What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic or long term illness that affects the ability of the body to convert nutrients from food into energy. The food we consume is broken down into glucose - a form of sugar - via various metabolic processes within the body and regulated by hormones. The glucose is released into the bloodstream so that it can be transported to various organs within the body. As the concentration of sugar in the blood rises, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin directs the glucose to the cells where it is used as energy for carrying out various activities.
When there is a reduced amount of insulin within the body, the amount of glucose in the blood will increase. This is the primary cause of diabetes and can cause further problems within the body.
Type 1 diabetes
Also referred to as insulin-dependent or juvenile diabetes, type 1 diabetes is a long term condition that is mainly genetic. It usually involves the immune system affecting cells (beta islet cells in the pancreas) that produce insulin. It shares symptoms similar to those experienced with type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes
This is the most common type of diabetes, occurring when the blood glucose is extremely high. This is because the body does not produce enough insulin, or does not utilise insulin correctly. It is often caused by genetic factors or lifestyle choices, such as being overweight, sedentary, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, or smoking.
This type of diabetes potentially develops in people assigned female at birth (AFAB) during pregnancy, and soon disappears postpartum. Gestational diabetes can lead to high blood sugar levels and can affect the health of the baby. This can be frightening, but it can be controlled effectively by consuming healthy foods, taking prescribed medication, and committing to daily exercise as recommended by the gynaecological clinicians.
A diagnosis of gestational diabetes can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The 3 most common symptoms of undiagnosed diabetes
Increased urination (polyuria)
Polyuria refers to excessive passing of urine which is often caused by high levels of blood glucose. The kidneys are responsible for the filtration of the blood. As a result of diabetes, the kidneys are often under additional pressure to filter out the extra glucose in the blood, leading to more frequent urination.
Increased thirst (polydipsia)
Polydipsia refers to excessive thirst which is often caused by high levels of blood glucose. Since the body produces excess urine, the brain switches on the need to consume more water to replace these fluids. The thirst may persist, no matter the water intake. It is accompanied by exhaustion, weight loss, blurry vision, fatigue, and slow healing with regard to infections or sores.
Increased hunger (polyphagia)
Polyphagia is the medical term for an increased appetite and hunger. It can occur due to excessive physical activity or skipping meals, or more long-term causes such as depression, stress, eating disorders, or diabetes. With diabetes, the level of glucose in the blood is higher than normal. This glucose is unable to be converted to energy due to insulin-related issues that prevent the proper usage of glucose. As a result, there is an energy deficit, which can lead to fatigue and cause the brain to encourage the consumption of more food in order to generate more energy. However, it is important to understand that one cannot get the desired energy levels back when suffering from diabetes by simply consuming more food.
Other early signs and symptoms:
- Extreme fatigue
- Blurred vision
- Numbness in extremities
- Yeast infections
- Darkening of skin
- Unexplained weight loss
- Tingling sensation in the extremities
- Cuts or bruises that are slow in healing
- Ketoacidosis (Presence of ketones in the urine) making the urine smell fruity
- Itchy genitals
How can I test if I have Diabetes?
If you think you are experiencing any of the symptoms of diabetes, you should see a doctor or your local GP. The doctor will then arrange for a blood test. This test measures the level of glucose in the blood to determine the diagnosis..
The HbA1c test is the most common type of test used to determine diabetes. It can even show if you are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, in which case you will be advised to make certain lifestyle changes. Fasting Plasma Glucose (FPG) is another test that may be used and involves fasting for at least eight hours before the test.
Living with Diabetes
A diagnosis of diabetes can be worrying, but it can also be easily managed. The difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes is that type 2 diabetes is often a result of lifestyle factors. Therefore, taking the right steps can help you prevent or manage it. Changing your diet by eating unprocessed foods, fruits, vegetables, and plant-based alternatives can be especially helpful. Daily exercise is a must to maintain circulation and increase the intake of oxygen. It also aids in better usage of glucose in the blood.
Type 1 diabetes usually requires the administration of insulin into the bloodstream, but type 2 diabetes might not need to administer insulin injections. Diabetes needs to be monitored, and that can be done using finger-prick tests or blood glucose home tests.
It is extremely important to stay healthy, active, and mindful of various health-related habits. It is advisable to cut down on alcohol and quit smoking to improve health outcomes and symptoms.
When should I see a Doctor?
Type 1 diabetes is usually experienced early on in life, while type 2 diabetes usually occurs or is diagnosed later on. The following are a range of risk factors, symptoms, and signs to be aware of, especially if you are at risk of developing diabetes:
- Age (45 and older)
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Ethnicity (African American, African Caribbean, American Indian, South Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiin, Pacific Islander)
- High blood pressure
- Mental health disorders (especially depression)
- Previous diagnosis of PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome)
- Past history of heart disease
- History of gestational diabetes
- High levels of cholesterol and fats.
If you are from an ethnicity that is particularly susceptible to diabetes, or if you have any of the above risk factors, you should consult a doctor to get a confirmed diagnosis and then work on developing a plan to manage it.
Diabetes should not be left unchecked. Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to retinal problems (diabetic retinopathy), neuropathy, heart attack, strokes, kidney problems, gum disease, sexual health problems, urinary tract infections, impotence, cancer, and more.
Diabetes is manageable. Millions of people live with diabetes and are able to carry on with their daily activities without any restrictions, provided they follow a set plan after discussion with their doctors. It is also important to have general check-ups with your doctor, in order to keep an eye on your overall health.
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