Understanding the basics of diabetes is the first step in gaining control of your health. Let’s look at what causes diabetes, some of the common symptoms, the benefits of healthy living, and what to do if you’ve just been diagnosed.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic disease. Your blood sugar levels are controlled by insulin, a hormone produced by your pancreas. When you eat, food gets broken down and glucose enters your bloodstream. Insulin takes the glucose out of your bloodstream and allows it to enter your cells where it is broken down and turned into energy. If you have diabetes, either you don’t have enough insulin or the insulin you do have doesn’t work to get the glucose out of your blood and into your cells. This is how your blood sugar ends up going higher than it should (hyperglycemia).1
4 main types of diabetes
- With type 1 diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t make insulin at all.
- With type 2 diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin, or the insulin doesn’t work correctly.
- Gestational diabetes is a temporary condition, when a woman’s insulin is less effective during pregnancy.
- Secondary diabetes due to pancreatic damage, endocrine diseases and dosage of glucorticoid.
Common symptoms of diabetes
The onset of type 1 diabetes usually happens fast, and symptoms may be intense. Symptoms of type 2 diabetes are usually mild (or even not there at all), and appear over time. Common symptoms of either type include:2
- Frequent urination
- Excessive thirst
- Increased hunger
- Weight loss
- Lack of interest and concentration
- A tingling sensation or numbness in the hands or feet
- Blurred vision
- Frequent infections
- Slow-healing wounds
- Vomiting and stomach pain, often mistaken as the flu (However, it is very common to get the flu before being diagnosed, as diabetes is an auto-immune disease.)
If you haven’t been diagnosed with diabetes and show any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
How does low blood sugar happen?
Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) generally occurs when your blood sugar level drops below 70 mg/dl (3.9 mmol/L). It happens when there is too much insulin or diabetes medication in your body, if you need to eat, if you are extremely active, or if you drink too much alcohol. Everyone reacts differently to low blood sugar, but common symptoms include:3
- Shakiness, weakness, or chills
- Irritability or confusion
- Dizziness or nausea
- Blurred vision or headaches
- Seizures or unconsciousness
If you have low blood sugar, treat it according to your healthcare provider’s instructions. In general, though, try to eat 15 grams of glucose or carbohydrates, retest your blood sugar after 15 minutes, and if you’re still low, repeat.
Newly diagnosed? Here’s what to do now.
It’s never easy to be handed a diabetes diagnosis. You may wonder, “Why is this happening?” and may fear the unknown. It’s common to blame yourself and worry about what others will think of you. What’s most important is that you acknowledge all of your emotions as they come and go, resolve to deal with them, and understand that you are not alone. The first step in taking control of your health after a diagnosis is making an appointment with your primary healthcare provider (or endocrinologist, or diabetes nurse, etc.), and finding out everything you can about your diabetes. To start, you should find out:
- If you are type 1 or type 2
- How to test your own blood sugar
- How to operate a blood glucose meter
- How to understand your test results
- How to treat your diabetes
- What kind of exercise is right for you
- What changes to make to your diet
- Other health issues you have that affect your diabetes treatment
- Who else you can see for information
Create an entire treatment plan with your doctor, and make a follow-up appointment.
Eating and drinking
Thinking about the food you eat and making healthier choices is one of the most important ways you can control your blood sugar. Counting carbohydrates, eating healthy fats (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, or omega-3), getting enough protein and fiber – these are the keys to a healthy diabetes diet. Don’t forget to factor in your drinks when managing your blood sugar. Water, unsweetened tea or coffee, or low-calorie drinks are best. Avoid fruit juice or sugary sodas (unless you’re treating a bout of low blood sugar). Keep alcoholic drinks to 1 per day for women, 2 for men.
Why testing your own blood sugar is important
The results of your blood sugar level tests tell you how food, exercise, or other factors like stress are affecting your blood glucose. If you test regularly, you’ll begin to see patterns – highs and lows – and will be able to make changes to your daily routine that improve your health over time.
Insulin and diabetes?
Without diabetes: Your pancreas makes insulin > You eat > Food enters your bloodstream > Insulin takes the glucose into your cells > Glucose is broken down and turned into energy.
With diabetes: Your pancreas doesn’t make insulin, or the insulin it makes doesn’t work > You eat > Glucose can’t be turned into energy in your cells > Your blood sugar goes too high.
1 American Diabetes Association. Available at http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/treatment-and-care/blood-glucose-control/hyperglycemia.html Accessed May 22, 2019.
2 WHO. World Health Organization. Diabetes. Available at https://www.who.int/es/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/diabetes Accessed October 2018.
3 International Diabetes Federation. Available at: https://www.idf.org/our-activities/care-prevention/hypoglycemia.html Accesed May 22, 2019.