Diabetes affects millions of Americans every year: About 1 in 10¹ have diabetes. While having a genetic predisposition is a risk factor, certain lifestyle factors can also play a major role in contributing to the onset of diabetes, including being overweight. Recognizing the symptoms of diabetes can help you get a diagnosis early and a personalized treatment plan.
Here's what you should know about diabetes before scheduling an appointment with your healthcare provider.
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Diabetes is a chronic condition that occurs when your pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin or when your body can't properly use the insulin it makes. Insulin regulates your blood sugar (glucose), helping it enter your cells from your bloodstream so your body can use it for energy.
When this process doesn’t work correctly, glucose will accumulate in the bloodstream. This causes hyperglycemia, which is when your blood sugar is higher than it should be. It commonly develops due to untreated diabetes, leading to serious complications over time, including damaged blood vessels and nerves.
Type 1 diabetes develops when your immune system attacks the cells in your pancreas, the organ responsible for producing insulin. As a result, not enough insulin can circulate through your blood, causing high blood sugar.
While no one knows what causes the immune system to attack the pancreas, there are certain risk factors, including:
Genetics, such as family history
Environmental factors, such as viral infections or injury to the pancreas
Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body cannot use insulin properly. Insulin resistance is the cause in most cases. You may be more likely to experience insulin resistance if you have one or more of the following risk factors:
Family history: Having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes
Age: Being over the age of 45
Race: More common in Black, Latino, or Native American people
Being overweight or obese
Lack of exercise
Have had gestational diabetes in the past
Gestational diabetes occurs exclusively during pregnancy. Being diagnosed with gestational diabetes means that you didn’t have type 1 or type 2 diabetes before getting pregnant, but you might have been prediabetic. Like type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance also causes gestational diabetes.
Insulin resistance occurs during pregnancy due to hormones released by the placenta, making your body’s cells more resistant to the insulin in your bloodstream. You may be more likely to develop gestational diabetes if you:
Have a family history of diabetes
Are over the age of 25
Have given birth to a baby over 9lbs
Are overweight or obese
Have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Are Black, Asian, Hispanic, Latino, or Native American
Common symptoms of diabetes include:
Being thirstier than normal
Feeling weak or tired
Unintentional weight loss
Wounds that heal slowly
Tingling or numbness in your hands or feet
Dry, itchy skin
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) and yeast infections in women
Decreased libido, muscle weakness, and erectile dysfunction in men
The symptoms of diabetes can vary from person to person. While some people may experience several signs, others may not experience any. Likewise, the type of diabetes you have can affect the symptoms (or lack thereof) you experience.
Type 1 diabetes symptoms can occur very suddenly. In some cases, a viral infection can trigger it. You may experience diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) before diagnosis. DKA occurs when insulin is very low in your blood.
This causes extremely high glucose in the bloodstream but not inside the cells which normally use it for energy. Instead, the body breaks down fat and muscles for energy, causing heavy breathing, vomiting, and fruity-smelling breath. If left untreated, it can lead to confusion, unconsciousness, and even death.
Type 2 diabetes symptoms usually develop slowly over time.
It's rare for a pregnant woman to experience any symptoms of gestational diabetes. Because of this, your healthcare provider will perform a routine blood test to determine if your blood glucose levels are high between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. It’s important to attend all screenings.
The CDC estimates that 37.3 million adults in the United States have diabetes, with 1 in 5 not knowing they have it. Around 5-10% of people with diabetes have type 1, and 90-95% have type 2. Gestational diabetes affects up to 10% of pregnant women who have never had diabetes before.
Foot problems as a result of decreased blood flow to your feet and nerve damage
Dental problems, including gum disease, because of a high amount of sugar in your saliva
Heart disease and stroke caused by damage to the blood vessels
Eye disease caused by damaged nerves and blood vessels in the eyes
Hearing loss due to nerve damage
Nerve problems from damage to your nerves or the small blood vessels delivering nutrients to them
Skin problems caused by poor circulation or infection.
Kidney disease caused by damage to your blood vessels or high blood pressure. In many cases, it coexists with diabetes, particularly type 2.
Sexual and bladder problems caused by reduced blood flow and nerve damage to the genitals and bladder
You can’t modify certain diabetes risk factors, such as age, race, or family history. Nevertheless, some lifestyle modifications can reduce your chances of developing diabetes, even with other genetic factors. These lifestyle changes include:
Eating a healthy diet: Incorporate plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins into your diet while limiting your consumption of fatty, sugary foods.
Exercising regularly: Staying active by walking briskly, swimming, or biking regularly can lower your chances of developing diabetes.
Maintaining a healthy weight: Since diabetes has links to being overweight or obese, it's important to maintain a healthy weight.
Quitting smoking and limiting your alcohol consumption: Smoking and heavy alcohol consumption are associated with a higher incidence of diabetes.
The treatment you receive to manage your diabetes will depend on your condition, medical history, and current lifestyle. Your healthcare provider can create an individualized treatment plan for you. Following this plan will control your blood sugar levels and help you live a healthy life. Diabetes treatment could include:
While there's no specific diet for people with diabetes, it's important to watch your carbohydrate intake. Increase your intake of non-starchy vegetables and lean proteins. Avoid foods with a high glycemic index (GI), such as refined carbs, sweetened foods/drinks, and certain fruits.
Avoid high-fat diets, particularly those high in saturated fats. Pay attention to your portions to reduce spikes in insulin levels. If you are unsure about how to alter your diet, a dietitian can help.
Staying active will help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your blood sugar levels. Your body will need less insulin to move sugar to your cells for energy. Be sure to consult your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.
It's advisable for people with diabetes to check and record their blood sugar levels throughout the day. Follow your healthcare provider's instructions on how and when to check your blood sugar.
Everyone with type 1 diabetes and many with type 2 diabetes need injectable insulin. Ask your doctor about the different insulin options to determine the most appropriate for your needs.
Your doctor may prescribe other oral or injectable medications to stimulate your pancreas to make more insulin or prevent your liver from releasing excess glucose.
If you have type 1 diabetes, you could be a candidate for a pancreas transplant. If successful, you would no longer need to take insulin or other medications.
Regardless of what treatment options your healthcare provider recommends, you must follow their instructions and work closely with them to manage your condition. This is the best way to live a healthy life with diabetes.
Diabetes is a serious condition that occurs when your body doesn't produce enough insulin or process it as it should. It can manifest in several ways, including type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes. Although these conditions involve a high blood glucose level, they each have different risk factors and mechanisms.
While some people may have some mild symptoms of diabetes that can go unnoticed, others could experience extreme thirst, fatigue, unintentional weight loss, frequent urination, dry mouth, and sexual problems. Working closely with your healthcare provider to find a treatment plan that works for you is the best way to overcome these symptoms and live a healthy life with diabetes.
The facts, stats, and impacts of diabetes | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
What is diabetes? | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
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