When diabetes goes untreated, the cells cannot absorb sufficient amounts of glucose, or blood sugar, from the bloodstream to produce the energy they need. So, glucose accumulates in the bloodstream. This metabolic condition can cause electrolyte imbalances in muscle cells and damage nerve cells. Electrolyte imbalances in muscle cells and damage to nerve cells can give rise to muscle cramps. As sugar radically increases the blood glucose levels, consuming it can indirectly contribute to cramping.
The two most common forms of diabetes are type 1 and type 2 diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not produce sufficient amounts of insulin, a hormone that signals the cells when glucose is present in the bloodstream. In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas produces enough insulin, but the insulin receptors on the cell surfaces do not signal to the cells when glucose is available. Daily insulin injections before meals can help control type 1 diabetes. Diet, exercise and blood glucose medications are used to treat type 2 diabetes.
When diabetes goes untreated and you consume sugar or other carbohydrates, the blood glucose levels remain at high levels. In an attempt to get rid of the blood glucose, the body excretes glucose in the urine. However, the cells still need energy, so the body starts to break down its own muscle and fatty tissues to provide energy for the cells. Amino acids, the main components of muscle tissue, and fatty acids, the main components of fat tissue, can enter cells in the absence of insulin either by cell membrane diffusion or through transporters. Once inside the cells, the cells can use these components to produce energy.
Muscle tissue is rich in electrolytes such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and chloride. The contraction and relaxation of muscles depends on the proper exchange of electrolytes across cell membranes. When your body feasts on its own muscle tissue, electrolyte levels drop. Low electrolyte levels can cause muscles to contract without relaxing. This is experienced as cramping.
Most of the body’s cells can absorb glucose only in the presence of insulin. The cells of the retina, kidney and nerve tissue, however, do not need insulin for glucose to enter them. When the blood glucose is high, these cells use some of the glucose that enters them as energy and converts the rest into a sugary substance called sorbitol. Sorbitol cannot cross the cell membrane. When it accumulates in the cells, it causes cell damage. Damage to the nerve cells can give rise to tingling, numbness or cramps in hands and feet.
- American Diabetes Association: Diabetes Basics
- Colorado State University: Absorption of Amino Acids and Peptides
- The Medical Biochemistry Page: Fatty Acid Oxidation
- “Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition”; Effect of Starvation and Total Parenteral Nutrition on Electrolyte Homeostasis in Normal Man; A. Legaspi, et al.; March – April 1988
- Diabetes Home: Symptoms of High Blood Glucose
- "Journal of the American Society of Nephrology"; Contribution of Polyol Pathway to Diabetes-Induced Oxidative Stress; S.S.M. Chung, et al.; August 2003
- Medline Plus: Peripheral Neuropathy