What is Diabetes?


Image from pixabay by Stanias

Diabetes, or scientifically diabetes mellitus, is one of the top ten causes of death and disability in the world. According to the latest Lancet research, over half a billion people in the world (529 million) currently live with diabetes. Sadly, that figure is predicted to rapidly go up to about 1·31 billion by 2050. So, exactly what is this killer and disabling disease called diabetes?

Diabetes is an enduring health condition that messes up your body’s ability to convert the food you eat into the energy you need for your daily activities. As a result, the blood glucose levels in the body become elevated, triggering diabetes and a range of other health problems.

Generally speaking, your body’s inability to convert food into energy is just the tip of the iceberg. That’s because there are several other issues underlying the glucose imbalance characteristic of diabetes.

Since these issues can vary depending on the type of diabetes, we’ll discuss them later in a section on the types of diabetes. So, let’s focus first on what causes diabetes.

What Causes Diabetes?

The primary cause of diabetes is insulin deficiency and inefficiency. In other words, people with diabetes have insulin production and function issues.

But what is insulin?

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. The core function of the hormone is to help your body convert the sugar sent to your blood from the food you consume into usable energy.

Turning blood sugar into energy is a complex process. 

First, when you eat food, your body breaks it down and converts it into sugar or glucose. The sugar is then released into your bloodstream.

If the sugar in the bloodstream exceeds normal levels, your body signals the pancreas to release insulin. The insulin sends the sugar to your body cells to use it as energy. 

We can simply this process in the diagram below.

If your pancreas can’t produce or release the required amount of insulin to convert blood glucose into energy, the consequence is diabetes. 

Besides, the uncontrolled sugar level in the bloodstream is generally unhealthy and can trigger other serious health problems. We’ll discuss these diabetes-related health problems later in the article.

Before then, it is crucial to know that diabetes does not refer to a single health condition. Instead, the term describes several blood sugar-related conditions that count as types of diabetes.


Types of Diabetes

Although most of us speak of diabetes as a single health condition, the term diabetes refers to a group of health conditions caused by abnormally high glucose levels in the blood (high blood sugar).

The most common type of diabetes are: 

  • Type 1 diabetes (T1D)
  • Type 2 diabetes (T2D)
  • Gestational diabetes


Type 2 Diabetes (T2D)

We start with Type 2 diabetes because it is the most common of the three types of diabetes. In fact, when people talk about diabetes, they often mean T2D. 

According to the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), 96% of all diabetes cases in the world are type 2 diabetes. Also, most of the risk factors for diabetes are associated with T2D. We will discuss the risk factors for diabetes a little later in the article.

The prevalence of type 2 diabetes also explains why our charitable organization, Global Diabetes Initiatives, has a preference focus on T2D. 

Type 2 diabetes is characterized by the body’s inability to utilize insulin properly. Although your pancreas makes insulin, the amount may not be enough to control your blood sugar levels and keep them at the required range.

You will read about normal and abnormal sugar levels in our consecutive blog on diabetes tests. However, it’s important to know that T2D develops over time, and you may not notice the symptoms early enough before complications arise

For this reason, the wise thing to do is to regularly test your blood sugar levels to ensure you are not at risk. Also, ensure a healthy lifestyle by:

  • Keeping a healthy weight.
  • Eating healthy food.
  • Exercising regularly. 

Lastly, until recently, T2D was considered a disease of adults, but today it is more and more common in children. Global Diabetes Initiatives has confirmed this fact through its work with the communities.

Type 1 Diabetes (T1D)

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition in which your body mistakenly attacks and destroys the cells that make insulin in your pancreas. As such, your body has minimal or no insulin to help process and control the sugar levels in your blood. 

Type 1 is a less common type of diabetes than type 2. According to the CDC, only 5-10% of all diabetes cases globally are type 1. 

Also, type 1 diabetes is common among children, teenagers, and young adults in high-income nations. This explains why the disease is sometimes called childhood-onset or juvenile diabetes. Nonetheless, adults can also get type 1 diabetes. 

If you have type 1 diabetes, you need to take insulin on a daily basis to live. Also, unlike T2D, type 1 diabetes symptoms manifest early, usually at the onset of the disease. 


Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes is a gestation-related condition in women who have not shown signs of diabetes prior to pregnancy

Expectant women with gestational diabetes have higher-than-normal blood glucose levels but lower than those recorded in diagnostic diabetes.

Usually, gestational diabetes disappears once the affected woman delivers. However, women with gestational diabetes are at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the future. Besides, according to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), it’s possible to diagnose type 2 diabetes during gestation in someone who did not have the condition before the pregnancy.

Unfortunately, children of mothers who have had gestational diabetes may suffer from obesity and are also at a greater risk of developing T2D later in life. 


Other Types of Diabetes

There are other less common types of diabetes. They include:

  • Monogenic diabetes: Results from abnormal insulin production due to a gene mutation and the consequent impaired development and function of pancreatic cells. 
  • Diabetes Insipidus: Also known as water diabetes, and is characterized by an imbalance in the body fluids. The body does not retain water and produces too much urine. Diabetes Insipidus is generally treatable.
  • Post-pancreas-surgery diabetes: Happens after an operation to remove the pancreas. A pancreas can be removed following health conditions such as pancreatitis or cystic fibrosis.

Although no one consciously chooses to get diabetes, healthy persons can increase or reduce the risk of suffering from the disease through lifestyle choices.

So, which lifestyle choices and other factors put you at risk of diabetes? Read about that in the next section.

Risk Factors for Diabetes

We said earlier that diabetes is caused primarily by pancreas dysfunction that impairs the production and release of insulin.

Nonetheless, it is important to know that there are many factors that put people at risk of getting diabetes. These factors include: 

  • Genetics, or being from a family with a history of diabetes.
  • Being overweight or obese or a sedentary life with little or no exercise.
  • Poor eating habits, like the consumption of refined foods, processed meats, and sugar-sweetened drinks.
  • Diseases of the pancreas, such as pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.
  • Removal of the pancreas.
  • Hormonal diseases, including Acromegaly, Hyperthyroidism, Cushing’s syndrome.
  • Medicines that disrupt insulin function or destroy the beta cells, such as anti-seizure drugs, HIV ARVs, glucocorticoids, Pentamidine, Niacin, psychiatric drugs, etc.
  • Genetic mutations, as with Monogenic diabetes.
  • Hormonal changes during pregnancy, or gestational diabetes.

Warning Signs of Diabetes

While a blood sugar test is the best way to determine whether you have the high glucose levels characteristic of diabetes, there are also several signs and symptoms that can point to being diabetic. 

The signs and symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Consistently feeling thirsty and needing to drink plenty of water.
  • Frequent urination, beyond the usual. 
  • A blurry or foggy vision.
  • Consistently feeling fatigued.
  • Unintentional loss of weight.

With time, diabetes can also trigger serious health problems, as we discuss next. 


Diabetes-Related Health Issues

Apart from the symptoms that show the presence of diabetes, there are also adverse health consequences caused by diabetes.

The fact is, if left uncontrolled, diabetes can compromise other body organs and cause severe health complications.

Health complications that arise from diabetes include:

  • Nerve damage and poor blood flow.
  • Heart disease from a damaged heart and blood vessels.
  • Poor vision and probable vision loss.
  • Chronic kidney disease.
  • Poor oral health.
  • Problems with the feet, sometimes with consequent lower limb amputation.
  • Compromised mental health.
  • Poor hearing.

If unattended, these complications can cause stroke, heart attack, or kidney failure. 

To prevent these complications, the best thing is to adhere to the diabetes management treatment prescribed for you by the doctor. 


Is Diabetes Treatable?

Unfortunately, medical experts have not yet found a cure for diabetes. But that should not sound like a death sentence for anyone with diabetes.

A person with diabetes can live a healthy life by controlling blood sugar levels. In our consecutive blogs, we will tell you in detail how to successfully manage diabetes and keep your body sugar level at the range recommended by your doctor.

However, it is also worth mentioning that although type 2 diabetes is generally progressive and irreversible, current research has focused on diabetes remission. Results show that T2D is reversable with the control of food energy and weight loss. 

You can talk more about the topic with your doctor. Also, look out for our consecutive blogs to learn more about type 2 diabetes remission.


Is Diabetes Preventable?

The preventability of diabetes depends on each type. 

Type 1 diabetes is not preventable. And as earlier indicated, those suffering from T1D must take insulin daily for their entire life.

Type 2 diabetes can often be prevented or delayed by avoiding the risk factors. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 9 of 10 diabetes cases in the US are preventable through lifestyle change.

We mentioned some lifestyle risk factors for diabetes earlier, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat them here. 

So, here are the actions you can take to reduce the probability of getting type 2 diabetes: 

  • Keep your weight under control. Overweight is the number one risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
  • Exercise. Keeping your muscles active improves your body’s ability to use insulin for healthy blood glucose control. 
  • Adjust your diet to healthier options. Whole grains, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, non-sugary drinks, and white meats are great and healthy choices.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption. High alcohol consumption increases your risk for diabetes.
  • Avoid smoking. The nicotine in cigarettes can raise your blood glucose levels.

You can prevent gestational diabetes by keeping a healthy weight and exercising before pregnancy. Trying to lose weight when already pregnant can be harmful to your health and that of the fetus.


Diabetes FAQs

Do you still have questions about diabetes? 

Some of the frequently asked questions below could be among the issues you want answers for.

What is Prediabetes?

Prediabetes is a condition where a person has high blood sugar levels than the recommended but not high enough to be considered as a case of type 2 diabetes. However, a person with prediabetes is at a higher risk of developing T2D. Besides, prediabetic persons are more likely to suffer stroke and heart attack than persons with normal blood sugar levels. Adopting a healthy lifestyle can reverse prediabetes.


Are Older People at a Greater Risk for Diabetes?

Yes. Although you can get type 2 diabetes at any age, the condition is more common among middle age and older persons. The risk factors become more predisposing with age. The 2023 Lancet Burden of Diabetes report indicates that diabetes prevalence is over 20% in the 65-95 age category, while it is less than 1% in youth and children below the age of 20.


Is Diabetes More Prevalent in Some Countries?

Although anyone can develop diabetes irrespective of their country of origin, diabetes prevalence rates vary globally from country to country. The current data suggests that the most diabetic countries are in the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, and South Asia. Also, many diabetes cases in Africa are undiagnosed. 

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