You’ve probably heard of insulin, blood glucose, finger pricks and carb counting. For the diabetic, they’re a part of daily life–but most of us have little understanding as to just how these things play a role in diabetes, or just why this disease can be so deadly.
I say this because diabetes is a complicated group of diseases. I knew very little about diabetes before I began studying to become a Registered Dietitian. At one point I even remember thinking to myself, “High blood sugar doesn’t sound so dangerous.”
Boy, was I wrong.
It’s one thing to understand what causes diabetes and why it’s so deadly, but having to manage diabetes gets even more complex. Once I began speaking with patients in the hospital during my clinical training, I saw just how daunting controlling blood sugar could be. Frequent finger pricks, dosing insulin, remembering to take medications, choosing the right carbohydrates and diligently counting them at each meal isn’t easy–but it’s essential.
With the prevalence of diabetes today, it’s likely you–or someone you know–lives with this disease. Today, diabetes affects 347 million people worldwide, and back in 2007 it was the 7th leading cause of death in the United States. Given the current global obesity epidemic, diabetes has likely only become more deadly since then.
A little knowledge goes a long way, so for World Diabetes Day, here are 25 things you should know about diabetes:
INSULIN, GLUCOSE and BLOOD SUGAR
1. Glucose, a form of sugar, is a main source of energy for muscle cells and other tissues.
2. After a meal, carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars. These sugars are absorbed in the gut and enter into the bloodstream.
3. Certain carbohydrates, like sweets, sodas, white rice and white pasta, are digested and absorbed faster than complex carbohydrates that contain fiber.
4. As blood sugar increases after a meal, the pancreas produces and releases insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin is a hormone that signals cells to take up sugar in your blood. The greater the amount of sugar in the blood stream, the more insulin the pancreas will produce to compensate.
5. Between meals, blood sugar levels return to normal and production of insulin from your pancreas decreases significantly.
WHAT HAPPENS IN DIABETES
6. In diabetes, blood sugar increases after a meal and remains high due to a lack of insulin, or a problem with insulin signaling. The three classic diagnoses of this disease are Type 1, Type 2 and Gestational Diabetes.
7. Type 1 Diabetes occurs when an immune response causes damage to the pancreas and insulin can not be produced. Type 1 Diabetics must take insulin daily.
8. Type 2 Diabetes occurs when tissues in the body become resistant to insulin. Type 2 Diabetes is the most common type, making up about 95% of cases, and is associated with being overweight, poor diet and physical inactivity. The exact cause isn’t known but having excess body fat appears to have something to do with it. To compensate for insulin resistance, the pancreas produces more and more insulin, but over time the pancreas may lose the ability to produce it altogether. If this happens, Type 2 Diabetics must take insulin daily.
9. Gestational diabetes, or diabetes during pregnancy, can occur due to the physiological changes that occur during pregnancy. Gestational diabetes commonly goes away after pregnancy but women with gestational diabetes are at greater risk for developing Type 2 Diabetes later in life.
10. Risk factors for diabetes include: being overweight or obese; having a family history of diabetes; being of African American, American Indian, Asian American, Pacific Islander or Hispanic/Latino heritage; having a prior history of gestational diabetes; having high blood pressure, high cholesterol and/or being physically inactive.
11. If blood sugar is not controlled over time, high amounts of sugar in the blood will damage tiny blood vessels and nerves. The effects of chronic high blood sugar cause widespread damage in the body.
12. Eyes. High levels of sugar in the blood causes damage to the small blood vessels within the retina leading to worsening vision and possibly blindness. In fact, diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults 20–74 years old.
13. Kidneys. High blood sugar damages tiny blood vessels in the kidneys, which decreases this organ’s ability to filter blood. High blood pressure, which is common in diabetes, only increases kidney damage. If kidney function decline is severe, blood must to be filtered by a machine – a process called dialysis. Dialysis is costly, time-consuming, and exhausting for those with kidney disease. One dialysis session takes 4 hours and must be done 3 times per week.
14. Nerves. High blood sugar can lead to nervous system damage leading to impaired sensation in the hands or feet, slowed digestion and other nerve problems. Ulcers may form on the hands or feet and, if left untreated, can lead to amputation. More than 50% of all lower-limb amputations occur in people who have diabetes.
15. Brain & Heart. Diabetics are at greater risk for stroke, dental, and heart disease. Approximately 20% of diabetics will die of stroke, making it a leading cause of death in this population. Adults with diabetes have heart disease death rates about 2 to 4 times higher than adults who don’t have diabetes.
16. Diabetics can safely enjoy carbohydrates and control their blood sugar. Each diabetic’s needs are different, but spikes in blood sugar may be controlled through a combination of medications, insulin injections and/or healthy lifestyle changes–like eating a balanced diet, being mindful of carbohydrate intake and exercising regularly. Because it is a protein, insulin can not be taken orally. If taken by mouth, it would be broken down during digestion. This is why insulin must be administered by injection.
17. Diabetics monitor their blood sugar by taking a small sample of blood using a fingerprick test. Doctors can measure longer-term blood sugar control by looking at A1C, a measure of the amount of sugar on certain proteins in the blood.
18. Improved control of blood sugar has been shown to benefit those with Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes. In general, one percentage point drop in A1C blood test results (for example, going from 8.0% to 7.0%) can reduce the risk of eye, kidney, and nerve diseases by 40%.
19. When it comes to Type 2 Diabetes, lifestyle changes to lose weight (think healthy eating and regular exercise) are more effective in preventing or delaying diabetes than medications. Not surprisingly, making small, healthy lifestyle changes are less costly, too.
20. Type 2 Diabetes may be reversible. Weight loss, regular exercise and adopting healthy eating habits have allowed many Type 2 Diabetics to get off medications completely.
LAST, BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST
21. At one time, Type 2 Diabetes was called Adult Onset Diabetes. This changed because, unfortunately, more and more cases are surfacing in children. In some countries, Type 2 Diabetes accounts for almost half of newly diagnosed cases in children and adolescents. Poor diet, lack of physical activity and childhood obesity are thought to be major contributors.
22. People with diabetes are twice as likely to have depression. This can complicate diabetes management, which requires a high level of self-care. In addition, depression is associated with a 60 percent increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
23. Diabetes is known as the “silent killer” because many people with Type 2 Diabetes are unaware they have it. Unless very high, the effects of elevated blood sugar may go unnoticed.
24. People diagnosed with prediabetes, higher than normal blood sugar but not high enough to be called diabetes, are much more likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes. Progression to diabetes may be avoided through weight loss and increased physical activity, and blood sugar levels may normalize.
25. Losing weight—even as little as 5 to 10 percent of your starting weight—can prevent or delay Type 2 Diabetes or even reverse prediabetes. For a 200 pound person, this is just 10-20 pounds!
I hope you’ve learned something about diabetes today! Feel free to share this post with someone you know who might be able to benefit from these facts. Who knows, you may be able to help them prevent diabetes, or even save their life.
Up next I’ll be sharing some tips for using MyFitnessPal to better manage diabetes. If you have any tips or tricks for using MyFitnessPal to manage diabetes, leave them in the comments below or on Facebook. I’ll be sure to check back and incorporate some of them into the next article!
Elle Penner, M.P.H., R.D., is the Registered Dietitian and Food & Nutrition Editor at MyFitnesssPal, as well as an active runner and food-enthusiast. For more healthy recipes and fitness inspiration, check out her healthy lifestyle blog and connect with her on Pinterest & Twitter.
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