Diabetes is a rapidly growing, serious, and complex disease that is a source of fear and worry for many individuals, but understanding the disease and learning how to protect yourself is a great start to defending yourself from letting it control your life.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a group of diseases that results in the body not producing enough insulin becoming resistant, thus causing increased levels of glucose in the blood. Everything about diabetes is circumstantial and dependent on a variety of factors from genetic to environmental, so it is important to understand the different types of diabetes and how they may fit into your life. The most common risk factors for diabetes are: obesity, lack of physical activity, family history of diabetes, unhealthy diet, getting older, and a history of gestational diabetes.
So what actually causes diabetes? We know that high glucose is a result of low or no insulin production, but what is insulin and where does it come from?
Insulin is a vital hormone made in your pancreas that is required for our digestive systems to process sugar. Whenever we eat, cells in our pancreas release insulin to either absorb sugar for immediate use or to store the glucose (sugar) found in our blood. Insulin effectively transports the excess glucose to our liver for storage and is released if our blood sugar drops below the normal level; therefore, without insulin production the glucose has no way to regulate itself and builds up in the body, causing a myriad of short- and long-term issues.
Types of Diabetes
Pre-diabetes is a term often heard and commonly misunderstood. If your doctor tells you that you are pre-diabetic or that you have pre-diabetes, this does not mean that you have diabetes or that you will have diabetes. Pre-diabetes is an early sign that your glucose levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be considered diabetes. At this stage, it is vitally important to make lifestyle changes to keep from developing diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes—also known as juvenile diabetes—is the most serious form of diabetes. It is prevalent in 5–10% of the diabetic population, which may not seem like a very intimidating number but, type 1 diabetes is the most difficult to control and there is no known cure. The majority of type 1 diabetes is diagnosed in children and young adults under 30 years old, but can also develop in individuals who are in the later stages of life. Symptoms of type 1 diabetes include: extreme thirst, bedwetting or excessive urination, hunger, fatigue, blurred vision, nausea and vomiting, or weight loss. Type 1 diabetes differs from the other forms in that there is no natural insulin production in the pancreas due to the immune system destroying the beta cells that produce insulin, often happening abruptly. When the pancreas is working correctly, it makes more or less insulin depending on our blood’s constantly changing glucose. When the pancreas cannot produce the insulin on its own and you are relying on insulin shots, your body is going through highs and lows of glucose because your pancreas can no longer adjust the levels on its own, which is why it is important to consistently check your glucose levels throughout each day to make sure you stay within your targeted range and away from hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia.
Type 2 diabetes—also known as adult-onset diabetes—is the most common form of diabetes. There are no known reasons for why type 2 occurs more often than type 1; however, without the proper care, type 2 can turn into type 1 by destruction of the pancreas. In the beginning with type 2 diabetes, the pancreas is still producing insulin, but the body is just resistant to it, meaning that cells have a reduced response so the pancreas tries to overcompensate by making more insulin. Over time, the beta cells are gradually burnt out or fatigued, reducing or eliminating insulin production altogether. Type 2 diabetes is usually more common in middle-aged or older adults, but it is steadfastly becoming more common in children due to bad lifestyle habits and environmental aspects. Symptoms of type 2 diabetes include: excessive thirst, frequent or increased urination, excessive hunger, fatigue, blurry vision, and sores or cuts that won’t heal. Type 2 diabetes can be managed through diet and exercise, oral medications, and injectable insulin medication (unlike type 1, which can only be managed with insulin).
Gestational diabetes is only a concern for women who are pregnant who do not already have diabetes. There is no known reason for why women develop gestational diabetes, but there is evidence that the hormones emitted from the placenta causes the body to block the insulin it is making, causing the woman to have higher than normal blood glucose. Doctors check for gestational diabetes around the 24th week of a pregnancy, as that is when it typically forms. Because this form of diabetes develops after the baby is already formed, there is no risk for birth defects, but if the diabetes goes untreated, it can harm the baby by the overly high levels of glucose crossing the placenta, which could make the baby at risk for childhood obesity and diabetes as an adult. Typically, when the mother gives birth, her body returns to normal and there is no further use for medication to control glucose levels, but in some cases, they can give birth and have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Even if a woman gives birth and everything returns to normal, they are still at a higher risk of developing diabetes in the future.