What Is Brittle Diabetes?

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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, ranging from too high (hyperglycemia) to too low (hypoglycemia).

Some experts regard brittle diabetes as a subtype of type 1 diabetes, while others believe it's a complication of the disease. Sometimes, brittle diabetes is associated with stress and other psychological issues. It may require hospitalization.

The doctor checks at the diabetic a level of sugar in blood
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Brittle Diabetes Symptoms

The hallmark of brittle diabetes is frequent, unpredictable shifts in blood glucose (sugar) levels, causing fluctuating symptoms of hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia.

The notable swings in blood sugar can negatively affect quality of life and require frequent hospitalization.

Symptoms of high blood sugar include:

  • Fatigue
  • Blurry vision
  • Excessive thirst
  • Increased hunger
  • Increased urination
  • Fruity breath
  • Nausea and vomiting

Symptoms of low blood sugar include:

  • Confusion
  • Lack of energy, fatigue, tiredness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • 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
  • Confusion
  • Nausea or vomiting

Ketoacidosis can be confirmed by testing the urine for ketone levels.

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 health conditions or psychological issues such as depression or stress. Stress can bring on acute, temporary insulin resistance, in which the body will not respond as well 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.

Brittle diabetes may also be caused by altered digestion as a result of conditions such as celiac disease or malabsorption.

Autonomic neuropathy, which is nerve damage that affects organ function, is a complication of diabetes. It can compromise the digestive processes that metabolize glucose and affect stomach and intestine function. This makes it difficult to judge how much insulin to take.

Risk Factors

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.

Other risk factors for brittle diabetes include:


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 diagnose the phenomenon as high glucose variability and work to treat the underlying issue and the complications, including DKA or severe hypoglycemia.

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 physical and 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 require a hospital stay of a few weeks with intensive monitoring of food, glucose, and insulin to restore glucose control.

In some cases, transferring to a different diabetes care team can serve as a helpful fresh start. Switching to a specialty diabetes center may help break the cycle of brittle diabetes.

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.

Psychological Treatment

Sometimes, 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 the treatment of 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.

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.


A pancreas transplant or an islet cell transplantation can be an option for some people who have type 1 diabetes.

Allotransplantation, a type of islet cell transplantation, 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).

New Technologies

Two models of an artificial pancreas have been approved by the FDA. This is a device that essentially serves to act as a human pancreas by automating insulin dosages in response to a rise in glucose levels,

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 because 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 Verywell

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.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. Genetic and rare diseases information center: Brittle diabetes. Updated March 13, 2017.

  2. Newman C, Dinneen SF. Brittle diabetes revisited: A description of erratic and difficult-to-control diabetes in an elderly woman with Type 1 diabetes. Diabet Med. 2019. doi:10.1111/dme.13972

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetic ketoacidosis. Updated March 25, 2021.

  4. Dutour A, Boiteau V, Dadoun F, Feissel A, Atlan C, Oliver C. Hormonal response to stress in brittle diabetes. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 1996;21(6):525–543. doi:10.1016/s0306-4530(96)00014-5

  5. Weinstock RS. Approach to the adult with brittle diabetes or high glucose variability. UpToDate. Updated May 20, 2020.

  6. Bertuzzi F, Verzaro R, Provenzano V, Ricordi C. Brittle type 1 diabetes mellitus. Curr Med Chem. 2007;14(16):1739-44. doi:10.2174/092986707781058922

  7. National Institutes of Health. Genetic and rare diseases information center: Brittle diabetes. Updated March 13, 2017.

  8. Harvey JN. Psychosocial interventions for the diabetic patientDiabetes Metab Syndr Obes. 2015;8:29-43. Published 2015 Jan 9. doi:10.2147/DMSO.S44352

  9. National Institute of Mental Health. Mental health medications. Updated October 2016.

  10. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Pancreatic islet transplantation. Updated October 2018.

By Heather M. Ross
Heather M. Ross, PhD, DNP, FAANP is a nurse practitioner and PhD in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology.