Your Complete Guide to Diabetes Self-care
Ready to feel even more amazing? Follow these simple strategies that can help you soothe your body, mind, and spirit when you're living with diabetes.by Mary Shomon Patient Advocate
I've been living with type 1 diabetes since 2017, and it’s been an eye-opener! I read everything I can to understand my condition, partner with my health care providers, and follow my prescribed treatments. But take it from me: That's just living with diabetes.
Living well with diabetes involves so much more—and it can be the best part! Whether I'm paying extra attention to pampering my feet, or figuring out how to face those inevitable days when diabetes makes me frazzled, I know that feeling well in every way means focusing on not just treating my diabetes—but on taking care of my mind and spirit as well.
Whether you've just been diagnosed, or have been living with diabetes for years, it's time for a tune-up. Here are some of my tips on how you can be a self-care superstar.
Let Yourself Sleep!
What's better than a warm cozy bed? Apparently, for many of us, staying up too late! The average American sleeps only 6.5 hours per night, down from 8 hours in recent years. We're becoming a nation of "short sleepers,"which is defined as fewer than seven hours of sleep. Short sleep not only leaves you sleep-deprived, it shortchanges your health.
Getting enough sleep–experts say the optimal level is around 7 to 8 hours per night–not only lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes but it actually lowers blood sugar in people with diabetes, including type 1.
I used to be a short sleeper, and not only was I tired, but it was much harder to manage my blood sugar. Now, I make sure to get at least seven hours most nights, and my mood and fatigue–not to mention my diabetes–are all improved.
It's not always easy to change when you're a veteran sleep-skimper like I used to be. My solution was to make my bed a sanctuary. Great goose down pillows, soft bamboo sheets and blankets–and an electric blanket to warm cold diabetic toes in the winter–helped. I also added some bedtime aromatherapy–lavender helps with sleep and blood sugar–to my pre-bed pampering.
Finally, I use light-blocking curtains and a sleep mask to ensure total darkness. Over time, sleep came earlier and became easier. Now, just try to get me out of bed!
Be Proactive With Your Medical Care
Life gets busy, sure, but the risks are too steep–and you're way too important–to forgo regularly scheduled checkups with your health-care provider to check your blood-sugar levels. Your doctor should be checking your hemoglobin A1C, a test that looks at average blood sugar over several months, and your fasting plasma glucose level that day, to monitor how well your blood sugar is being managed. Don't forget that since diabetes also puts you at greater risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, your healthcare provider will also check your blood pressure.
If you have type 1 diabetes–or you have type 2 diabetes and are being treated with insulin–your self-care plan should also include testing your blood sugar yourself several times a day with a glucometer. Some people with diabetes find that using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) that provides all-day readings is more convenient.
Don't forget to schedule an annual eye check, too. People with diabetes are at higher risk of diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and other eye problems. Experts at the National Institutes of Health recommend that you have a dilated eye exam once a year to protect your eyes and vision from diabetic complications
Scheduling doctor visits, checking blood sugar, and visiting the eye doctor aren't exactly a day at the spa, right? My solution is to pat myself on the back for taking these important (albeit less exciting) self-care steps by celebrating them.
I often plan a relaxing massage–or schedule some needed self-care downtime with a juicy book and a cup of tea–after a busy day of doctor visits. And every time I pull out my insulin kit, it's not some boring, ugly black vinyl case. Early on, I found a gorgeous, bright-red zipper bag that keeps my supplies organized and handy, and looks great!
Give Your Feet a Treat!
When you have diabetes, you're at risk for circulatory problems and diabetic neuropathy, which can cause tingling and numbness in your feet and toes. Neuropathy can also affect your balance, and it makes it easier to get wounds on your feet that you may not feel or notice. When these wounds go untreated and become infected, some people with diabetes end up with life-threatening diabetic foot ulcers, infections, and even amputations.
That's why it's so important to take extra good care of your feet. On the practical side, choose socks and footwear that cushion and protect your feet from blisters and injury, avoid going barefoot, and regularly inspect your feet for any wounds. You should also periodically check your feet for signs of neuropathy. There are special filaments you can use, and your healthcare provider can show you how.
But foot care should also be fun! My favorite tip? Every night, I spend some time massaging my feet with a luxurious, scented moisturizing foot cream, and then top it off with a cozy pair of socks to seal in the moisture. I also periodically splurge on a reflexology foot massage–in the right hands, it's pure bliss. Need more tips to take care of your tootsies? Check out our HealthCentral coverage of diabetic neuropathy.
Move Every Day
Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., is one of the world's leading experts on diabetes and exercise, and lead author of the American Diabetes Association (ADA) position statement on Physical Activity/Exercise and Diabetes. According to Colberg: "Exercise improves blood-glucose control in type 2 diabetes, reduces cardiovascular risk factors, contributes to weight loss, and improves well-being. Regular exercise also has considerable health benefits for people with type 1 diabetes." Those benefits? Improved cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, insulin sensitivity, and more.
How much exercise and physical activity should you aim for? The ADA recommends you get moving every day and aim for at least 150 minutes per week.
But what if you're not a motivated gym rat, or you find SoulCycle utterly soul sapping? What if you just don't enjoy working out? Speaking as a renowned couch potato and athletic klutz, what I do is transform activity time from a dreaded chore into a pleasure by making workout time do double duty: I save some of my favorite TV shows to watch on the treadmill or elliptical. (Let's face it, ladies. Time just flies by when you're swooning over Jamie in his kilt on "Outlander!")
I listen to my favorite podcasts during long walks with my dog. I also enjoy planning gentle hikes or walks with friends, to catch up and have some much-needed girlfriend time that doesn't involve pizza or margaritas! I hardly know it's exercise...and that's the point!
Pregame Your Travel Plans
The flight attendant puts down the in-flight meal, and it's a plate of pasta, a white bread roll, and a cookie. Sigh.
If you want to be a self-care superstar, plan ahead so you don't get caught without something to eat when you're on the go. When I’m traveling, I always contact the airline at least 24 hours in advance to order a diabetic meal. (These meals and snacks almost always taste better anyway, even if you don't have diabetes.)
I also never leave home without a stash of portable diabetes-friendly snacks, like individual packets of yummy nuts or trail mix, to tide me over.
Finally, if, like me, you are at risk of hypoglycemic episodes, never leave home without taking along a rapid-acting form of glucose like glucose tablets or gel, or a quickly absorbed sugary snack, so you can quickly reverse an episode of low blood sugar.
I carefully manage my blood sugar, but these episodes, while rare, are still inevitable for those of us on insulin. I make the most of them by always having a fast-acting candy like Skittles, Starbursts, or spicy gumdrops on hand. (After all, a "hypo" low is the one time I can have a truly guilt-free candy break.)
Find the Fun in Food
Hippocrates said, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Great advice from the father of modern medicine. But does that mean someone with diabetes needs to be resigned to a lifetime of dried-out chicken breasts, iceberg salads, and sugar-free lime gelatin for dessert?
Absolutely not. Since my diagnosis, I've expanded my food repertoire and made food a life-affirming part of my self-care—and enjoy the results. It wasn't hard.
For example, I've learned how to spiralize squash, so I don't have to give up one of life’s greatest pleasures: a heaping plate of spaghetti carbonara. (More cheese please!)
I now make chocolate chia pudding and serve it in a parfait glass, garnished with a scrumptious strawberry. It's an elegant, decadent, diabetes-friendly dessert treat that takes about three minutes to prepare. I can turn a quick breakfast cup of yogurt into a self-care celebration by sprinkling on some shredded coconut, and adding a few blueberries and slivered almonds on top. Who says healthy has to be boring and bland? (P.S. I still hate kale!)
Too busy to bother? At least pamper yourself periodically by having delicious, diabetes-friendly meals on hand. Services like SunBasket, BistroMD, and Diet to Go can deliver healthy meal kits or prepared meals right to your door.
You can even find more restaurants offering low-carb, healthy meal delivery. I occasionally just punch up DoorDash or UberEats on my phone, and 45 minutes later, there's some fresh grilled salmon, asparagus and a salad on the table.
Make the Mind-Body Connection
Finally, the medications, dietary restrictions, exercise, and exhaustion are enough to make you feel like your diabetic body is letting you down. Attitude matters, says therapist Amy Morin, L.C.S.W., bestselling author of the 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do series of books.
Morin recommends that we resist the urge to throw shades at ourselves and our bodies. Refusing to trash talk our own selves helps us reduce stress hormones, support the immune system, and simply feel better mentally and physically. "There's a major mind-body connection," according to Morin. "If your brain is convinced your body can't heal, your body might listen."
How do I convince my body? For me, incorporating holistic approaches into my self-care makes the most of the mind-body connection, and turns off the negative self-talk. I regularly do gentle yoga (I'm not talking Madonna and Gwyneth-style power yoga here), as well as guided meditation and breathwork.
Bonus: They all have proven benefits for people with diabetes in terms of lowering blood sugar, reducing insulin resistance, and improving energy.
While these approaches can't replace medical treatment, they can give your mood, attitude, and energy a welcome boost. Doesn't that feel better already? You're on your way to being a self-care pro.