most people with type 1 diabetes (1). The average patient has untold numbers of episodes of asymptomatic hypoglycemia and suffers two episodes of symptomatic hypoglycemia per week (thousands of such episodes over a lifetime of diabetes). He or she suffers one or more episodes of severe, temporarily disabling hypoglycemia, often with seizure or coma, per year. There is no evidence that this problem has abated over the decade and a half since it was highlighted by the report of the DCCT (2) in 1993. For example, in 2007 the U.K. Hypoglycemia Study Group (9) reported an incidence of severe hypoglycemia of 110 episodes per 100 patient-years (nearly twice that in the DCCT) in patients with type 1 diabetes, who were necessarily treated with insulin, for <5 years and an incidence of 320 episodes per 100 patient-years in those with type 1 diabetes for >15 years. […]

Although they represent only a small fraction of the total hypoglycemia experience, estimates of the frequency of severe hypoglycemia, particularly if determined in prospective, population-based studies, are the most reliable because they are dramatic events that are more likely to be reported (by the patient or an associate) (1). The prospective, population-based data of Donnelly et al. (10) indicate that the overall incidence of hypoglycemia in insulin-treated type 2 diabetes is approximately one-third of that in type 1 diabetes. The incidence of any and of severe hypoglycemia was ∼4,300 and 115 episodes per 100 patient-years, respectively, in type 1 diabetes and ∼1,600 and 35 episodes per 100 patient-years, respectively, in insulin-treated type 2 diabetes. In addition, in population-based studies the incidence of severe hypoglycemia requiring emergency treatment in insulin-treated type 2 diabetes was ∼40% (11) and ∼100% (12) of that in type 1 diabetes. Since the prevalence of type 2 diabetes is ∼20-fold greater than that of type 1 diabetes, and most people with type 2 diabetes ultimately require treatment with insulin, these data suggest that most episodes of iatrogenic hypoglycemia, including severe hypoglycemia, occur in people with type 2 diabetes. […]

Iatrogenic hypoglycemia causes recurrent physical and psychological morbidity and some mortality, impairs defenses against subsequent hypoglycemia, and precludes maintenance of euglycemia over a lifetime of diabetes (1). Hypoglycemia causes brain fuel deprivation that, if unchecked, results in functional brain failure that is typically corrected after the plasma glucose concentration is raised (13). Rarely, it causes sudden, presumably cardiac arrhythmic death or, if it is profound and prolonged, brain death (13). To the extent that there is a macrovascular benefit of glycemic control (6), the barrier of hypoglycemia also contributes to cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.

The physical morbidity of an episode of hypoglycemia ranges from unpleasant symptoms to seizure and coma (1). Hypoglycemia can impair judgment, behavior, and performance of physical tasks. Permanent neurological damage is rare. While there is concern that recurrent hypoglycemia might cause chronic cognitive impairment, long-term follow-up of the DCCT patients is largely reassuring in that regard (14). […]

Three early reports indicated that 2–4% of people with diabetes die from hypoglycemia (1). More recent reports indicated that 6% (14), 7% (15), and 10% (16) of deaths of people with type 1 diabetes were the result of hypoglycemia. Up to 10% of episodes of severe sulfonylurea-induced hypoglycemia in type 2 diabetes may be fatal (17). [my emphasis, US]

In the Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk in Diabetes (ACCORD) study, 10,251 patients with type 2 diabetes at high cardiovascular risk (but with no history of frequent or recent serious hypoglycemic events) were randomized to either intensive glycemic therapy with an A1C goal of <6.0% or to standard glycemic therapy (7). After a median follow-up of 3.4 years, with stable median A1C levels of 6.4 and 7.5%, respectively, intensive glycemic therapy was discontinued because 5.0% of the patients in the intensive therapy group, compared with 4.0% of those in the standard therapy group, had died. […] the most plausible cause of excess mortality during intensive therapy in the ACCORD study is iatrogenic hypoglycemia […]

Glucose is an obligate oxidative fuel for the brain under physiological conditions (1). The brain accounts for >50% of whole-body glucose utilization. The brain can oxidize alternative fuels, such as ketones, if their circulating levels rise high enough to enter the brain in quantity, but that is seldom the case. Because it cannot synthesize glucose, utilize physiological levels of circulating nonglucose fuels effectively, or store more than a few minutes supply of glucose as glycogen, the brain requires a virtually continuous supply of glucose from circulation. Since facilitated blood-to-brain glucose transport is a direct function of the arterial plasma glucose concentration, that supply requires maintenance of plasma glucose concentration. At some level of hypoglycemia (perhaps ∼50–55 mg/dl [2.8–3.1 mmol/l] since symptoms normally occur at that level [1921]), blood-to-brain glucose transport becomes limiting to brain glucose metabolism and, therefore, function. […]

Early in the course of type 2 diabetes, by far the most common type of diabetes, hyperglycemia may respond to lifestyle changes, specifically weight loss, or to plasma glucose–lowering drugs that should not, and probably do not, cause hypoglycemia. In theory, when such drugs are effective in the absence of side effects, there is no reason not to accelerate their dosing until euglycemia is achieved. Over time, however, as people with type 2 diabetes become progressively more insulin deficient, these drugs, even in combination, fail to maintain glycemic control. Insulin secretagogues are also effective early in type 2 diabetes, but they can cause hyperinsulinemia and therefore introduce the risk of hypoglycemia. Euglycemia is not an appropriate goal during therapy with an insulin secretagogue or with insulin in people with type 2 diabetes. Nonetheless, as discussed earlier, the frequency of hypoglycemia is relatively low (at least with current glycemic goals that are above the euglycemic range) during treatment with an insulin secretagogue, or even with insulin, early in type 2 diabetes (9) when defenses against hypoglycemia are intact. Thus, over much of the course of the most common type of diabetes it is possible to achieve a meaningful degree of glycemic control with no risk or relatively low risk of hypoglycemia. The challenge is greater in people with advanced type 2 diabetes or type 1 diabetes because of compromised defenses against hypoglycemia. In such patients, therapy with insulin is demonstrably effective, but it is not demonstrably safe. Nonetheless, concerns about hypoglycemia should not be used as an excuse for poor glycemic control by patients or their caregivers. Both should strive to achieve and maintain the greatest degree of glycemic control that can be accomplished safely in a given person with diabetes at a given stage of the progression of his or her diabetes.”

For diabetics, especially type 1 diabetics, there’s a very real risk that the (life-saving and non-optional) treatment may kill the patient. All this stuff above may sound very theoretical, but it’s not. It’s quite simple, really: For me personally, pretty much every time I eat a meal I have a decision to make. I have to take some insulin to enable my body to process the carbohydrates in the meal, and I need to estimate how big of a dosis is optimal. ‘The barrier of hypoglycemia’ is the reason why even though ‘my problem’ is that I don’t produce insulin I can’t just take a ‘big enough’ dosis of insulin when that stuff is needed and solve the problem that way without having to worry – the point is that if the dosis I take is ‘too big’, I’ll get hypoglycemia. And if it’s not ‘big enough’ I may not necessarily get symptoms, but I’ll still harm my body and increase the risk of complications later on (and if I consistently take too little on a day to day basis, the long-term risk will go up a lot). It’s simply impossible to ‘get it just right every time’, it’s very easy to get it wrong among other things because the insulin’s therapeutic index is quite low, and the consequences of getting it wrong may be very severe – and the tradeoff is always there, every day, every meal. I know I’ve written about it before but a lot of people, even relatively well-informed people, I’ve talked to about my disease don’t know this, and this tradeoff really is at the very heart of what living with diabetes is all about.

March 30, 2013 - Posted by | diabetes, personal

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