What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic metabolic disorder for which there is no cure. Diabetes mellitus (DM), commonly referred to as diabetes, is a disease in which there are high blood sugar levels over a prolonged period. Normally the level of sugar, also called glucose, in our body is controlled by insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is produced by the pancreas gland in the abdomen. In a diabetic, the pancreas produces little or no insulin, or the body has become resistant to insulin – which of the two depends on the type of diabetes.
Anyone can get diabetes. Certain people are born more likely to develop diabetes, while others develop lifestyle habits that increase their risk of diabetes. The symptoms of diabetes can vary, ranging from mild to severe. In the long term, diabetes can cause a variety of health problems. That’s why it is important to treat diabetes.
The number of people diagnosed with diabetes in the UK is approximately four million.
Types of diabetes
There are two main types of diabetes – type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes . In type 1 diabetes, the body stops producing insulin. Type 2 diabetes is where the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the body’s cells don’t react to insulin. This is known as insulin resistance. Type 2 diabetes is far more common than type 1, and tends to affect older and overweight people. However, because more and more people in our society are too heavy, type 2 diabetes is now becoming commoner amongst younger people.
Women can also develop diabetes during pregnancy. This type of diabetes is called gestational diabetes .
What causes diabetes?
As mentioned earlier, insulin plays an important role in controlling the use of glucose (sugar) in the body. When food is digested and carbohydrates enter our bloodstream, insulin moves glucose out of the blood and into cells, where it’s broken down to produce energy. That’s why after eating sweet foods such as candy, cake, jam or lemonade, but also rice, pasta, potatoes and bread, our blood sugar level rises. Insulin prevents our blood sugar from rising too high.
What causes type 1 diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease. When you have an auto-immune disease, the white blood cells cannot distinguish between foreign substances and substances naturally occurring in the body, causing the good cells to be attacked. In type 1 diabetes, the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the cells that produce insulin. It’s not known precisely what causes type 1 diabetes. What we do know is that people with this type of diabetes often inherit a predisposition to the disease, which causes imbalances within their immune system. Type 1 diabetes has also been linked to viruses, environmental factors, and nutrients such as gluten or cow’s milk in baby food.
What causes type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is especially common among the elderly population (in adults aged 40 years and over). Although it is thought that type 2 diabetes has a strong hereditary component, a number of lifestyle factors are also known to be important to the development of the disease. Being overweight and lack of exercise are primary risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Other risk factors include smoking and an unhealthy diet. In the UK, around 90% of all adults with diabetes have type 2.
What causes gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes is caused by a change in the way a woman’s hormones respond to insulin during pregnancy. It usually arises in the second half of pregnancy and goes away as soon as the baby is born. However, having gestational diabetes increases the risk of type 2 diabetes five to ten years after pregnancy.
Symptoms of diabetes
Diabetes often goes unnoticed. In type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes, the symptoms are usually not apparent. When patients do experience symptoms they are most likely to complain of:
- An increased need to urinate;
- Increased thirst;
- Dry mouth;
- Eye problems such as a burning sensation, or blurred, poor or double vision;
- Slow-healing sores or cuts;
- Recurring infections (e.g. bladder infection, fungal infection);
- Shortage of breath or leg pain when walking;
- Nausea or vomiting;
- Lack of appetite or increased appetite;
- Weight loss with no apparent reason.
Possible long-term complications include:
- Heart and vascular problems;
- Eye problems;
- Decreased kidney function;
- Foot problems such as reduced sensitivity, cold feet and discolouration;
- Erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness.
As far as we know, type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented. Fortunately, you can take steps to prevent or delay type 2 diabetes from developing, such as eating a healthier diet and increasing physical activity and weight loss. Considering the long-term complications of diabetes, you can see why it’s important to make instant lifestyle changes if one or more of these risk factors apply to you:
- A history of diabetes in your family;
- Fat belly;
- Lack of physical activity;
- Older than 40 years of age.
Three easy tips to prevent diabetes
You can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes by making small changes in your lifestyle.
Here are three easy tips to get you started:
- Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. You can do this by exercising more, but simple things such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking or cycling while shopping instead of driving, avoiding sitting down for lengthy periods of time, and taking more breaks at work will also go a long way to prevent diabetes.
- Make healthy and varied food choices. Choose foods that are low in calories and high in fibre, and cut back on saturated fats.
- Quit smoking and reduce your alcohol intake.
Medication is an important weapon in the battle against diabetes. The goal with medication is to keep your blood sugar level as close to normal as possible in order to delay or prevent complications. Type 1 diabetes requires a different treatment than type 2 diabetes.
- Treatment for type 1 diabetes is insulin administration. This is done by injecting insulin with an insulin pen or the insulin is dispensed with a pump.
- Treatment for type 2 diabetes includes dietary changes and blood glucose-lowering medications.
Blood glucose-lowering medications
Common treatment for type 2 diabetes is metformin. Metformin tablets reduce blood sugar levels by slowing down the production of glucose in the liver. Metformin also increases cells’ sensitivity to insulin, which helps improve the absorption of glucose from the blood.
If the patient does not respond sufficiently to metformin, sulphonylurea derivatives may be prescribed. Gliclazide and tolbutamide tablets are examples of sulphonylurea derivatives. Both medicines work by stimulating the pancreas to produce more insulin.
If a special diet and treatment with metformin and sulphonylurea derivatives do not produce the desired effect, the next step is insulin administration. In most cases, the insulin is self-administered by injection after meals.
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Last updated on October 13, 2016.