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The Basics of Diabetes

by Julia McCartney on June 8, 2012

As common as it may be, diabetes is misunderstood by the majority of those who don’t have it. There are many pervasive myths floating around out there about diabetes, and some folks seriously underestimate the seriousness of this chronic condition. Learn more about diabetes and why it’s nothing to be trifled with below.

Diabetes: Basic Overview

The pancreas is tasked with producing a hormone called insulin, which works to move glucose from the blood and into liver cells, fat cells and muscle cells. Those cells then use the sugar as a kind of fuel. When the pancreas fails to produce any insulin or produces an insufficient amount of it, diabetes occurs. Diabetes also happens when those fat, liver and muscle cells don’t respond properly to insulin. In that case, insulin resistance is the culprit. Approximately 80 million Americans suffer from diabetes, which is a chronic illness. Another 70 to 80 million Americans have insulin resistance syndrome, which is a precursor to diabetes.

Types

There are four main types of diabetes: Type 1 diabetes, Type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes and prediabetes:

  • Type 1 Diabetes: With this type of diabetes, the pancreas produces little or no insulin. It’s primarily diagnosed in children, teens and young adults. People with this type of diabetes require insulin injections. Genetic factors are believed to play a role, but the specific causes are unclear.
  • Type 2 Diabetes: This type of diabetes, which is sometimes called adult-onset diabetes, used to primarily develop in adults. However, as obesity rates soar, it’s increasingly being diagnosed in teens and children. It’s the most common type of diabetes, and it is characterized by insulin resistance, which can develop when excessive body fat prevents the body from processing insulin properly.
  • Gestational Diabetes: Pregnant women sometimes develop this condition between the 24th and 28th week of pregnancy. It can develop into Type 2 diabetes later, but it often goes away when a pregnancy is over.
  • Prediabetes – In this case, a person’s blood glucose levels are higher than normal, but they aren’t quite high enough to qualify as Type 2 diabetes. This condition is reversible and doesn’t necessarily have to lead to Type 2 diabetes.

Symptoms

The symptoms that occur with all types of diabetes are generally the same. The main difference is that they develop very gradually with Type 2 diabetes, but typically develop rapidly with Type 1 diabetes. The most common symptoms are:

  • Fatigue
  • Hunger
  • Excessive Thirst
  • Frequent Urination
  • More Frequent Infections That Heal Very Slowly
  • Blurred Vision
  • Numbness in the Hands or Feet
  • Weight Loss
  • Erectile Dysfunction
  • The Presence of Ketones (which are byproducts of the breakdown of fat and muscle, in the urine)

Risk Factors

With Type 1 diabetes, risk factors include having a relative who has diabetes and being Native American, Asian, African American or Hispanic. With Type 2 diabetes, the same risk factors apply. Additionally, having high cholesterol or high blood pressure can put you at risk. Being overweight and having excessive fat at the midsection are risk factors as well. Living a sedentary lifestyle and eating a poor diet can also put you at increased risk.

Diagnosis

If you suspect you have diabetes or prediabetes, your doctor can perform a preliminary test, which is a urine analysis that looks for high blood sugar in the urine. If your blood sugar is 200 mg/dL or higher, you may be at risk or have diabetes.

From there, there are a few different diagnostic methods that can be used. A fasting blood glucose level test is commonly administered. If it reveals a blood glucose level of 126 mg/dL or higher twice, you will be diagnosed with diabetes. Your doctor may administer a hemoglobin A1c test. At 5.7 percent or lower, you do not have diabetes. If you have a level that’s between 5.7 percent and 6.5 percent, you have prediabetes. If it’s 6.5 percent or higher, you have diabetes. In some instances, an oral glucose tolerance test may also be used.

Treatment

There is no cure for diabetes. Treatment includes sticking to a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise. People with Type 1 diabetes typically need to count carbohydrates, and they generally require regular insulin injections. Insulin pumps are also available and are much more convenient.

There are also medications that may help. Some block the stomach enzymes that break down carbohydrates. Others stimulate the pancreas, so that it produces higher levels of insulin. Still others inhibit the production and release of insulin by the liver. In some cases, bariatric surgery may be helpful. Pancreas transplants are sometimes used, but they are very risky.

Prevention

People who are at risk of developing diabetes should be screened for it regularly. If prediabetes is caught early enough, full-blown diabetes can sometime be prevented through diet and exercise. Keeping your weight in check and getting plenty of exercise can keep it at bay too.

Is it Reversible?

Type 1 diabetes and Type 2 diabetes are not reversible. Prediabetes and gestational diabetes, however, can be reversed in some instances.

Common Myths about Diabetes

Finally, you can learn more about diabetes by educating yourself about the many myths there are about it:

  • Overweight and obese people always get diabetes: This isn’t true. In fact, most overweight and obese people never develop diabetes.
  • People who have diabetes are more likely to get sick: No. Having diabetes does not make you more prone to colds, flus or other illnesses.
  • Eating too much sugar can cause diabetes: Genetics, lifestyle and unknown factors cause diabetes. Sugar consumption has nothing to do with it.
  • Diabetes isn’t all that serious: False. Two-thirds of those who have diabetes die of stroke or heart disease.
  • Diabetic people can’t eat sweets: A healthy diet is important, but people who have diabetes are still allowed to enjoy sweets. They just have to do so in moderation.

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