What Is Diabetes? Everything You Need To Know
What Is Diabetes? Everything You Need To Know
Diabetes is a chronic medical condition in which the level of glucose in your blood is too high.
Diabetes develops if there is a problem with the hormone insulin in your body. It can happen if your body doesn’t produce any insulin, if it doesn’t produce enough insulin, or if your body doesn’t respond appropriately to the insulin available.
What is the definition of diabetes?
The World Health Organisation defines diabetes as:
‘A chronic, metabolic disease characterized by elevated levels of blood glucose (or blood sugar), which leads over time to severe damage to the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys and nerves.’
How does the body deal with carbohydrates?
Diabetes affects the way the body deals with energy from the food you eat. All carbohydrates in your diet are broken down into glucose. Most health care professionals refer to blood glucose as blood sugar, so many people understandably think that only sugar breaks down into glucose. But the body breaks all carbohydrates into sugar.
There are carbs in starchy vegetables, fruit, grains, milk and pasta, as well as in sweet treats and fizzy drinks. Many new diabetics are shocked that a slice of bread changes to blood glucose precisely the same way as three teaspoons of sugar.
Glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream and sent around the body to give cells in your organs and tissues the energy they need to function.
What does insulin do?
Insulin is an essential hormone produced by the beta cells in the pancreas. Insulin controls the amount of sugar in your blood.
It can help to imagine insulin as a key. Its job is to unlock cells so that glucose can enter and provide the fuel the cells need to function and stay alive. Insulin also allows your body to store any excess glucose the cells don’t use for future use. Insulin has other metabolic roles; it also prevents the body from breaking down protein and fat.
How does diabetes affect the body?
If you have diabetes, there isn’t enough insulin for your body’s needs. Without insulin, your cells are starved of energy, affecting their healthy function, and glucose builds up in your bloodstream.
High levels of glucose in the blood can have serious effects in the short and long term. The body responds to the raised levels by passing out more glucose in the urine; it takes lots of water with it, making you thirsty, meaning you’re back and forth to the toilet, and can cause dehydration.
Persistently high blood glucose can progressively damage your body’s small blood vessels. Over time, it can impair the blood supply to many organs and body systems. The retinas in the back of your eyes, kidneys, heart and feet are most vulnerable.
What are the different types of diabetes?
The three most common types of diabetes account for 98% of people living with the disease:
Type 1 diabetes
7-8% of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes. It is an autoimmune condition where your body’s immune system attacks and destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.
If you have type 1 diabetes, your pancreas can’t produce any insulin, and you will need to inject insulin to allow your cells to get the energy they need and to control your blood sugars.
Type 2 diabetes
The most common type of diabetes, type 2, affects nine in ten people living with diabetes. If you have type 2 diabetes, your pancreas either doesn’t produce enough insulin for its needs, or your cells don’t respond to the insulin available.
Type 2 diabetes is strongly linked to overweight and obesity. Many people with type 2 diabetes can treat their diabetes effectively by losing weight, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly.
Around one in ten women develops diabetes during pregnancy. If you have gestational diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin to meet your body’s increasing needs due to pregnancy.
Diabetes in pregnancy can affect the health of mother and baby if it isn’t well controlled. However, careful monitoring and treatment can keep you healthy and protect your baby.
Other, less common forms of diabetes include:
- Type 3c diabetes
- Latent autoimmune diabetes in adults
- Maturity onset diabetes of the young (MODY)
- Neonatal diabetes
- Steroid-induced diabetes
- Cystic fibrosis diabetes
- Wolfram Syndrome
- Alström Syndrome
What are diabetes symptoms?
If your blood glucose levels are raised- which is known as hyperglycaemia or a hyper- you may develop symptoms of diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, symptoms usually come on quickly. In type 2 diabetes, they may be less obvious and easier to miss. Symptoms include:
- Tiredness and low energy levels
- Passing a larger volume of urine, going more frequently and passing urine at night
- Feeling very thirsty, a feeling that may not be quenched by drinking
- Blurred vision
- Sudden weight loss without trying to diet
- Cuts, scrapes and wounds take longer to heal
- Feeling more hungry
- Skin and genital itchiness
- Recurrent infections such as recurrent thrush
What causes diabetes?
Frustratingly we don’t fully understand the causes of type 1 diabetes. We don’t know what triggers the body’s immune system to attack the beta cells in the pancreas.
Scientists have identified several genes which can increase your risk of diabetes- but not everyone with a faulty gene will become diabetic. It’s postulated that an environmental factor such as a virus can trigger diabetes in genetically vulnerable people.
Find out more about the causes of type 1 diabetes.
Several factors can increase your risk of getting type 2 diabetes. It’s strongly linked to being overweight or obese, especially if you carry your weight around your waistline. As many as nine in ten people with type 2 are overweight or obese, and the more obese you are, the greater the risk. Ethnicity, age and a family history of type 2 can also make you vulnerable to type 2 diabetes.
Find out more about the causes of type 2 diabetes.
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Carol Willis - Diabetes Clinic Facilitator
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