What is diabetes? The science bit…
Diabetes is a condition in which the body is unable to produce or properly use insulin – a hormone required for the conversion of sugar, starches and other types of food into energy.
For good health, the body has to maintain its blood sugar levels (or blood glucose levels) within a very narrow range. This is done by using a combination of insulin and glucagon (another hormone, formed in the pancreas).
Glucagon’s role is to promote the breakdown of glycogen to glucose in the liver, which in turn provides the body’s cells with energy when needed.
When things go wrong
So, diabetes is basically a condition that means the body is unable to properly use the energy that it receives from food.
When everything is functioning as it should, most of the food we eat is broken down into its constituent parts (nutrients), which include glucose. Insulin then helps the glucose to get inside the cells, where it is burned for energy to fuel our bodies.
For people with diabetes, their bodies cannot make enough insulin or they are resistant to the insulin their bodies make. As a result, their blood glucose becomes much higher than is usual or desirable (hyperglycemia).
For example, normal fasting blood sugar levels range between 3.9 and 5.5 mmols/l (70 to 100 mg/dl). In contrast, levels for those who are pre-diabetic or have impaired glucose tolerance will have levels that range between 5.6 and 7.0 mmol/l (101 to 126 mg/dl), while those with full-blown diabetes will have a blood sugar level of more than 7.0 mmol/l (126 mg/dl).
Different types of diabetes
There are two types of diabetes:
Diabetes type 1
Often referred to as juvenile or child-onset diabetes, this type of diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells, and the pancreas is therefore no longer able to produce any insulin.
People with type 1 diabetes therefore need regular insulin delivery, in order to manage their condition. While it is usually first diagnosed in children, teenagers or young adults, it can develop at any age.
Diabetes type 2
Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder, which occurs when the pancreas either doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the body’s cells fail to respond to it (insulin resistance). This, in turn, leads to hyperglycemia.
In the past, this type was referred to as either non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) or adult-onset diabetes, because of its occurrence in people mainly over 40. However, due to (for example) poor diet and widespread obesity, it is becoming more and more common in young adults, teens and children and now accounts for around 90% of all diabetes cases worldwide.
Common signs of diabetes
If you suspect that you might have diabetes, always seek professional medical advice. The signs and symptoms are relatively broad and self-diagnosis is never recommended. It is also important to catch the symptoms as early as possible, to limit damage to the body.
Some of the more common signs include:
- extreme thirst and a dry mouth
- frequent urination
- weight loss
- muscle wastage
- blurred vision
- and skin infections.
However, type 1 and 2 diabetes symptoms can differ slightly. What’s more, they can come on quite quickly with type 1, and develop more slowly (taking years in some cases) with type 2, often making it more difficult to diagnose.
Diabetes is a serious condition, which can play havoc with the systems of the body and have a devastating effect on health if not carefully managed. As well as the symptoms of the condition itself, continuously high blood sugar levels for a prolonged period of time can lead to kidney failure, amputations, blindness, skin problems, heart disease, stroke and neuropathy (nerve damage).
What causes diabetes?
The precise cause or causes of diabetes are not yet fully understood, but both genetic and environmental factors seem to play important roles. For instance, it is now widely accepted that obesity / excess weight, lack of exercise, family history and stress can all increase the risk. The potential causes can also vary, depending on whether it is type 1 or type 2.
Most people who develop type 1 diabetes are otherwise healthy and are not generally overweight or inactive. It’s thought that it is partly inherited and then triggered by certain environmental triggers – most notably infections, with some evidence pointing at the Coxsackie B4 virus.
Type 1 diabetes can also be triggered by an autoimmune disorder, as well as many other factors that affect the pancreas. For example, people have been known to contract this type of diabetes where medical treatment for another problem has resulted in damage to the pancreas as a side-effect. Similarly, type 1 diabetes is thought to develop through a cross-reaction between a protein in milk and beef and a protein in the pancreas.
In contrast, type 2 diabetes is usually associated with one or more of the following factors: diet (too much sugar and/or too many stimulants), older age, obesity, family history, history of gestational diabetes, impaired glucose metabolism, physical inactivity and ethnicity.
People who carry excess weight, especially in their middle section, are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes because the fat in their tissue causes an imbalance of insulin in the body.
Healthy diabetic lifestyle
Unfortunately, diabetes is a lifelong illness, without a known cure. Yet, in many cases it is avoidable through healthy lifestyle choices – particularly in the case of type 2.
Even once diabetes is present, it is possible to mitigate the effects and manage symptoms. For example, healthy weight loss, increased physical activity and a balanced diet may be all that is needed to stop the progression of the disease and even reverse some symptoms.
Diet and lifestyle are therefore key considerations, particularly as all diabetics are at increased risk of certain health issues (mentioned above). It is therefore important to boost your immunity and look after your health on a daily basis.
Sensible steps include:
- eating a well-balanced diet, packed with a broad spectrum of nutrients, including antioxidants, dietary fibre, phyto-chemicals and other cleansing and protective agents
- managing your weight
- taking regular exercise
- reducing alcohol intake
- stopping smoking
- reducing your toxic load
- and alkalising your body
Why is weight management important?
80% of people with diabetes are overweight or have abdominal obesity. This is because fat deposits cause your body to produce excess insulin, in order to properly carry out bodily functions.
Why is exercise important?
Exercise (particularly cardiovascular activity) not only helps to keep blood sugar levels low and weight at a healthy level, it can also help to detoxify your body and enable it to better use the insulin it produces.
Make smart choices
As mentioned above, diet is a key component of a healthy diabetic lifestyle, particularly in terms of keeping weight down, keeping blood sugar levels stable and giving your body the nutrients it needs to function efficiently.
But when we talk about diet, we are not referring to drastic eating plans or “fad diets” – by eliminating a particular food group, for example, you may be missing out on essential nutrients. Instead, simply think about making healthier choices. Variety and moderation are key, as well as opting for fresh, seasonal and organic whole foods wherever possible.
For the average person, keeping blood sugar levels balanced is probably the most important factor in maintaining even energy levels and weight. For a person with diabetes, this becomes infinitely more important.
Many experts now take the view that this is best achieved by eating little and often, choosing foods that contain slow-releasing carbohydrates, along with some protein – plant protein is ideal, because it is lean, high in fibre and usually contains a variety of other nutrients too.