Diabetes can affect anyone, regardless of age, genetics, or medical history. While diabetes is a serious condition that should be closely monitored, living a normal, healthy life with diabetes is possible.
By making healthy lifestyle choices and working closely with your healthcare provider to manage your blood sugar, you can prevent complications from diabetes, including eye disease, foot problems, and kidney failure.
Before scheduling an appointment with your healthcare provider, here's what you should know about the effects that diabetes can have on your body.
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Diabetes is a serious disease that occurs when your blood sugar levels are too high. It develops when your body can't produce or properly use its own insulin. Insulin is a hormone made by your pancreas that helps your cells take in glucose from your food and convert it into energy.
Although the term diabetes refers to conditions that include how your body produces and processes insulin, the types of diabetes are all unique. But, they all result in high blood sugar levels.
The three different types of diabetes include:
This type of diabetes occurs when your body stops making insulin. Insulin is a hormone that your body uses to convert sugar into energy. If you don't have insulin, your cells can't use sugar for energy; instead, the sugar stays in your blood, and your blood sugar level goes up.
Type 1 diabetes is also known as juvenile diabetes because it typically develops during childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood. The only cure for Type 1 diabetes is a pancreas transplant, but it can also be managed with medication and lifestyle changes.
This type of diabetes affects 90-95% of the 37 million Americans who have the disease. It most commonly occurs in adults over the age of 45, although it can develop in other age groups. Type 2 diabetes occurs when your cells don't respond to insulin as they should, also known as insulin resistance.
As a result, your pancreas makes more insulin to try to get your cells to respond appropriately. Over time, your pancreas becomes overworked and your blood sugar increases.
This type of diabetes only occurs in women who are pregnant. Developing gestational diabetes is not an indicator that you had diabetes before becoming pregnant. Gestational diabetes occurs when your body doesn't process insulin as it should during pregnancy.
It's estimated that between 2% and 10% of pregnant women will experience the condition, which will usually go away on its own after giving birth. It's possible to have a normal pregnancy and delivery and protect your and your unborn baby’s health by following the personalized treatment plan given to you by your healthcare provider.
The symptoms of diabetes can vary from person to person, depending on whether they have Type 1 or Type 2, their lifestyle choices, and medical history. Some people may not experience any symptoms at all. Common signs of diabetes include:
Being very thirsty
Losing weight unintentionally
Feeling tired or weak
Sores that heal slowly
Frequent infections, such as skin infections, gum infections, or vaginal infections
If you experience one or more of these symptoms, it's important to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider right away. Getting diagnosed with diabetes sooner rather than later can help you receive the necessary care to prevent other complications from developing and protect your long-term health.
While diabetes cannot be prevented for many individuals, certain risk factors could make you more likely to develop diabetes. These include:
Being over the age of 45
Having a parent or sibling who has diabetes
Having had gestational diabetes in the past
Being overweight or obese
Being African American, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian, Pacific Islander
Not being physically active
Having atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease
Being diagnosed with hypertension
No one knows the exact causes of Type 1, Type 2 diabetes, or gestational diabetes. It's estimated that a combination of genetics and environmental factors can trigger all three conditions.
In most cases, Type 1 diabetes occurs in response to an environmental element, such as a virus that develops in your small intestine or foreign proteins in foods that your digestive tract is unprepared to process, rather than from a genetic component.
On the other hand, being obese is the primary cause of Type 2 and gestational diabetes. When you're overweight or obese, your body has a harder time controlling your blood sugar, which often causes it to produce too much insulin. This leads to Type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
Healthcare providers diagnose diabetes through blood tests. The point of a blood test is to see if your blood sugar levels are normal or too high.
Type 1 diabetes: In most cases, you will be tested for Type 1 diabetes if you experience signs of the condition. This most commonly occurs in children and adolescents.
Type 2 diabetes: Routine testing for Type 2 diabetes should be performed on individuals who are:
Over the age of 45
Between the ages of 19 and 44 who are overweight or who have other diabetes risk factors, such as family history
Have had gestational diabetes in the past
Gestational diabetes: Every pregnant woman should be tested for gestational diabetes during her 24th and 28th week of pregnancy, regardless of whether she's experiencing symptoms or her medical history.
There are many different tests your healthcare provider could use to determine if you have Type 1, Type 2, or gestational diabetes. These include:
Also known as the hemoglobin A1C, HbA1C, glycated hemoglobin, or glycosylated hemoglobin test, A1C is a blood test that averages your blood sugar levels from the past three months. If your healthcare provider uses the A1C test to diagnose you with diabetes, they will also consider factors that could influence your results, such as your age, if you're anemic or other blood conditions you may have.
The A1C test is not a reliable option for individuals with anemia. It's also important to note that A1C tests have been known to have false results for people of Southeast Asian, Mediterranean, and African heritage. The results from your A1C test will be presented as a percentage. The higher the number of the percentage, the higher your average blood sugar levels. You don't have to fast before this test.
This test is used to measure your blood sugar levels at one particular time. To receive the most accurate results possible, it's best to avoid eating or drinking anything besides water for at least eight hours before your test.
If you're pregnant, your healthcare provider will likely give you the glucose challenge test, also known as the glucose screening test, to check if you have gestational diabetes. This will require you to drink a sweet liquid, then have your blood drawn one hour later.
You don't need to fast before this test. If your blood sugar is too high, you'll have to return to perform the oral glucose tolerance test.
This test will measure your blood sugar levels after fasting for at least eight hours (nothing to eat or drink other than water). After this initial blood draw, you'll drink another sweet liquid and have your blood drawn again every two to three hours.
If your blood sugar is high at any two points during these tests, you'll be diagnosed with gestational diabetes. In some cases, the OGTT can also be used to diagnose Type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes is a serious condition that affects millions of people in the US, many of whom don't even know they have it. While diabetes involves your pancreas, it can have a big impact on other systems of your body too. These include your:
Heart: If you develop diabetes, you're also more likely to develop heart disease. Likewise, if you're a woman, you're three times more likely to have a heart attack, while men are twice as likely.
Feet: Diabetes can cause nerve and blood vessel damage, which can lead to problems with your feet. Along with tissue damage and infection, numbness or tingling (also called neuropathy) is common in people with diabetes. Taking care of your feet and having them regularly examined by your doctor is the best way to keep your feet healthy.
Eyes: Diabetics are at a higher risk of developing eye conditions, including bleeding in the eye, glaucoma, and cataracts. This is because diabetes can damage the tiny blood vessels in your retina. Watching your blood sugar levels and having your eyes examined every year can help lower your chances of experiencing a problem with your eyes.
Kidneys: When your blood sugar is high, your kidneys have to work harder than usual to filter your blood. Over time, this can cause your kidneys to fail and need assistance through dialysis or a transplant.
Skin: Diabetes can lead to skin issues caused by damaged blood vessels. In most cases, these skin problems don't itch or cause pain, but they can be noticeable. Keeping your blood sugar under control can help prevent the progression of skin issues.
If left untreated, diabetes can lead to a number of serious, long-term effects, including kidney failure, heart disease, and blindness. While you may not be able to change your genetics, the good news is that certain factors are within your control that can reduce your chances of experiencing serious side effects from your diabetes.
Here are some proactive ways to reduce the effects of diabetes on your body:
Keep your blood sugar under control. Talk to your healthcare provider about what steps to take to control your blood sugar, including how frequently to test your blood, what foods to avoid, and what medications you should be taking.
Maintain a healthy weight; lose weight if you are overweight or obese.
Take medications prescribed by your healthcare provider as directed.
Eat a well-balanced diet. Schedule an appointment with a dietitian if you need assistance creating a healthy meal plan that you can stick with long-term.
Make a plan to quit smoking.
Have your eyes examined every year.
Have your feet examined regularly. Be sure to wear shoes that fit well and pay attention to any sores, blisters, or other injuries that may develop on your feet.
Diabetes is a serious disease that should be carefully monitored and treated with the help of your healthcare provider. If left untreated, Type 1, Type 2, and gestational diabetes can all lead to other health problems, including kidney failure, heart disease, and eye disease. Because of this, taking the necessary steps to keep your blood sugar levels under control is very important.
By checking your blood sugar as directed, taking any medications prescribed by your doctor, eating a well-balanced diet, and exercising regularly, you'll be more likely to prevent long-term diabetes complications and live a healthy life.
What is diabetes? | Diabetes Research Institute
Type 1 diabetes | University of Michigan Health
Type 2 diabetes | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Gestational diabetes | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
What causes diabetes? | NIH
Diabetes and your eyes, heart, nerves, feet, and kidneys | National Kidney Foundation