November is National Diabetes Month in the US, and over 34 million Americans have the condition. But what is diabetes? It occurs when blood glucose, also called blood sugar, is too high. It is a long-lasting or chronic health condition that affects how the body turns food into energy. There is no cure for diabetes currently, but a person can take steps to manage the condition and stay healthy.
Most of the food one eats is broken down into sugar or glucose and released into the bloodstream. Blood glucose is the main source of energy. Insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas, helps glucose from food get into the body’s cells to be used for energy. When a person has diabetes, the body either does not make enough (or any) insulin or cannot use the insulin it makes as well as it should. As a result, glucose builds up in the bloodstream and does not reach the cells. Over time, this can cause serious health problems.
Types of diabetes
Type 1 diabetes: In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin or makes very little insulin. In most people with type 1 diabetes, the body’s immune system, which normally fights infection, attacks and destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. As a result, the pancreas stops making insulin. Without insulin, glucose cannot get into the cells and the blood glucose rises above normal. People with type 1 diabetes need to take insulin every day to stay alive. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children, teenagers, and young adults, but it can develop at any age. Approximately 5-10% of the people who have diabetes have type 1. Currently, no one knows how to prevent type 1 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes: The most common type of diabetes, in this case, the body does not use insulin properly and cannot keep blood sugar at normal levels. About 90-95% of people with diabetes have type 2. While some people can control their blood sugar levels with healthy eating and exercise, others may need medication or insulin to help manage it. It is usually diagnosed in adults over the age of 45, but more and more children, teenagers and young adults are also developing it.
Gestational diabetes: It is a type of diabetes that develops during pregnancy in women who have never had the condition. Gestational diabetes occurs when the body cannot make the extra insulin needed during pregnancy. “During pregnancy, your body makes special hormones and goes through other changes, such as weight gain. Because of these changes, your body’s cells don’t use insulin well, a condition called insulin resistance. All pregnant women have some insulin resistance during late pregnancy. Most pregnant women can produce enough insulin to overcome insulin resistance, but some cannot. These women develop gestational diabetes,” says the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
It is usually diagnosed in the 24th to 28th week of pregnancy and can cause health problems in both the mother and the baby. The baby is more likely to have obesity as a child or as a teenager, and more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life too. “The key to treating it is to act quickly because as treatable as it is, gestational diabetes can hurt you and your baby. Work with your doctor to keep your blood sugar levels normal, through special meal plans and regular physical activity. Your treatment may also include daily blood sugar testing and insulin injections,” recommends the American Diabetes Association.
Prediabetes: It is a serious health condition where blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough yet to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes. In the US, 88 million adults have prediabetes. What’s more, over 84% of them do not know that they have it.
Prediabetes can put a person at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. “Prediabetes means your blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes. Prediabetes usually occurs in people who already have some insulin resistance or whose beta cells in the pancreas aren’t making enough insulin to keep blood glucose in the normal range. Without enough insulin, extra glucose stays in your bloodstream. Over time, you could develop type 2 diabetes," explains NIDDK.
Symptoms of diabetes
Many people have no symptoms and do not know they have diabetes. The common symptoms of the condition include urinating often; feeling very thirsty; feeling very hungry even though a person is eating properly; extreme fatigue; blurry vision; cuts/bruises that are slow to heal; unexplained weight loss (more common in type 1 diabetes); and tingling, pain, or numbness in the hands/feet (type 2). People who have type 1 diabetes may also have nausea, vomiting, or stomach pains. “It can take months or years for enough beta cells to be destroyed before symptoms of type 1 diabetes are noticed. Type 1 diabetes symptoms can develop in just a few weeks or months. Once symptoms appear, they can be severe,” cautions the CDC.
Usually, gestational diabetes has no symptoms: if a person does have symptoms, they may be mild, such as being thirstier than normal or having to urinate more often. A person can have prediabetes for years but have no clear symptoms, so it often goes undetected until serious health problems such as type 2 diabetes show up. Symptoms of type 2 diabetes often develop slowly — over several years — and can go on for a long time without being noticed. Many people have no symptoms. Some people do not find out they have the disease until they have diabetes-related health problems, such as blurred vision or heart disease.