Is Type 2 Diabetes An Autoimmune Disease?

By Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
September 23, 2022

While type 2 diabetes has always been considered a preventable metabolic disorder, some research does make connections between altered immune function and the disorder. In this article, we’ll discuss autoimmune associations with type 2 diabetes, what autoimmunity means, and how type 2 diabetes can be treated.

Is Type 2 Diabetes An Autoimmune Disorder?

Type 2 diabetes is not considered to be an autoimmune disorder at this time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe it as a preventable condition that involves changes to the body’s metabolic function. It is most often caused by being overweight, obesity, and lack of physical activity.

Type 1 diabetes, however, is an autoimmune condition. The body’s immune system mistakenly targets cells in the pancreas that destroy its ability to make insulin, the hormone that helps the body control blood sugar levels. Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented.

Medical research is always advancing. Some research has noted that in some people who have type 2 diabetes, there are some changes to how cells in the immune system work. While these same cell changes can be found in autoimmune disorders, it is too early in the research process to say whether these have a role in causing type 2 diabetes. For now, type 2 diabetes is not considered to be caused by immune system problems, although people who have type 2 diabetes may have other conditions that involve the immune system.

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What is An Autoimmune Disorder?

An autoimmune disorder happens when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body. The immune system is supposed to defend against viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. Sometimes it can become sensitized to harmless things, like foods, while other times it can target specific cells in certain tissues, organs, or body systems.

When the immune system targets a part of the body, it does so by making proteins called auto-antibodies that attack the healthy cells. This can lead to symptoms of the autoimmune disease.

Some autoimmune diseases are systemic, while others only impact one area or organ. It is possible for people to have more than one autoimmune disease.

There are more than 80 different autoimmune disorders. Common autoimmune diseases include:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Celiac disease
  • Sjogren’s syndrome

Autoimmune diseases cannot be cured. But many of them have treatments or protocols that can alleviate symptoms, control relapses, or prevent flares. Not all autoimmune disorders can be fully managed. Autoimmunity can significantly impact quality of life. People who have at least one autoimmune disease are at higher risk for inflammatory responses that can lead to additional disorders.

Diagnosing autoimmune disorders is not always easy, since many have overlapping symptoms with other conditions. If you have a family history of autoimmune disease, or other signs and symptoms that concern you, work with a medical provider to get tested. Many autoimmune disorders can be diagnosed based on lab work, imaging, or other testing methods.

Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes can be managed with a combination treatment approach that usually involves medication, diet, and lifestyle. In some cases, weight loss surgery may be recommended.

Treatment typically involves the following:

  • Close monitoring of blood sugar levels to ensure they are kept in range
  • Medications to reduce glucose, improve insulin sensitivity, and promote weight loss, which can include metformin, SGLT2 inhibitors, sulfonylureas, and others
  • Dietary changes to increase fiber from whole grains, vegetables, and fruits and decrease refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and added sugars
  • Lifestyle changes that include at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise
  • A healthy plan for stress management and mental well-being, since excessive stress can worsen glucose control

For some people who meet specific criteria, bariatric weight loss surgery may support the management of type 2 diabetes.

Immunosuppressant Medications

While type 2 diabetes has not been firmly established as an autoimmune disorder, some research has found that immunosuppressant medications can help manage the condition. Rituximab (Rituxan, MabThera) is a type of drug known as an anti-CD20 antibody. It works by eliminating immune cells that are attacking the body’s own tissue, causing autoimmunity. These types of drugs are used to treat autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, and are currently being studied for type 1 diabetes.

While type 2 diabetes has not yet been established as an autoimmune disease, ongoing research will continue to look for underlying immune function and other cellular responses that can lead to more effective treatments and prevention.

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Takeaway

Type 2 diabetes is not an established autoimmune disorder, but research has uncovered potential links to immune cell dysfunction and other problems with how the body may attack its own cells and organs. For now, type 2 diabetes is still widely considered to be a preventative metabolic condition. By maintaining a healthy body weight, staying physically active, and eating a healthy diet that is nutritious and balanced, people may significantly reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

People who are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes can effectively treat and manage the condition with medication, diet, exercise, and other lifestyle factors.

How K Health Can Help

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Frequently Asked Questions

Which type of diabetes is considered an autoimmune disease?
Type 1 diabetes (sometimes called juvenile diabetes) is an autoimmune disease that happens when the immune system attacks islet beta cells in the pancreas. New and emerging research has identified possible connections between altered immune cell function and type 2 diabetes, but this link has not been firmly established.
Do type 2 diabetics have a compromised immune system?
When blood glucose levels are uncontrolled, it can negatively affect circulation, blood vessel health, blood pressure, and more. This can lead to reduced immune function, poor wound healing, and an inability to clear infections from the body. Controlling diabetes with medication, diet, and lifestyle is important to maintain healthy immune system function.
What type of disease is type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder that happens when the body loses sensitivity to the hormone insulin, which leads to elevated blood glucose levels.
Is blood sugar an autoimmune disease?
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that leads to disrupted blood sugar because the pancreas becomes unable to produce insulin. Type 2 diabetes is influenced by weight, physical activity, and lifestyle. Uncontrolled type 2 diabetes can result in suppressed immunity and may be associated with immune dysfunction, although research is ongoing.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN is a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 15 years experience. He received his Undergraduate and Graduate degrees from William Paterson University and his doctoral degree from Drexel University. He has spent his career working in the Emergency Room and Primary Care. The last 6 years of his career have been dedicated to the field of digital medicine. He has created departments geared towards this specialized practice as well as written blogs and a book about the topic.

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