What Do You Know About Diabetes?

By Nathan Blake |11/9/16

November is designated National Diabetes Awareness Month.

In 2012, over 9% of the American population—roughly 29 million people—had some form of diabetes. Worse, one in four people with diabetes do not know they have the disease. With over 1.5 million new cases of diabetes being diagnosed every year, this disease is quickly becoming one of the nation’s fastest growing and most serious epidemics. In fact, diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death among Americans in 2010. That number, if current trends continue, is sure to rise.

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a group of health conditions that makes it difficult for the human body to properly control the level of sugar in the blood. When we eat, our bodies convert food into sugars, one of which is called glucose, which our cells rely on as a main source of energy to carry out the basic bodily functions of our muscles, brain, heart, liver, and more.

Because of the importance of glucose in everyday health, there are very intricate biological processes at play to regulate glucose in the blood. These processes ensure that our glucose level does not rise above or fall below a healthy range.

The Importance of Insulin

The cells in our body cannot use glucose directly and must rely on a hormone called insulin. After eating, insulin is released into the bloodstream by the pancreas. Insulin attaches to cells and prompts them to absorb glucose from the bloodstream. The cells then turn the glucose into energy.

When there is an overabundance of sugar in the blood—for instance, after a big meal—insulin stores this excess glucose in the liver to be used later when blood sugar levels drop, such as during the period between meals or while exercising. Normally, glucose is kept under tight control by the pancreas which uses insulin to regulate the blood levels. Diabetes occurs when this regulation system fails to control the levels of glucose.

Types of Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes (formerly called “juvenile-onset diabetes”) occurs when the body cannot create its own insulin. This is because the body’s immune system has destroyed the insulin–producing “beta cells” in the pancreas. Without insulin, glucose cannot enter cells. The cells must then use other inefficient sources of energy while glucose levels rise. This metabolic imbalance can be life–threatening. To prevent this problem, patients with Type 1 diabetes must receive insulin injections daily in order to regulate their blood sugar levels.

Type 2 diabetes (formerly called “adult-onset diabetes”) occurs when the body continues to create insulin but the cells have a sluggish response to its effects. The result of this “insulin resistance” is elevated levels of glucose in the bloodstream. Over time, the high glucose level can also affect the pancreas and reduce its production of insulin.

Gestational diabetes, occurring in roughly 4% of pregnancies, results from hormonal changes during pregnancy that inhibit insulin’s ability to regulate glucose levels.

Risk Factors

While the risk factors for developing type 1 diabetes are still being studied, research shows that having a family member with diabetes can increase your risk for developing the disease. Type 1 diabetes occurs most commonly in children and young adults, accounting for roughly 5% of all people diagnosed with diabetes.

More is known about what causes type 2 diabetes, as it is the disease’s most common form. Several risk factors include a family history of diabetes, being overweight, not getting enough regular physical activity, an unhealthy diet, high blood pressure, and increasing age.

Pregnant women at risk for developing gestational diabetes include those over the age of 25, people with a family history of diabetes, and women who are overweight. For reasons that are not fully understood, gestational diabetes occurs more frequently among black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American populations.

Treatment

Many diabetics require treatment with insulin or other medications that help control glucose. Equally important are lifestyle habits that can be helpful in preventing diabetic complications. Diabetes can be managed by taking the following precautions:

• Eat meals balanced in starches, fruits and vegetables, proteins, and fats.

• Make physical activity a daily routine.

• Monitor blood sugar levels to be sure they are under control.

• Manage blood cholesterol and lipid levels by eating healthy and taking prescribed medications as recommended by a healthcare provider.

• Control blood pressure to a healthy range (below 130/80).

Prevention

Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented, although many studies have shown that patients can take a few simple steps to drastically reduce their risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

The Diabetes Prevention Program was a federally-funded project that monitored over 3,000 individuals who were at risk for type 2 diabetes. Researchers discovered that adults at risk for the disease were able to reduce their susceptibility by half by following two practices: healthy eating and regular exercise.

Adhering to a low-calorie, low-fat diet and getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity for five days a week were shown to be effective markers for lowering the risk for diabetes.

To learn more about diabetes diagnosis, treatment, and prevention, visit the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, supported in part by the National Institutes of Health.

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