What is diabetes? The technical bit Diabetes is a metabolic disorder, where the body is unable to produce or properly use insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is required to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy. The human body has to maintain its blood glucose level within a very narrow range. This is…

What is diabetes?

The technical bit

Diabetes is a metabolic disorder, where the body is unable to produce or properly use insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is required to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy. The human body has to maintain its blood glucose level within a very narrow range. This is done by using insulin and glucagon. The function of glucagon is to cause the liver to release glucose, which provides the body’s cells with the energy that they need.

What it means in practice

Simple put, this means that the body is unable to properly use the energy it gets from food. Normally, most of the food we eat is broken down or digested into sugar or glucose. Insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas, helps the glucose get inside the cells where the glucose is then burned for energy. For people with diabetes, their bodies cannot make enough insulin or they are resistant to the insulin their bodies make. As a result, their blood glucose becomes much higher than usual.

Types of diabetes

There are two types of diabetes:

Type 1 diabetes: An autoimmune process in which the immune system destroys insulin-producing cells and the pancreas therefore fails to produce any insulin.

Type 2 diabetes: This type of diabetes occurs when the pancreas either doesn’t produce enough insulin or the body’s cells fail to respond to insulin. It has previously been called non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM).

Between 90% and 95% of people who are diagnosed with diabetes have type 2 diabetes.

How is diabetes diagnosed?

A normal fasting blood glucose range is about 65 -100. When your blood sugar is 126 or higher after fasting for eight hours, a diagnosis of diabetes is made.

Type 1 diabetes is usually first diagnosed in children, teenagers or young adults. However, it can develop at any age.

Symptoms of diabetes

The classic symptoms of diabetes are:

  • extreme thirst (and a feeling like dry cotton balls in the mouth)
  • frequent urination
  • weight loss (despite increased appetite)
  • fatigue and drowsiness
  • blurred vision
  • nausea
  • skin infections
  • and recurrent vaginitis.

These can come on quite quickly in a Type 1 diabetic, but can develop slowly (taking years in some cases) in a Type 2, which makes it more difficult to diagnose.

Causes of diabetes

Although the precise cause or causes of diabetes are unknown, both genetic and environmental factors appear to play key roles. For example, it is now generally accepted that high-sugar diets, obesity / being overweight, lack of exercise, family history and stress all increase the risk of contracting diabetes.

Type 1

Type 1 diabetes can be caused by an autoimmune disorder or many other factors that could affect the pancreas. For instances, people have been known to contract this type of diabetes because of medical treatment for another problem, which has then resulted in damage to the pancreas as a side-effect.

It is thought that Type 1 diabetes is partly inherited and then triggered by certain infections, with some evidence pointing at the Coxsackie B4 virus. There is a genetic element in individual susceptibility to some of these triggers which has been traced to particular HLA  genotypes  (i.e., the genetic “self” identifiers relied upon by the immune system). However, even in those who have inherited the susceptibility, Type 1 diabetes mellitus seems to require an environmental trigger.

Those suffering from this type of diabetes are required to take insulin by injections or insulin pumps in order to survive. Most people who develop Type 1 are otherwise healthy and are not generally overweight or inactive. As such, treatment must usually be continued indefinitely.

Type 2

Type 2 diabetes is associated with older age, obesity, poor diet, family history, history of gestational diabetes, impaired glucose metabolism, physical inactivity, and race/ethnicity. Clinically-based reports and regional studies suggest that Type 2 diabetes in children and adolescents, although still rare, is being diagnosed more frequently. This could be linked to, amongst other things, the rise in childhood obesity.

People who carry excess weight, especially in their middle section, are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes because the fat in their tissue causes an imbalance of insulin in the body.

Other health complications linked to diabetes

Diabetes is a serious condition, which can have devastating effects on the whole body. It is an autoimmune disease that can play havoc with the body’s organs and circulatory systems.

When a person’s blood sugar levels are continuously high, it can lead to kidney failure, the need for amputations, skin problems, heart problems and neuropathy (nerve damage). In fact, those with diabetes are up to four times more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease and stroke. Similarly, diabetes is the leading cause of end stage renal disease (ESRD), where the kidneys shut down and a transplant is usually required.

Diabetes can also affect the eyes, ultimately leading to blindness. In fact, it is the number one cause of blindness in adults in the US. This damage is caused by a lack of oxygen. Diabetes can also cause leaking of blood vessels in the eyes, which leads to scarring and loss of vision.

Living with diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic disease, without a known cure. Unfortunately, cases of diabetes are also on the rise. Yet, in many instances (particularly in the case of Type 2 diabetes) the disease is preventable through healthy lifestyle choices. Even once contracted, it is possible to mitigate and manage the effects and symptoms. In some cases, symptoms can even be reversed. Weight loss, physical activity and a balanced diet may be all that is needed to stop the progress of the disease.

Everyone who has diabetes (whatever the type) is at increased risk of the health issues mentioned above. It is therefore never too early to take responsibility for your health, including taking aggressive preventive measures by changing your lifestyle.

The good news is that you have greater control over your health than you may think. It is empowering to know that you can make a difference by taking some proactive steps, such as  eating a healthy and balanced diet, managing your weight, taking regular exercise, reducing alcohol and sugar intake and stopping smoking.

Weight management

80% of people with diabetes are overweight or have abdominal obesity. If you are overweight or obese, fat deposits are making your body produce excess insulin in order to properly carry out bodily functions. Losing weight can therefore help to reduce the need for insulin and other diabetes medications, as well as it will lower your blood pressure and decrease your risk for heart disease.

For those with Type 2 diabetes, if they can eliminate the fat that is responsible for the imbalance of insulin in their bodies by exercising and limiting carbohydrates and alcohol, they may be able to drop their glucose levels (perhaps even into the normal range).

In one study, overweight adults who lost a modest amount of weight (even as little as 5 – 10% of initial body weight) and exercised regularly reduced the risk of developing diabetes by 58% percent.


Physical activity can not only help to keep blood sugar levels low, but can assist your body to better use the insulin it produces to convert the food you eat into energy. Arguably one of the best types of exercise is cardiovascular activity.

While it may not be completely curable, these changes allow many people diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in particular, to live a healthy and full life. People with type 2 diabetes who exercise regularly have been shown to lose weight and gain better control over their blood pressure, thereby reducing their risk for cardiovascular disease (a major complication of diabetes). Studies have also shown that people with Type 1 diabetes who regularly exercise reduce their need for insulin injections.

30 to 60 minutes of modest intensity exercise 3 – 4 times a week is a good start. Intensity should be increased gradually. However, of course everyone’s circumstances and health conditions differ, so if you have diabetes or a heart disease, it is important to consult your doctor before undertaking a new exercise regime. They can help you to determine the most appropriate level, type and frequency of exercise.

The bottom line

Your health is your responsibility, so take control now! Skip “fad diets” and make healthier choices. By excluding or strictly limiting a particular food group, you may be giving up essential nutrients. Instead, think variety and moderation as part of an overall well-balanced diet and sensible exercise regime.

If you are uncertain what is best to eat to suit your condition and particular medical circumstances, you can always speak to a qualified health professional (such as a nutritionist or dietitian).

Many diabetics also find that health supplements can be beneficial. For example:

  • nutrients-fortified sugar-free meal shakes can provide a convenient and readily-available source of essential nutrients (such as fibre, vitamins and minerals) on a daily basis
  • high quality weight management products (derived from natural ingredients) can support their wider weight loss plan.

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