Diabetes is a serious illness affecting millions of people all over the world. In America, one out of ten people have it – 29 million people with a disease that’s become a leading cause of physical disability.
Also called blood sugar or blood glucose, glucose is your body’s main source of energy. You get glucose mainly from carbohydrates you eat. It’s a simple sugar carried through your blood to the cells in your body. It helps get fuel into your cells to provide energy for muscles and tissues and is also your brain’s main source of fuel.
Health problems occur if this process is disrupted. Diabetes affects how your body uses glucose. If you have diabetes, glucose can’t get into your cells the way it’s needed. Instead, it floats around and can build up in your bloodstream.
Insulin, made by the pancreas, is a hormone that gets your glucose (blood sugar) into a usable source for the energy your cells need. Think of insulin as a key that unlocks a door, letting glucose into cells for use as energy. When there isn’t enough insulin, not enough glucose – or none – gets into your cells. This is diabetes.
Unmanaged diabetes damage:
Without knowledgeable medical management, too much glucose accumulation can lead to life-limiting health complications, including circulatory problems in the legs and feet, limb amputations, kidney disease, heart attacks, strokes, and diabetic blindness.
Cardiovascular risk: Because of ongoing damage to blood vessels and nerves, people with diabetes are at increased risk for having a heart attack or stroke – statistically, almost double the risk for a person without diabetes.
Loss of eyesight: Diabetes-damaged eyesight occurs because of multiple hemorrhages in small arteries that can lead to irreversible blindness.
Kidney damage: High sugars can affect the kidney tubules and eventually lead to renal failure.
Lower-limb amputations: Diabetes can cause nerve damage and circulation issues. In advanced cases, this can make a foot or lower-leg amputation necessary.
Primary types of diabetes
There are two primary types of diabetes – Type 1 and Type 2. These are often known as juvenile diabetes and adult diabetes because Type 1 (almost) always occurs before someone achieves adulthood. Type 2 on the other hand, often – but not always – occurs in adulthood.
Type 1 occurs when your pancreas fails to produce enough insulin – or any at al. This means your body has no ability to break down glucose and use it for energy. The glucose builds up in the bloodstream, and, without treatment, this can lead to ketoacidosis, a complication where the body begins to release a poisonous number of ketones – acids your body makes when forced to use stored fat instead of glucose for energy.
Type 2 occurs when your pancreas may initially produce adequate amounts of insulin, but your body doesn’t use it properly. Type 2 usually presents in adulthood and is often called a “silent” disease because, in the earlier stages, symptoms may seem insignificant and be dismissed – until the disease progresses and symptoms can no longer be ignored.
Noticeable symptoms usually include:
- Frequent urination, often during nighttime.
- Unusual thirst.
- Dry mouth and dehydration.
- Dry, itchy skin.
- Vision problems.
- Unexplained fatigue.
- Bouts of confusion “brain fog” often accompanied by depression.
Gestational diabetes occurs in women when their bodies can’t make enough insulin during pregnancy. Here again, there’s an abnormally elevated level of sugar in the blood. Most women with gestational diabetes don’t remain diabetic after the baby is born. A woman who has had gestational diabetes, however, is at higher risk for getting it again during future pregnancies and for developing Type 2 diabetes later in life. About 50% will go on to develop Type 2. Risks can be lowered by reaching and maintaining a healthy body weight after delivery.
An OB/GYN can help evaluate a woman’s risk of developing gestational diabetes and address it as part of prenatal care.
Sometimes known as “the calm before the storm,” prediabetes occurs when blood glucose levels are higher than normal yet too low to qualify for a diabetes diagnosis. Prediabetes is always present before developing Type 2 diabetes and its increased risk for health complications.
The American Diabetes Association estimates that 79 million American adults are living with prediabetes. If diagnosed in the initial stages, doctors can offer lifestyle strategies and medications to help prevent or postpone the onset of Type 2 diabetes.
Lower your diabetes risk:
1. Lose extra weight. Losing excess weight reduces the risk of diabetes. Set a weight-loss goal based on your current body weight. Talk to a doctor about achieving reasonable short-term goals, such as a losing 1 to 2 pounds a week.
2. Be more physically active. There are physical (and mental) health benefits derived by committing to a regular physical activity regimen.
3. Eat healthier. Dietary fiber, also known as roughage or bulk, and fiber-rich foods promote weight loss. Eat a variety, including fresh fruits, leafy green vegetables, and whole grains.
4. Don’t smoke or use nicotine in any form.
If you already have diabetes:
Diabetes may seem like a lot to manage, but if a patient cooperates with their physician, diabetes can, indeed, be managed in a manner that allows patients to live a robust life. To do this, however, patients must have regular checkups and testing for A1C hemoglobin levels, adhere to a recommended diet and weight, quit all forms of nicotine, commit to a sensible exercise regimen and, if necessary, take carefully monitored prescription medications, which may include insulin injections.
Author Vinita Bhagia, M.D.
Published November 2, 2023