Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body produces or uses insulin to break down food into blood sugars that can be used for energy. Nearly 415 million people around the world have been diagnosed with diabetes, and given its rampant growth, there has been more and more funding put into research to find a cure and develop scientific advancements that can make living with it much easier to manage.
While it can affect anyone from birth (called juvenile diabetes) to old age (mostly referred to as type 2 diabetes), there are ways to prevent its onset and also identify symptoms early in order to get started on a treatment plan that can make it a more livable condition.
A closer look at diabetes
Diabetes is a condition where the body has difficulty controlling blood sugar levels. This happens when the pancreas fails to produce, or secrete adequate amounts, of the hormone insulin, which metabolizes carbohydrates and glucose and converts food into sugars that can be used for energy. There are several different types of diabetes—while you can very well be born with the disease, in other situations lifestyle behaviors or other circumstances can lead to its development at other life stages.
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas isn’t able to produce enough insulin, in which case blood sugar levels can become greatly imbalanced. This type is often referred to as juvenile diabetes because it can present itself in early childhood; there is no known cause or cure at this time.
Type 2 is the more common type of diabetes, occurring when the cells in the body don’t respond properly to the insulin that is produced. It’s often called “adult onset diabetes” because it typically appears later in life. It’s also preventable, with diet, exercise, and weight having a major impact on its eventual development.
Some pregnant women can develop high blood sugar levels, which leads to a condition known as gestational diabetes. Often, this problem is alleviated on its own after the birth of the baby, but it’s essential to be tested during pregnancy since it can appear with no obvious symptoms, and in some cases can cause complications.
Though a diagnosis may sound scary, effectively managing diabetes is possible, and is the key to overall health. The first step is understanding what the symptoms of diabetes are, and talking to your doctor or medical professional if you think they could be related.
The main symptoms of diabetes
Diabetes has a wide range of symptoms, some of the more common include:
- Frequent urination
- Feeling very thirsty or hungry
- Extreme fatigue
- Dry mouth
- Itchy skin
- Blurry vision
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing on thoughts clearly
- Ongoing weight loss despite eating regularly
- Tingling, pain, numbness, or other strange feelings in the hands and feet
- Cuts or bruises that heal slowly
Many of these symptoms are related to the way the body overcompensates when diabetes is present. For example, the body generally absorbs glucose as it passes through the kidneys. But in cases of diabetes, blood sugar levels are increased and the body can’t absorb all of the excess glucose. As a result, it tries to flush out the sugars by creating more urine—thus the frequent bathroom visits.
Because frequent urination requires more fluids to be used, it can lead to dehydration and trigger fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and other symptoms that come from fluid loss. As the body uses up the liquids, it will then pull hydration from mucus membranes and the skin. This is what can lead to dry mouth and itchy skin.
In short, diabetes impacts the body in a number of ways and will essentially set off a chain reaction of symptoms that can be difficult to manage effectively without medical treatment.
If any of these symptoms are noticed in combination, it’s important to visit a physician to get tested. Early detection can help make it easier to begin managing and controlling diabetes and its symptoms, and could end up saving your life as well.
Risk factors for type 2 diabetes
While type 1 diabetes is a condition that’s present from birth or a very young age, type 2 diabetes can present itself at any time throughout life and is actually preventable. There are certain people who may be more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, which makes it even more essential to pay attention to symptoms.
In particular, obesity is the key culprit in developing type 2 diabetes because it makes it harder for the body’s cells to properly respond to the insulin that the pancreas produces. However, there are some healthy lifestyle changes that could help reduce the risk, including:
- Getting regular exercise
- Reducing the amount of unhealthy trans fats in a diet, usually from processed foods
- Increasing healthy fats in a diet like the monounsaturated fats found in avocados, olive oil, and coconut milk
- Eliminating or reducing processed sugars
- Reducing alcohol consumption
Talking to your doctor and making the diagnosis
A medical professional is the only person that can accurately diagnose diabetes. Generally your doctor will begin by reviewing the symptoms you are experiencing, and if diabetes is suspected, he or she will likely administer a glucose test—which is the primary way a diagnosis is made. This test simply measures the amount of sugars in the bloodstream after fasting—levels that are excessively high could indicate diabetes. There are different types of glucose tests that are used:
This test looks at average blood glucose levels for the past two to three months. An A1C level of 6.5 percent or higher means that diabetes is present, while 5.7 to 6.4 percent can indicate prediabetes.
Fasting plasma glucose test
Also called the ‘FPG’ test, the patient must fast for at least eight hours prior in order to give a base range of plasma glucose levels. A result of 126 mg/dl or higher means that diabetes is likely present.
Oral glucose tolerance test
This particular type of test is run over the course of a two-hour period, which tests blood sugar levels after drinking glucose to see how the body processes it.
These are the primary tests used to make a determination as to whether or not diabetes is present, though there can be others. If you do receive a diagnosis, your physician will begin to provide instructions on controlling and managing the symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
Diabetes treatment and management
While there is no cure for diabetes, being mindful of it and making the right lifestyle choices can greatly help improve the quality of life and longevity. Here are some of the treatment options:
Blood sugar monitoring
One of the most important aspects of controlling diabetes is to simply monitor blood sugar levels throughout the day, particularly after meals. This is done through a blood monitoring device that requires the patient to prick their finger to dab a droplet of blood onto the test strip. If levels are too high or too low, the patient will need to follow up with a dose of a prescribed medication.
Synthetic insulin injections are a must for those with type 1 diabetes, and many with type 2 diabetes require it as well in order to compensate for what the body fails to produce. There are several different types of insulin available—a doctor can determine which type is needed in each case. In severe cases of diabetes, an insulin pump may be required, but for most people, daily self-administered injections are enough to help manage the disease.
A good diet is one of the foundations of better diabetes management. There is no standard diet that needs to be followed, but the basic guideline is that foods that are high in fiber and nutrition are key. It’s also important to remove as much refined carbohydrates and refined, processed sugars from the diet as well. Focusing on natural fruits, veggies, and whole grains will have a dramatic impact on controlling blood sugar levels in the body.
Daily activity actually impacts the body’s overall sensitivity to insulin—being more active can help reduce glucose levels and improve the condition. Roughly 30 minutes a day is ideal, while building up to an even greater level of physical fitness can help as well.
These basic steps are the foundations for managing diabetes effectively. It can be a disease that impacts one’s life in a dramatic way, but with careful management and monitoring it can be controlled and lead to a happy, healthy, prolonged life.
Illustration credit: Karley Koenig