Brittle diabetes, also called labile diabetes, is type 1 diabetes that is hard to control. It is characterized by extreme swings in blood sugar levels, from too high (hyperglycemia) to too low (hypoglycemia) or vice versa.
Some experts regard brittle diabetes as a subtype of type 1 diabetes, while others believe it’s a complication of the disease. Either way, it’s rare, affecting only about three out of 1,000 people with diabetes who are dependent on insulin.
Often, brittle diabetes is associated with stress and other psychological issues. It may require hospitalization.
Brittle Diabetes Symptoms
The hallmark of brittle diabetes is frequent, unpredictable shifts in blood glucose (sugar) levels, causing fluctuating symptoms of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
The notable swings in blood sugar can negatively affect quality of life and require frequent hospitalization.
- Blurry vision
- Excessive thirst
- Increased hunger
- Increased urination
- Fruity breath
- Nausea and vomiting
- Lack of energy, fatigue, tiredness
- Feeling shaky or anxious
- Increased heartbeat
Brittle diabetes is also marked by an increased risk of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), in which abnormally high levels of ketones—a byproduct of the breakdown of body fat—build up in the blood. Ketoacidosis can lead to diabetic coma and even death.
Symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis include:
- Excessive thirst
- Increased urination
- Lack of energy, fatigue
- Fruity breath
- Dry or flushed skin
- Nausea or vomiting
Ketoacidosis can be confirmed by testing the urine for ketone levels.
DKA usually sets in slowly. However, vomiting is a sign that DKA may develop into a life-threatening condition in just a few hours.
If you or a loved one are showing signs of DKA, seek immediate medical help.
Brittle diabetes may be caused by several factors, including psychological issues such as depression or stress. Stress can bring on acute, temporary insulin resistance, which may explain the sudden swings in glucose levels. The body will not respond to insulin, making it hard to predict your dosage.
One small study documented that those with brittle diabetes have a greater hormonal response to stress than people with diabetes who don’t have the condition. This psychological-hormonal connection may influence the development of brittle diabetes.
In other cases, brittle diabetes may be caused by altered digestion as a result of nerve damage or another condition, such as celiac disease or malabsorption.
Autonomic neuropathy, or nerve damage affecting organ function, could compromise the digestive processes that metabolize glucose and affect stomach and intestine function, making it difficult to judge how much insulin to take.
Brittle diabetes is most likely to develop in those ages 15 to 30. Some studies suggest women are more likely to be affected than men. The primary risk factor is type 1 diabetes.
The disease being relatively rare in people over 40 suggests that it may resolve itself over time in some cases.
Other risk factors for brittle diabetes include:
- Eating disorders
- Gastrointestinal absorption problems, including delayed stomach emptying (gastroparesis)
- Drug interactions
- Problems with insulin absorption
- Hormonal malfunction
- Adrenal insufficiency
Identifying brittle diabetes can be tricky as there are no specific metrics for diagnosis.
Because of the lack of precision in the term brittle diabetes, some physicians simply diagnose the phenomenon as high glucose variability and work to treat the underlying issue, be that recurring DKA or severe hypoglycemia.
Present and worsening psychological problems that are present along with blood sugar swings can also help form a diagnosis.
People with brittle diabetes may stop following a healthy diet or adequately managing their blood sugar. As blood sugar control wanes, metabolic imbalances further complicate and often worsen the underlying psychological problems, causing a repetitive cycle of glucose instability.
Balancing blood glucose levels to avoid erratic swings is the most effective way to treat brittle diabetes. Treatment may first require a hospital stay of a few weeks with intensive monitoring of food, glucose, and insulin to restore glucose control.
Continuous glucose monitors and insulin pumps can be useful in the ongoing management of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia. Technologies such as an artificial pancreas may be helpful, as well.
Continuous Glucose Monitors and Insulin Pumps
The more information you have regarding your blood sugar levels, the better you can manage your medications and reduce the frequency of blood glucose variability. For many people with type 1 diabetes, this may mean wearing a continuous glucose monitor and using an insulin pump.
Continuous glucose monitors can alert you to dips or spikes in your blood sugar so you can take the necessary steps to get it under control. Some come equipped with safety alerts and alarms to notify you of rising or dropping levels before they get too serious.
Insulin pumps can make insulin dosing more precise. They aim to mimic the normal functioning of the pancreas by delivering a small amount of basal insulin throughout the day to cover the body’s needs. They also deliver larger doses (bolus insulin) each time you eat a meal or snack.
An underlying psychological condition may be at play if your glucose levels respond normally to diabetes drugs in a controlled environment. If that’s the case, psychological treatment may help.
It’s helpful to consult a psychology professional for evaluation. Treatment may involve exploring the cause of your stress and trying a variety of methods to lessen it. Psychotherapy, in particular, has proven to be effective in the long-term treatment of diabetes.
Medication for anxiety or depression may help, although some drugs may interact with diabetes medications. Beta-blockers and some mood stabilizers, for example, may worsen symptoms of diabetes, and others may affect how your diabetes medications act in your body.
In some cases, transferring to a different diabetes care team can serve as a helpful fresh start. Switching to a specialty diabetes center also can sometimes help break the cycle of brittle diabetes.
Additionally, work with a holistically-minded care team to employ stress reduction practices for daily life such as meditation, deep breathing, gentle yoga, and acupuncture, alongside psychotherapy and medication as necessary.
Another option, if you are eligible, is to receive a pancreas transplant or undergo islet cell transplantation.
Islet cell transplantation, specifically allotransplantation, is used for a select population of people with type 1 diabetes who have a difficult time managing their blood sugar or have hypoglycemia unawareness.
Transplants are only performed in clinical research hospitals that have received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Two models of an artificial pancreas, a device that essentially serves to act as a human pancreas by automating insulin dosages in response to a rise in glucose levels, have been approved by the FDA.
Both models use hybrid closed-loop technology that automates insulin release, meaning users only need to adjust insulin levels at meals.
These systems can help take some of the guesswork out of insulin adjustments, as they happen automatically.
People with brittle diabetes are frequently hospitalized, regularly miss work, and often have to contend with psychological problems. All these factors place additional emotional and financial stress on family members.
It’s important to reach out to your medical team for support for yourself and your family members.
A Word from Get Meds Info
Diabetes, especially type 1 diabetes, is a lifelong condition that requires consistent and constant oversight and management. This can be overwhelming and stressful, but there are resources that can help.
Because brittle diabetes can be closely linked to mental health, seek out a therapist or psychologist who can help you come up with a plan to successfully manage your condition and keep on top of any underlying stress or depression that may negatively impact your glucose control.