Diabetes is the inability of the body to create or use insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas that enables sugar or glucose, to enter the cells. Diabetes is a serious, chronic metabolic disorder in which the body either does not produce enough insulin or does not respond to the insulin being produced.

The body normally breaks down most of our food into glucose, a sugar that serves as the body’s main source of energy. In order for glucose to move into the cells of the body, it requires the help of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. In healthy individuals, the body usually produces enough insulin to do this, but for people with diabetes, this does not occur. This causes glucose to build up in the blood instead of moving into the cells. Too much glucose in the blood can lead to serious health problems that may damage the blood vessels, nerves, heart, eyes and kidneys. While diabetes can lead to serious complications, it can often be successfully managed through diet, lifestyle modifications or medication.

Types of Diabetes

There are several different forms of diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is sometimes referred to as juvenile diabetes, because it is often diagnosed in children, however it can also affect adults. Type 1 diabetes is the result of an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, disabling the body’s ability to produce insulin.

Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of preventable diabetes and is influenced by age, obesity and family history. Although the pancreas usually produces enough insulin, the body cannot use it effectively and production slowly decreases.

Prediabetes is a condition in which blood glucose levels are high but not high enough to diagnose diabetes. A diagnosis of prediabetes puts the patient at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Prediabetes is often addressed by losing weight and incorporating a daily exercise regimen.

Gestational Diabetes
Gestational diabetes is characterized by high levels of blood sugar during the later stages of pregnancy. While the exact cause is not completely understood, it is suspected that the hormones produced during pregnancy prevent insulin in the mother’s body from working, resulting in insulin resistance and hyperglycemia. Gestational diabetes does not cause birth defects but it can affect the baby’s glucose levels and result in a larger birth weight. Most cases of gestational diabetes resolve at the end of the pregnancy but may increase the risk of developing again in future pregnancies.

Most forms of diabetes can be managed, and with medical treatment or lifestyle modifications, people can live relatively healthy lives.

Symptoms of Diabetes

While type 1 diabetes usually develops during childhood or adolescence, it can also manifest during adulthood. Symptoms of type 1 diabetes may include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Increased thirst
  • Hunger
  • Unusual weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes commonly develop in adulthood and may include the same symptoms as type 1 diabetes as well as:

  • Blurry vision
  • Frequent infections
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
  • Cuts or bruises that heal slowly
  • Recurring skin, mouth, vaginal or bladder infections
  • Some people with type 2 diabetes may not notice any symptoms at all.

Risk Factors of Diabetes

The exact cause of diabetes is not clear, however, there are risk factors for developing diabetes. Risks of developing type 1 diabetes include: the presence of autoantibodies (damaging immune system cells), a family history of diabetes and environmental factors. Risks for developing type 2 diabetes and prediabetes increase as people age and also may include:

  • Being overweight
  • Lack of exercise
  • Family history
  • Being black or a hispanic race
  • History of gestational diabetes
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • High blood pressure
  • Low level of HDL cholesterol
  • Elevated triglycerides

The risks of gestational diabetes include:

  • Being over the age of 25
  • Being overweight prior to pregnancy
  • A family history of diabetes
  • Gestational diabetes in a prior pregnancy
  • Being black or a hispanic race
  • The risk of gestational diabetes increases if a woman is diagnosed with prediabetes prior to pregnancy.

Diagnosis of Diabetes

If symptoms occur and diabetes is suspected, tests may include urine tests and blood tests to measure glucose and blood sugar levels. Tests may include:

  • Random blood sugar test
  • Oral glucose tolerance test
  • Fasting blood sugar test
  • Risks for gestational diabetes are usually evaluated early in pregnancy and blood sugar levels are checked through an initial glucose challenge test.

Treatment of Diabetes

Treatment of diabetes varies depending on the type. Individuals with any type of diabetes benefit from eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight and participating in regular physical activity. Prediabetes may be controlled with healthy lifestyle modifications that can bring blood sugar levels back to normal, therefore lowering the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes
Treatment for type 1 diabetes involves insulin injections or the use of an insulin pump to administer needed insulin to the body. People with type 1 diabetes need insulin therapy to survive. In addition, frequent blood sugar checks, and carbohydrate monitoring are also necessary on a daily basis.

Type 2 Diabetes
In addition to maintaining a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet, treatment of type 2 diabetes also involves blood sugar monitoring, along with diabetes medications, insulin or both. Medication may also be prescribed to to help control blood pressure or cholesterol levels.

Gestational diabetes can often be addressed with maintaining a healthy diet and exercising. The treatment plan may also include monitoring blood sugar levels and in extreme cases, using insulin or oral medications.

Complications of Diabetes

Left untreated, uncontrolled blood sugar levels caused by diabetes may result in serious complications. If not treated properly, diabetes can lead to nerve damage, heart disease, stroke and kidney failure. It can also cause permanent eye, foot, skin and bone damage. A lifelong commitment is necessary to prevent these complications from occurring. It is important for people with diabetes to take an active role in the management of their condition. Adhering to a healthy lifestyle and monitoring blood glucose levels are essential in preventing complications.

Additional Resources
National Institutes of Health
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
U.S. National Library of Medicine

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