So what exactly is diabetes? How does it work? And what effects does it have on the body?
Diabetes occurs when a person has high blood sugars for so long, that they eventually cause significant health complications, if not corrected.
Diabetes is a disease of high blood sugar. But why is there sugar in our blood, and how do blood sugar levels get high?
When you eat something, your digestive system takes the carbohydrates from your meal and breaks them down into glucose. Glucose is a sugar that provides energy to every cell in your body. It’s essential for life.
Once glucose is ingested, it enters the bloodstream. The blood transports the glucose to your cells to give them energy.
However, glucose can’t enter the cells by itself. The cells must be unlocked before glucose can enter. That’s where insulin comes in. Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas. It acts like a key, unlocking cell membranes and allowing glucose to enter. Once the glucose enters the cell, it provides energy to keep the cell going. As glucose molecules leave the bloodstream and enter the cells, the blood sugar level goes down.
Your body knows that sometimes you will need glucose, but won’t be around food. That’s why it stores extra glucose in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. When blood sugar levels are low, the glycogen can be converted back to glucose and sent to the cells for energy.
This process repeats itself continually. Healthy bodies are designed to maintain healthy blood sugars. When the blood sugar is high, the pancreas releases insulin to send the sugar into the cells, which lowers the blood sugar. When the blood sugar is low, your body sends hunger signals, hoping you will eat. If food isn’t available, the liver can release glucose into the bloodstream, which raises the blood sugar.
Diabetes occurs when something in this process goes wrong, causing seriously high blood sugars. Let’s examine the most common types of diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas is damaged. This can be caused by a virus or an autoimmune reaction, which occurs when the body accidentally destroys its own cells while trying to protect itself from an infection or foreign substance.
Because the pancreas is damaged, it is no longer able to produce insulin. Without insulin, glucose in the bloodstream has no way of entering the cells. It quickly builds up, causing high blood sugar. This can cause serious health complications if it isn’t addressed quickly. People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin injections for the rest of their lives to control their blood sugars.
Type 1 diabetes accounts for 5 to 10% of all diabetes cases. It’s usually diagnosed in children and young adults.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is a different story. Type 2 diabetics are able to produce insulin, but their cells become resistant to it. They don’t want to allow glucose in, so they make it more and more difficult for insulin to unlock them. This is called insulin resistance. Because the glucose can’t enter the cells, it builds up in the bloodstream, causing high blood sugars. We’ll learn more about insulin resistance in an upcoming session. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes and accounts for about 90% of diabetes cases.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can be diagnosed with the following criteria:
- A fasting blood sugar of 126 or higher.
- A random blood sugar of 200 or higher accompanied by classic diabetic symptoms such as increased hunger and thirst, weight loss, excess urine, etc.
- A blood sugar of 200 or higher, two hours after a glucose tolerance test.
- A Hemoglobin a1c of 6.5 percent or higher
Almost 26 million Americans are diabetic, and at least 79 million are prediabetic. This means that one in three Americans has diabetes or prediabetes. By the year 2020, half of all Americans are predicted to have diabetes or prediabetes.
Just like type 2 diabetes, prediabetes is characterized by insulin resistance and high blood sugars. However, in prediabetes, blood sugars are not yet high enough to meet the diagnostic criteria for type 2 diabetes. But don’t let the name fool you, prediabetes is dangerous. In fact, prediabetes doubles the risk of heart disease whether it progresses to type 2 diabetes or not.
Gestational diabetes is another form or diabetes that can occur during pregnancy, threatening the health of both mother and baby. Latent Autoimmune Diabetes, also known as LADA, shares similarities with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. We’ll discuss this more in an upcoming session.
Let’s review what we’ve learned.
Diabetes is a disease characterized by high blood sugars. Insulin is a hormone that helps regulate blood sugars by unlocking the cells to allow sugar in. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body stops producing insulin. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body becomes resistant to insulin. Prediabetes is essentially an early form of type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes are significantly impacted by lifestyle factors and can usually be reversed. Our course will focus on lifestyle strategies that will prevent, reverse, or improve prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. When I mention the word “diabetes,” unless I clarify that it’s type 1, I will be referring to type 2.
Type 1 diabetes is a chronic disease and cannot be reversed. However, the same healthy habits that improve or reverse type 2 diabetes can also improve outcomes for type 1 diabetics. By making healthy choices, type 1 diabetics can reduce the amount of insulin they need to take and lower their risk for a variety of complications, including heart disease and cancer. So the information in this course is valuable for all diabetics.
But it doesn’t stop there. The same health strategies that fight diabetes also reduce the risk of a variety of other diseases such as cancer, heart disease, hypertension, obesity, autoimmune disease, and many others.
How can this be? Many different diseases begin with similar causes. When we treat our bodies the way they were designed to be treated, we reduce multiple risk factors.
But I want you to get more out of this than just learning how to fight disease. I want you to experience optimal health! The World Health Organization defines health as:
“a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Yes, I want to help you fight diabetes, but I also want to provide you with the tools you need to move toward complete wellness in every area of your life. So keep learning, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.
This was excerpted from our online course, Diabetes Undone, which walks you through the ins and outs of diabetes, and how you can get rid of the disease, once and for all.