Diabetes Resource Center

What is diabetes? It is a disorder where your body doesn't produce enough insulin, or doesn't use the insulin effectively. Why is this a problem, and what causes it?

When you eat, most of your food is converted into a type of sugar called glucose. This is the energy you need to keep you going. However, you need something to transport these glucose molecules, and this is what insulin does. It is a hormone produced by your pancreas and it allows your cells and organs to absorb glucose. With diabetes, this no longer happens effectively - either your pancreas no longer produces enough insulin, or your body no longer uses it effectively (called insulin resistance.)

The sugar, left unused, builds up in your blood (called hyperglycemia) and eventually passes through your urine. Over time though, the high levels of sugar will actually coat your red blood cells, making them sticky and gummy. This impedes the circulation, damaging the walls of your blood vessels and causing cholesterol build-up.

Over many years, this will cause increasing complications to all your organs, such as kidney failure, blindness, heart attack and stroke. This is why you need to constantly check your glucose levels when you have diabetes, and get regular check-ups if you don't.

There are three types of diabetes:

Type 1: Your body doesn't produce insulin at all. This usually occurs in childhood or early-adulthood.

Type 2: Your body produces less and less insulin, and/or your cells and organs don't respond as well to it.

Gestational: During pregnancy, your body is overloaded with glucose, and you can't produce enough insulin to transport all of it. It usually disappears after you give birth, but in the meantime complications could develop, and you are more at risk of diabetes when you are older.

Warning Signs Of Diabetes

Because it is a slowly progressing disease, most people have no symptoms, or symptoms are so commonplace and unrelated to one another that people may ignore it. Here are some of the main warning signs:

Frequent trips to the bathroom and thirst - If insulin is ineffective, your kidneys, unable to absorb the glucose in your blood, will dilute the sugar with water from your body. This causes frequent urination (as much as once per hour ... and yes, it will smell sweet due to the high sugar content). And since the kidneys are drawing on a lot of water, you get thirsty more easily.

Greater hunger and weight gain - Since your body's cells can't properly absorb glucose, they begin to starve, making you starve. You will be driven to eat more, which not only results in weight gain but builds up even more sugar in your blood. It's a vicious cycle.

Weight loss - This is mainly a symptom of Type 1 Diabetes. Since your cells no longer receive the glucose they need, they will turn to alternate energy sources - your muscle and stored fat deposits.

Increased fatigue and irritability - Since your body isn't receiving the energy you need, you will often feel much more tired, fatigued and irritable.

Reduced ability to heal and more infections - High sugar levels in the blood impede the healing processes. This also leads to greater infections as your body can not fight back properly.

Fatty liver disease - There is increasing evidence linking a fatty liver to diabetes ... since the liver is vital to the regulation of glucose levels, it is now thought that an unhealthy liver contributes to insulin problems and resistance. More research is needed on this.

Blurred vision - High glucose levels damage all the blood vessels in your body ... this means the capillaries in your eyes will weaken and become leaky.

Causes of Diabetes

Simply put, Type 2 diabetes is seen as a "Western" disease - that is, a high-fat, high-sugar diet and lack of exercise. Developing countries are seeing a corresponding rise of diabetes. In United States, over 8% of the population are diabetic, and a further 25% (that's close to 80 million people) are "pre-diabetic" (meaning that they have elevated blood sugar levels but are not yet at dangerous levels.) It is the 7th leading cause of death.

Risk factors for Type 2 include bad diet, little to no exercise, age (it is not known whether older people get diabetes because of years of bad habits, or some other cause), and a family history of diabetes. Not all obese people will get diabetes.

The causes of Type 1 diabetes are not as well known. As this is more of an autoimmune disorder, genetics and possible environmental factors could be causes.

For gestational diabetes, there is a correlation between pregnant women already overweight.

One study also points out that a mere one can of soda pop a day increases your chances of diabetes by a whopping 25%! Keep in mind, though, that those who drink soda pop likely also eat a poor diet high in sugar.

Diabetes Management and Prevention

If you are among the 25% of the population who is pre-diabetic, prevention is key - eat a balanced meal, lower your sugar intake, and increase your fiber. Swap soda pop for milk, water or carbonated water mixed with a bit of juice. Replace white bread with whole-grain. Eat lean meats and more fish. Create a routine that includes daily exercise, even if it just a half hour walk ... all these things will drastically cut your risk, not only for diabetes, but for a slew of other diseases.

If you already have diabetes, management is key. Start with lifestyle changes as expressed above. Reducing body fat will go a long way to reducing symptoms and, in some cases, even reducing the disease (though you will always be susceptible to it.)

Work with your health care provider to learn how to self-monitor your blood glucose levels. A balance of good diet, exercise and monitoring are the three keys to management.

If you have Type 1, you will always need insulin shots, as your body can no longer produce any. If you have Type 2, you may need to take special medication and/or oral insulin pills. In both cases, you will need regular check ups to monitor areas of your body most vulnerable to diabetes - your feet, kidneys and eyes.

If you have diabetes and you follow strict monitoring to keep blood glucose levels low and change your lifestyle, it is a disease that is manageable and won't progress. It can be done, and millions of sufferers are successfully living with it.