If you’re not personally suffering from diabetes, you almost certainly know someone who is. Almost half of the United States (43%) is affected by either diabetes (9.4%) or pre-diabetes (33.9%) (1).
The outcomes of this disease are not pleasant and include things like amputations, stroke, heart disease and even death. This is a shortlist of a few of the complications, but there are many more discussed below.
Luckily, this condition can almost always be treated with everyday choices you can control including basic changes to what you eat.
This introductory guide will take you through what this disease is, dangerous complications that can occur, and how to prevent and treat your diabetes for good.
1) Do I Have Diabetes?
The only way to know for sure if you have diabetes is by going to your doctor who may decide to perform tests for the disease. If you haven’t already been diagnosed with diabetes, you can get an idea of how likely it is that you have this condition by using the diabetes risk calculator below.
2) Diabetes Definition
So, what is diabetes? When you hear the word, it is almost always referring to a condition called diabetes mellitus.
Diabetes mellitus is a condition that prevents the body from properly using glucose because of a problem with insulin.
But let’s break that down a little more. Glucose is a sugar that is critical to our survival. It is the main source of energy that the cells in our body need to function. Insulin is the hormone in charge of bringing glucose into our cells, which allows them to use it.
People with diabetes actually often have plenty of glucose in their blood; it just can’t be used as well by cells because insulin isn’t doing its job (2). This leads to dangerously high blood sugar levels.
3) Types of Diabetes
While there are two different diseases that are called ‘diabetes’, the most common type by far is diabetes mellitus.
Diabetes mellitus is broken down into two different types - ‘type 1 diabetes’ and ‘type 2 diabetes’. They are similar in that both types involve a problem with insulin that prevents cells from effectively using glucose. And people with both types of diabetes experience many of the same problems and need similar treatments.
What is the Difference Between Type 1 & Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus?
The main difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes is where the problem with insulin originates. In type 1 diabetes insulin isn’t produced (at least as much as it needs to be). With type 2 diabetes, insulin is produced but it eventually stops working as well as it needs to. You may hear this referred to as ‘insulin resistance’.
Just to be extra confusing, there is another very separate form of ‘diabetes’, called diabetes insipidus - and it has nothing to do with sugar, glucose, or insulin. It’s a completely different disease process that involves a problem with another hormone, called vasopressin.
This dysfunctional vasopressin results in, well, a lot of peeing. Unfortunately, this leads to more than just frequent bathroom breaks. Excessive urination causes terrible dehydration and unquenchable thirst which causes a myriad of other problems.
While diabetes mellitus can also cause frequent urination, it happens for different reasons. Luckily, diabetes insipidus is extremely rare (4).
As a general rule, it’s pretty safe to assume you can count on the word ‘diabetes’ meaning diabetes mellitus.
4) Diabetes Symptoms
People with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can experience similar problems.
- Frequent Urination
- Excessive Thirst
- Blurry Vision
- Weight Loss or Weight Gain
- Generalized Weakness
- Nausea & Abdominal Pain
These symptoms can occur much more quickly and can appear more dramatic in people with type 1 diabetes. People with type 2 diabetes may have more mild symptoms that develop gradually and may not be very noticeable for long periods of time (5).
5) Diabetes Complications
There’s a reason you hear people making such a big fuss about living with diabetes - it can cause devastating complications. Many of these are life-threatening and include:
- Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA)
- Hyperosmolar Hyperglycemic State (HHS)
- Increased Risk of Infections (immunosuppression)
- Kidney Disease & Kidney Failure
- Heart Disease (heart attacks)
- Pregnancy Complications
- Impaired Wound Healing & Amputations
- Vision Problems
- Sexual Problems
- Stomach Problems (gastroparesis)
- Other Nerve Problems (neuropathy)
- Hypoglycemia (side effect of some diabetic medications)
6) What Causes Diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that develops when the immune system becomes misguided and begins attacking an important organ called the pancreas, which is in charge of producing insulin. The pancreas becomes damaged from these attacks, and can no longer make enough insulin to support the needs of the body.
Like so many illnesses, an exact cause for type 2 diabetes isn’t known.
It is well established that obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, high blood pressure, and certain genetics all create a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes (6).
Some medications can also lead to higher sugars and the development of the disease. These medications include steroids, as well as some treatments for high blood pressure and mental health (7).
Pregnancy can trigger gestational diabetes, which also increases the risk of type 2 diabetes after the baby is born (8).
Cause of Type 1 Diabetes
- Immune System Problem
Risks for Type 2 Diabetes
- Unhealthy Diet
- Low Levels of Physical Activity
7) Diabetes Diagnosis
The symptoms of diabetes can be so mild that some people may not even be aware that they are experiencing them.
Diabetic tests like hemoglobin A1c and fasting blood glucose levels are used to make the diagnosis of diabetes and help to determine how severe it is. These same tests can be used to track how the disease is progressing and determine how much medication should be taken on a daily basis.
8) Diabetes Treatment
While people with type 1 diabetes can live very full and healthy lives there is unfortunately not yet a known cure for this disease.
The amazing news about type 2 diabetes is that many cases can be reversed by implementing basic lifestyle changes.
The best way of tackling the treatment of diabetes is to attack the disease at all ends. Integrating key lifestyle changes including diet and exercise to promote healthy weight management while taking medications as prescribed by your doctor will lead to the most success.
Goals of diabetic treatment include:
- Weight Loss & Healthy Weight Maintenance
- Blood Glucose Control
- Reducing the Risks of Co-morbid Diseases (ie: High Blood Pressure & High Cholesterol)
These can all be reached by eating the right diabetic diet, weight loss, exercise, not smoking, and taking medications as your doctor prescribes.
Treating diabetes starts with getting on the right diet. For an in-depth guide to gaining the foundation of nutrition knowledge you need to achieve these goals read the Diabetic Diet Plan: 3 Step Nutrition Guide to Manage Diabetes.
As discussed above, one of the biggest risk factors for type 2 diabetes is obesity. Weight loss and healthy weight maintenance in of itself can treat the disease. This also helps to treat and prevent other comorbid conditions like hyperlipidemia and hypertension.
Bottom line: no matter what diet you choose, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn for weight loss success.
While exercise and diet are the ideal actions for achieving weight loss goals, other options like bariatric surgery may be considered in some individuals.
Exercise independently improves glucose control in people with diabetes, in addition to contributing to weight loss. It also similarly helps with comorbid conditions like hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Exercise has been shown to have a powerfully positive effect on our mood and emotions. It helps symptoms of many mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. In this way it often leads people to make healthy lifestyle choices including improved abstinence from unhealthy substances like smoking and alcohol and better food choices.
Quitting smoking also improves comorbid conditions like cardiovascular disease and hypertension in addition to improving glycemic control. When you make the choice to quit smoking, you also reduce your risk of developing many other serious medical conditions including a myriad of cancers and lung disease.
While lifestyle modifications are paramount in treating diabetes, medications are often necessary - especially at first. It is obviously important to take the medications your doctor prescribes. These may be in the form of a pill or injections. People with type 1 diabetes will always need to incorporate insulin injections into their daily lives.
Implementing these lifestyle changes can actually reverse the type 2 diabetes - and all of the health problems associated with it (11).