In simple terms diabetes is the inability of the body to process sugars properly. When we eat or drink our pancreas produces a hormone called insulin. Insulin is released into the blood and helps to regulate the amount of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. Diabetes is a condition where this process does not function correctly. This is due to either:
- No insulin being produced, often called Type 1 diabetes, and requires the sufferer to use insulin injections, or...
- Insulin is produced but the body becomes resistant to it. This renders the insulin ineffective. This is normally called Type 2 diabetes and is rapidly becoming more common.
Latest research shows that 2 in every 100 people have diabetes. Alarmingly half of these people do not even know they have it. Many people have diabetes without being aware of it because someone with diabetes looks no different from anyone else.
Someone can have diabetes for months or even years without realizing they have the condition. The danger is that while diabetes is not immediately life threatening the long term effects of high blood sugar can be damaging to one's health. Uncontrolled diabetes and prolonged high blood sugar levels can, in later life, cause problems to many organs including the kidneys, eyes, nerves and the heart. This may sound grim, however controlling blood sugar by a combination of medicine, diet and exercise will vastly reduce the long term complications.
The simplest way to check if you have diabetes is to arrange a blood sugar check with your doctor. A tiny sample of blood, obtained by pricking a finger is checked using a small electronic tester. A normal blood sugar level is generally between 72 - 126 mg/dl or 4 - 7 mmol/l (1 mmol/l = 18mg/dl). Diabetes is diagnosed when the body is unable to keep the blood sugar level within these limits. The unit of measurement used (mmol/l or mg/dl) will depend on which country you live in.
Diagnosis of diabetes can occur out of the blue during a routine check-up but more often it follows from the sufferer experiencing the "symptoms" of diabetes. These symptoms can be many or few, mild or severe depending on the individual.
The symptoms are:
Nothing at all; No this is not a typo. It is true many people do indeed feel no different and are astonished to discover they have diabetes. However even if you feel fine you must take your diabetes seriously and act on the doctor's advice.
Thirst (polydipsia); This is a very common symptom. Often it seems no matter how much you drink your mouth still feels as dry as Death Valley. The problem is compounded before diabetes is diagnosed by sufferers drinking copious amounts of... sugary drinks! Of course this only increases the blood sugar level and leads to increased thirst.
Increased urination (polyuria); Another very common symptom. Sufferers need to urinate often and pass large volumes each time. In addition this symptom takes no account of time so sleep is constantly disturbed by having to visit the bathroom during the night. It is a mistake to think this is caused by the increased thirst and drinking more. The opposite is true. High sugar levels in the blood spill over into the urine making it syrupy. To counter-act this water is drawn from the body causing dehydration and therefore thirst.
Weight loss; glucose is the form of sugar which is the body's main fuel. Diabetics cannot process this properly so it passes into the urine and out of the body. Less fuel means the body's reserve tissues are broken down to produce energy with a resultant loss in weight.
Other symptoms include constipation, tiredness, lack of energy, tingling or pins and needles in the hands and feet, blurred vision and increased infections.
If you have experienced any of these symptoms it does not necessarily follow that you are diabetic however it might be advisable to visit your doctor to be sure.
If it does transpire that you have diabetes please do not panic. It can come as a shock and it will mean some changes in your life. While (currently) incurable it can be treated so the long term complications are reduced or even eliminated. As a result you may actually increase your health and life expectancy compared to previously when you were taking no care of your body whatsoever. It requires discipline and self-control however there is no reason why anyone with diabetes cannot live a full and perfectly normal life.