What is diabetes mellitus?
The picture to the right is both true and misleading at the same time. The misleading part is that just because you are newly diagnosed with diabetes does not mean you can never eat sugar again. The true part is that you do need to be careful now, because the disease affects how your body processes sugar.
So … what is diabetes, and what does it mean to you? Simply put, the amount of sugar your blood carries is too high. A couple of things may have happened to cause this, but the end result is the same. Your body can no longer maintain a proper balance by itself – if nothing else changes. The good news is that you might be able to control it with diet and exercise. The bad news is that it will be with us both from now on. Until there is a cure, diabetes will not go away on its own.
In addition to answering the question “what is diabetes”, we diabetics also need to understand that the sugar your body uses is different than what you put in your morning coffee. It is called glucose. Why is that important? Because your body turns what it can of the food you eat into glucose, and glucose is what fuels our cells. The problem is, carbohydrates like in breads and vegetables, including starches found in potatoes and corn, or even the sugar you put on your cereal all get converted in the body to glucose. That means most of what we eat (or at least what I like to eat) can cause us a problem. Remember … what is diabetes – high sugar levels in the bloodstream. But if you were just diagnosed with diabetes, this still doesn’t explain why your sugar levels are now out of control. Enter insulin.
Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas. It is needed for cells to actually use the glucose as fuel, or to store excess glucose in the liver and muscle cells as something called glycogen. If your pancreas does not make enough insulin, or the insulin it produces is not as effective as it once was, then blood sugar levels rise. And that is the basic distinction between the type of diabetes you have.
Diabetes comes in two main forms, Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 diabetes is less frequent, but results when a person’s own immune system attacks cells in the pancreas that make insulin. The end result is that little or no insulin is produced and blood sugar levels rise. This can occur at very early ages, so it has also been called juvenile diabetes, or even the more formal, insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM).
Type 2 diabetes accounts for about 95% of the cases. It is different than type 1 in that the pancreas may still produce insulin, but the body itself becomes resistant to it. The end result is that the insulin produced is no longer as effective and blood sugar levels rise. With obesity occurring at younger and younger ages, so too are the number of younger type 2 diabetics. But this form is usually thought of as occurring at middle age or later, so it has also been called adult onset diabetes, or the more formal non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM).
There are two other forms that should be mentioned as well. One is a temporary condition during pregnancy called gestational diabetes. The other has nothing to do with blood sugar levels, but the symptoms of constant urination helped give it the name. It is called diabetes insipidus. More will be provided on each of these later.
Who Gets Diabetes?
An estimated 171 million people worldwide and over 23 million people in the US have diabetes. More are at risk. Not all of us have the same characteristics, but here are some of the more common ones that increase our risk for getting diabetes:
- Lack of exercise
- High caloric diet
It is interesting to note that I had control of three of the above four items, but until diagnosed with diabetes, I didn’t pay attention to them. If you read the “about the author” page, you will see that heredity was certainly a part for me. I do not consider myself to have been obese, but I would be more than happy to go back in time, take care of the exercise and diet part, and see if the disease could have been avoided by it – instead of now controlled by it. So what is diabetes? For me it was not knowing the risks. I hope we can help others see the signs from here.
If more information is needed on what causes diabetes, the what causes diabetes mellitus page should help.
I’m not sure how you felt, but this caught me completely by surprise. Asking the question “what is diabetes” never even occurred to me, and by the time I knew I was in trouble, I felt every single one of these:
Excessive urination – all hours of the day and night.
Thirst – extreme at times.
Excessive fluid intake – it tasted great.
Tired – almost to exhaustion.
Unexplained weight loss – I thought it was great at first.
Blurred vision – this is when I knew I was in trouble.
Let’s look at why each of these happened.
Excessive urination – The body wants balance and when it can’t get it, it responds. When glucose levels get too high the kidneys try to flush it out.
Thirst – This is triggered by excessive urination.
Excessive fluid intake – This follows excessive thirst. From experience, it is not something you can ignore. It can go beyond all reason.
Tired – What is diabetes … high blood sugar. That means glucose isn’t going where it’s needed. Cells aren’t getting fuel on a whole body scale. On top of that, excessive urination interrupts sleep schedules. Uncorrected, fatigue is inevitable. The effect is quite unpleasant.
Unexplained weight loss – Insulin is needed to get glucose from the bloodstream into the brain, organ and tissue cells for fuel. If there is inadequate insulin, or the body rejects what it has, those cells are starving. But the body is incredibly adaptive. It tries to take what it needs from the blood first. If it can’t get it there, it goes to the stored reserves in glycogen. If that doesn’t work, it converts fat, and finally muscle tissue. Weight loss can result. This is more common in type 1 than type 2 diabetes, but I’m living proof that weight loss can occur in type 2 as well.
Blurred vision – The affects of diabetes are wide ranged. Even the fluid in your eyes changes from too much sugar, and that affects the way light is transmitted through the eye itself. If severe enough, it changes where incoming light gets focused on the back of the eye, and that can cause blurred vision. For me the effect was severe.
But what’s interesting about all this … if the blood sugar changes are gradual, symptoms may go completely unnoticed. To put an exclamation point to that, the CDC estimates of the 23 million diabetics in the US, almost 6 million are undiagnosed. Until recently, I was one of those 6 million.
I’m not sure how to put this lightly, so I won’t try. Treatment is not as much an option as a lifestyle for us now. It still isn’t time to panic just yet, especially if you have type 2, but I think you’ll agree “what is diabetes” takes on new meaning for us.
Type 1 diabetics will need insulin, but even at that there are several things you can do to help minimize symptoms, severity and complications. Most type 2 diabetics have several options. These will all be described in more detail on the linked pages, but the following may be available in your lifestyle arsenal.
- Weight loss
- Oral diabetic drugs
- Insulin injections
- (Plus monitoring blood sugar in all the above)
The treatment option I wanted to follow was to ignore it all, eat what I wanted and hope to get better. You’ll notice it isn’t listed above. But once I started telling folks I had diabetes, I was surprised at how many people around me were diabetics as well. You couldn’t tell. They ate greasy, fatty foods in large quantities, didn’t worry about their weight and left it up to the doctor to prescribe the right medication to keep their blood sugar down. “What is diabetes” had no apparent meaning to them. I did not choose that option, and I hope you don’t either. It is a path to problems.
What is diabetes? It was my wake up call. I may have developed type 2 diabetes through heredity anyway, but I’m also sure my body was telling me it could no longer take what I was doing to it.
What is diabetes? It is my new incentive to take care of me. In that light, my goal is to control blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, weight and a host of other things by diet and exercise alone. I may never get to the no pill part, but I will continue to try.
I hope that is your goal as well.