What Is Diabetes
Diabetes is a significant problem in the developed world and is especially prevalent among certain ethnic groups. Yet many people are not sure what diabetes is, who gets it, and whether or not they are at risk.
Diabetes means too much sugar in the blood. Its proper name is diabetes mellitus. The sugar in the diabetic person’s system also comes out in the urine, which diabetics produce a lot of – the ancient Egyptians noticed that the urine of certain people attracted sugar-loving insects like ants. The term “diabetes” comes from the Greek physician Arateus, and means “to siphon.” The term “Mellitus” (meaning “honey-sweet”) came about in the late 1600s.
Diabetics need to take steps to control their blood sugar levels, something that is normally done automatically within the body. How this is done and to what extent it is done depends on the type of diabetes that is present.
Types of Diabetes
There are two basic types of diabetes. Type I diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes, often occurs in childhood. In this type of diabetes, the pancreatic cells are destroyed, either by the body’s immune system or some external damage to the pancreas, such as injury or surgery. Type I diabetics must inject insulin into their bodies since their pancreas no longer produces insulin. Insulin takes the sugar from the blood and gets it into the body’s cells where it can be used.
Type II diabetes is far more common and tends to occur in adults. Generally, those with Type II diabetes have a functioning pancreas; it just doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the insulin it produces is “ignored” by the body (insulin resistance). Type II diabetes can sometimes be managed with diet and exercise, and insulin injections may or may not be necessary.
Who Gets Diabetes?
Type I diabetes tends to run in families. Type II diabetes can also run in families and may occur in at-risk individuals: those who are overweight, sedentary, over the age of 35 or had gestational diabetes in the past. You cannot “catch” diabetes as it is not caused by a pathogen.
The prevalent opinion among medical professionals is that Type II diabetes can be prevented or minimized through a healthy lifestyle. The theory goes that too much white flour products, white sugar, corn syrup, and other refined sugars and grains cause the pancreas to become exhausted or the body to resist the insulin that is produced.
What Causes Diabetes?
Chances are, you know someone with diabetes, or someone in your family has it. But what causes it? How does a person develop the symptoms of diabetes?
There are two types of diabetes, Type I and Type II. These differ as to their cause and treatment. Here are some ideas about what causes diabetes.
Type I Diabetes
Type I diabetes is caused by a malfunctioning pancreas. What causes the pancreas to malfunction differs from case to case. It tends to run in families, but some individuals have developed diabetes in childhood when no one in their family has any history of the disease.
In some individuals, their immune system attacks the pancreas and destroys its cells, thereby rendering it useless. In others with Type I diabetes, an injury or pancreatic surgery destroys the pancreas to the point that it can no longer produce insulin.
Type I diabetes has a different demographic than Type II. Children as young as 2 or as old as 22 can be diagnosed with Type I diabetes – hence the alternate name for Type I diabetes: juvenile diabetes. However, older people can certainly develop Type I diabetes, especially if there is an injury to the pancreas.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type II diabetes may have some hereditary factors, too, but not to the clear-cut degree that Type I does. In Type II, the body becomes resistant to the insulin that the pancreas is still producing. Or, Type II diabetics have a functioning pancreas but the organ does not produce enough insulin. Older individuals and those who are overweight are considered more at risk for developing Type II diabetes than those with a healthy body weight and lifestyle.
What Triggers Diabetes?
An auto-immune disorder might trigger Type I diabetes, as the body’s immune system can inexplicably attack the pancreas and destroy its cells. There might also be some other way that the pancreas gets damaged, which is not age-specific.
Type II diabetes may be triggered by unhealthy, sugar-rich diets and a sedentary lifestyle. The pancreas may simply become exhausted trying to keep the blood sugar down in response to the constant influx of sugar from the diet.
Other possibilities for triggers include high blood pressure and stress. While it’s not directly proven as a causal factor, individuals with high blood pressure are statistically more likely to develop diabetes than those with normal blood pressure.
Stress as a causal factor has a similarly unproven status, but it is often thought by medical professionals that prolonged, unrelieved stress increases the risk of diabetes. Sometimes the stress is caused by trauma or emotional disturbance, somehow making the individual susceptible to developing diabetes.
Types of Diabetes – What’s the Difference
Many people know that there is a difference between Type I and Type II diabetes, but they aren’t sure just what those differences are. Others may not know that there are several other types of diabetes in addition to Types I and II and that there are diseases that may mimic diabetes but are not the “real thing.”
Here are some ideas and tips on how to know the difference between the various types of diabetes.
Type I Diabetes
Also called juvenile-onset diabetes, Type I usually occurs in people under the age of 25. The pancreas, often due to an autoimmune problem (the body attacks its pancreatic cells) becomes disabled and can no longer produce insulin. Type I tends to run in families and will affect the person for the rest of his or her life. Insulin will be required and perhaps other medications throughout the diabetic’s life.
Type II Diabetes
This type of diabetes usually occurs later in life. Its symptoms are similar to Type I – excessive thirst, unexplained weight loss, frequent urination, fatigue, tingling in the extremities, etc. – but unlike Type I, Type II can often be managed with diet and exercise, especially if it’s caught early. Some sources note that it never really “goes away,” but its severity varies.
Type II diabetics usually have a functioning pancreas; it just doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the insulin it does produce is not processed or recognized by the body (insulin resistance).
The above types are both a form of diabetes mellitus. This is the form of the disease most people think of when they hear the term “diabetes.”
This is a disease that many may not have heard of. While it shares the same first name and even some of the symptoms (frequent urination and excessive thirst, for example), diabetes insipidus is actually quite different from diabetes mellitus.
Diabetes insipidus is primarily a kidney disease and is often connected to the pituitary gland. This gland makes two hormones: one that stimulates the kidneys to make more urine (diuretic hormone) and one that “shuts off” the production of urine (anti-diuretic hormone). In diabetes insipidus, the kidneys either stop responding to this hormone or something goes wrong with the pituitary gland so that the hormones are not secreted properly.
MODY, or Maturity Onset Diabetes of the Young, is often confused with Type I or II diabetes. But it’s neither one – sometimes it’s called “Type 1.5.” MODY is said to be caused by a single mutated gene that can be passed on from parent to child. MODY itself has varying degrees of severity, with MODY 1 and 3 possibly requiring insulin, sometimes in the oral form only, and MODY 2 not requiring any form of insulin.
Signs and Symptoms of Diabetes in Infants, Children, and Adults
Diabetes is not as uncommon a disease as some people may think. In fact, according to various sources, between 25 and 26 million diabetics are living in the United States. Diabetes is not just a disease that affects older, overweight people; its various types can affect infants and the elderly, and those in between.
To help get a better grasp on the nature of diabetes, it helps to know the signs and symptoms for various age groups. Here are some of them.
Watching for the signs and symptoms of diabetes in infants can be tricky. Watch for symptoms of low blood sugar in addition to high, warn experts. High blood sugar (hyperglycemia) is usually associated with diabetes, but low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) may also be a symptom.
Babies with low blood sugar may tremble, be cranky, or have pale or blue lips and/or fingers. High blood sugar may present as dehydration, or a baby seeming to need to drink all the time and urinate frequently. Also, a sweetish smell to the urine is indicative of diabetes.
Other symptoms of diabetes in infants include excessive sleepiness, extreme hunger, and sores that are slow to heal. Some sources suggest looking for a dark rash on the back of your baby’s neck – it may feel somewhat velvety.
Like infants, children with diabetes may exhibit extreme thirst and frequent urination. He or she may lose weight despite all the ravenous hunger, and in fact, some sources say that unexplained weight loss is the number one sign of diabetes in children. Other symptoms include:
Uncharacteristic behavior (just not acting like him/herself)
Vision problems, especially blurred vision that comes and goes
Chronic yeast infections, especially in girls
Tingling in hands and feet
Adults can develop Type I or juvenile diabetes, particularly young adults. Type II diabetes occurs later in life and is different than Type I, but the symptoms of both are quite similar. For adults, the following symptoms may indicate diabetes.
Unexplained weight loss – Adults in particular need to be cautioned about this symptom, because adults often think any weight loss is good. This is especially true if their doctor told them that being overweight puts them at risk for diabetes. But if the weight loss is unexplained and is accompanied by any of the other symptoms, it might be a good idea to see your doctor.
Thirst and urination – Like infants and children, adults with undiagnosed diabetes are often extremely thirsty. And the more you drink, the more you urinate. If it seems like you do nothing but drink and pee, and never feel satisfied as to your thirst, diabetes might be the culprit.
Tingling in extremities – As with children, adults may experience tingling hands and feet.
If Not Diabetes – What?
Some disorders mimic the symptoms of diabetes. Among these are liver disease, morbid obesity, and the side effects of certain cholesterol- and blood pressure-lowering drugs.
Treatment Options for Diabetes
There is always a significant amount of research going on in the field of diabetes. Scientists are always looking for a cure or better treatment, developing new drugs and equipment, and performing experiments with stem cells and other methods. New treatment options are becoming available all the time.
As a diabetic, keeping your blood sugar levels steady is key. Once you have that under control, many diabetics like to search out alternative treatments. In conjunction with your physician’s knowledge, you may find your health is enhanced by one or more alternative treatments.
Let’s take a look at some of the treatment options available for diabetics.
Those with Type I diabetes will need to take insulin. This can be done in the form of a shot, which the diabetic gives him or herself (except for small children, whose parents could give the daily shots). Another option is an insulin pump, which is outside the body but attached by a small tube. The diabetic enters what he or she eats into the pump, and the pump produces the necessary insulin.
For Type II diabetics, insulin may or may not be necessary. If it is, there are some different options for these diabetics. Inhaled or even oral insulin may be prescribed, or traditional shots or “pens.”
In addition to insulin, some diabetics take various medications. Some medications, like Metformin, work by decreasing the glucose that the liver produces, which aids in the body’s response to insulin. Others, such as Glipizide and Glimepiride, increase the pancreas’s own insulin. This, of course, lowers blood sugar; but presumably, it would only be effective if the pancreas still worked somewhat.
Some newer medications are called DPP-4 inhibitors. These affect the pancreas both by stimulating the secretion of insulin and by reducing the secretion of a hormone called glucagon. Glucagon raises blood sugar.
Some natural substances have been considered for their ability to lower or stabilize blood sugar. Chromium, a mineral that occurs naturally in whole sugar cane, may be low in people with Type II diabetes. Chromium is said to stabilize blood sugar. Other minerals, herbs, and foods that are said to help with blood sugar are:
Magnesium (diabetics are often found to be deficient in this mineral)
Essential fatty acids
Acupuncture has also been explored as an alternative treatment for diabetes.
Diet and exercise are important for all diabetics, but these essentials are usually considered “alternative treatments,” probably because they do not directly involve drugs or conventional therapy. But exercise and diet are important for keeping blood sugar regulated and maintaining healthy body weight.
Diabetes – How to Recognize and Prevent Complications
Learning to recognize the complications of diabetes in yourself and others can save a life. Sometimes diabetes goes unnoticed, and until there’s a complication, the person doesn’t know he or she has diabetes. If a shrewd friend can see some symptoms before the complications hit, it may give the diabetic an edge on treatment. It’s also a good idea to learn some of the signs and symptoms of complications and how to stave them off in yourself.
Here are some tips to help you prevent and recognize diabetes complications.
There are some specific actions you can take to help avoid complications and keep them from developing.
1. Don’t smoke
Smoking is one of the worst things a diabetic can do. First of all, smoking constricts blood vessels, further complicating the compromised circulation that comes with diabetes anyway. Secondly, smoking increases the diabetics’ risk of cardiovascular disease and even vision problems. So a good step toward staving off these complications is to stop smoking (or don’t start!).
2. Take your medication regularly
To help your body stay on an even keel, it’s a good idea to take your prescribed medication as directed. Don’t self-medicate. If you want to change medications or try something different, make sure you do so under the care of a professional.
3. Regular check-ups
Getting regular physicals is important, but so are check-ups specifically for your diabetes. Your vision, in particular, should be monitored to prevent vision complications such as glaucoma later on.
4. Maintain a healthy weight
Eating a healthy, diabetic-specific diet and getting enough regular exercise is key to maintaining a healthy weight. You don’t want to crash diet, but getting on track with the right foods and activity level is a good place to start.
Recognizing complications early can help, whether it’s an urgent, short-term complication or a long-term one. Here are some tips.
Sources say that the body parts most affected by diabetes are:
Heart and blood vessels
Watching for abnormalities in these areas of the body is the first step toward recognizing any complications in that area.
Burning, tingling sensations in the hands and feet, sharp night-time pain, and difficulty walking are signs of diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage). Swollen, red feet are also a sign of serious nerve complications.
Living with Diabetes
Regardless of what age you are diagnosed with diabetes or which of the two types you have, it helps to have some coping strategies. Living with diabetes can be challenging, but it certainly need not keep you down. Here are some practical steps for living with diabetes.
Connecting with Others
One of the most helpful things you can do is get to be a part of the diabetes community in your area. You’ll learn you’re not alone; you’ll probably pick up valuable information, tips, and literature, and you’ll learn about upcoming events, retreats, and camps.
This can be helpful for children who want to fit in with a peer group but aren’t sure how or if others will accept them, or for adults who feel isolated in their condition. It helps a lot just to know others understand what it’s like.
Form a Group
If you don’t have a local support group for diabetics, consider forming one. Members can meet at your house or a local venue, and you can set up social networking or a website to keep in touch. You can plan outings, gatherings, meetings, and so forth, and keep your group informed about events.
While regular visits to your physician are important, diabetics ultimately have to be responsible for their own daily care. You have to learn to take your own blood sugar and administer your own insulin, and only you know when something feels “off.” It’s up to you to implement an exercise regimen and eat the right foods. Learning this basic truth – you are responsible for managing your diabetes – can take some of the stress out of living with this condition.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up
For those with Type II diabetes or for parents of children who have Type I, it can be tempting to get caught up in the self-blame game. The development of Type II diabetes may be linked to certain lifestyle choices, but it’s not necessarily so; and even if it is, you have to move forward and into a healthy lifestyle.
Parents whose child or children have Type I may blame themselves – mothers may worry about something they did while pregnant, or obsess over letting their child eat a lot of sugar before the diagnosis. None of these blames are necessarily even true! It wastes time and energy to worry, so focus on moving forward and getting the most out of life from here on out. This may be the beginning of an opportunity for self-improvement and self-control.
Have a Plan
Having a plan can help you stay in control in a given situation, and get the most out of parties and holidays. Decide ahead of time how you will handle holiday and party treats so you don’t have to think on your feet each time you’re offered a treat.
Diabetes in Children
Has your child been diagnosed with diabetes, and you’re worried? Or maybe he or she has had diabetes for a while but you feel like you’re floundering. Sometimes, parents and families need to understand how diabetes affects the family dynamic, and how they can be supportive. Whether your child is an infant, teen, or in grade school, families often need some guidance on how they can help their children live a normal life.
Here is a brief guide for families living with children who have diabetes.
Be Ready for Misconceptions
Parents and diabetic children will have to deal with various misconceptions and myths about diabetes. It’s good to look over some of the more prevalent myths and questions, and have a ready answer for them. You may want to coach your child in answering these misconceptions as well.
“Will I catch diabetes from you/your child?” Of course not – diabetes is not communicable.
“I can’t invite you/your child to my birthday party!” Children with diabetes may not be invited to birthday parties because many hosts/parents do not want the responsibility of a diabetic child, especially one surrounded by sugary birthday treats. Hopefully, you can work with the parents of kids who are having birthday parties and let your child participate in whatever capacity you’re comfortable with.
“Will you die if you eat sugar?” Some people think that diabetics will be “poisoned” if they eat sugar.
“You must have eaten too much sugar as a baby/child; that’s why you have diabetes.” Many people think that eating too much sugar causes diabetes.
To help make the disease seem less scary, research the terminology and realities of the disease. That way, when your doctor talks to you about the disease, you will not feel intimidated by the terms and will know what he or she is talking about. Knowledge can help you feel empowered. You can also use your research to help formulate a plan, which makes a lot of families feel more secure.
Include Other Family Members
When you can, include the family in the scheduled meal times and even snacks. Some families make a nightly together time of the snack before bed that most diabetics need. Everyone in the family should know how to recognize signs of a problem – high or low blood sugar especially.
Involve yourself in the diabetes community in your area and/or online. There are diabetes camps, online forms, and various support groups that can help your family live with diabetes. These groups can also help your child learn how to cope with diabetes now and in the future.
Manage Diabetes with Exercise and Diet
Generally speaking, Type II diabetes is the version of this disease that can be managed with diet and exercise. However, for those with Type I, these healthy lifestyle tips may help relieve symptoms and enhance the management of the condition. Here are some tips for managing diabetes with diet and exercise.
The Right Carbs
Carbs, or carbohydrates, have been on the “bad” list lately. But not unlike fat, there are good and bad carbs, especially when it comes to diabetes management. Generally speaking, carbs to avoid might include the following:
Carbs to emphasize might include these foods:
Proteins and Carbs
Combining proteins and carbs at meals and snacks can help prevent blood sugar spikes. Examples include:
Whole grain bread with unsweetened nut butter
Whole-grain crackers with low-fat cheese
Lean turkey breast in a whole wheat pita
Brown rice and beans
“Party mix” made from whole-grain cereal, peanuts, and pretzels
Apple slices with peanut butter
Brown rice and broiled salmon
Whole wheat macaroni and cheese (made with low-fat cheese and skim milk)
While keeping your weight at a healthy level is important for managing your diabetes, eating the right kind of fat has its place. In moderation, these healthy fats can help lower cholesterol and provide other health benefits. Healthy fats can be found in:
Fish (especially salmon and Arctic char)
Olive, safflower, and canola oils
It’s a good idea to avoid saturated fats and trans fats (hydrogenated fats). Saturated fats are fats like butter and shortening that are solid at room temperature. Hydrogenated fats were once liquid fats (sometimes healthy ones) that were artificially solidified using hydrogen. Trans or hydrogenated fats are found in some types of peanut butter and in margarine, and in the ingredient lists of countless packaged foods.
To manage your diabetes, exercise is considered by experts to be essential. Interestingly, strength training has been shown to be especially beneficial to diabetics, producing results that, in some instances, rival medication. Aerobic exercise is also helpful; it gets the heart rate up and burns calories.
The important thing is to exercise at least 30 minutes a day for a minimum of five days a week. This helps keep your weight in check (vital for diabetics and pre-diabetics) and may even reduce stress. Stress has been implicated in the development of diabetes symptoms.