Diabetes: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatments
Diabetes is a chronic health condition that affects your body’s metabolism. It is expected that by 2030, more than 500 million people worldwide will be diagnosed with diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is the most common cause of blindness, hemodialysis and limb disease. In addition, diabetes is also responsible for cardiovascular issues such as heart attack and stroke, which are among the leading causes of death nowadays.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes occurs when your blood sugar (glucose) becomes uncontrollable. When you have diabetes, your body loses the ability to use/ produce insulin. If such a thing happens, the amount of blood sugar will increase, which over time causes serious health issues such as heart disease, kidney disease, and vision loss.
Types of Diabetes
Diabetes is classified into 3 main categories: Type 1, Type 2, and Gestational diabetes.
- Type 1 diabetes occurs when your immune system accidentally attacks the pancreas’ insulin-producing beta cells. As a result, your body stops producing insulin, which leads to an increase in blood sugar level. The symptoms often develop quickly and are often found in children, teens, and young adults. As of now, scientists have not yet identified the causes of Type 1 diabetes. It is speculated that this condition is caused by genes and environmental factors.
- Type 2 diabetes – or non-insulin-dependent diabetes (NIDDM) – is more common and accounts for 90-95% of diabetes cases. It is mostly found in adults. However, due to the increasing rate of obesity, more and more children, teens, and young adults are diagnosed with this condition. The symptoms may not be visible enough for you to notice, so regular check-ups are required for early diagnosis. When you have Type 2 diabetes, your body develops a resistance to insulin, which results in an accumulation of sugar in the blood.
- Gestational diabetes is a condition only found in pregnant women. It may subject them and their babies to a higher risk of health problems. For women who are diagnosed with this disease, they are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes later in life. The same thing happens to their kids too.
Most of the food we consume is broken into sugar (glucose), which acts as a source of energy for the body. Glucose is stored in the liver in the form of glycogen. In case your blood sugar level gets too low, your liver will break down glycogen molecules into glucose and supply it to the body’s cells. This prompts the pancreas to release insulin, which enables glucose absorption by your body’s cells and reverts the blood sugar level to normal.
Any abnormality that occurs during this metabolism may prevent glucose to enter the cells. As a result, glucose remains in the blood. Over time, there will be an increase in blood sugar level, which is called hyperglycemia.
Type 1 Diabetes
The exact cause of Type 1 diabetes is unknown. According to experts, the condition may be a result of the immune system attacking and destroying your insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This prevents your body from producing insulin, which then results in an accumulation of sugar in the blood.
Type 1 diabetes is often associated with genetic and environmental factors.
Type 2 Diabetes
When you have Type 2 Diabetes, your body develops resistance to insulin, which makes glucose accumulates in the blood instead of entering the body cells. Many believe that genetic and environmental factors play the leading role in the development of this condition. On the other hand, extra weight is also common in those with Type 2 Diabetes.
During pregnancy, the placenta produces hormones that make cells more resistant to insulin. Normally, the pancreas responds by producing enough insulin to overcome this resistance. However, sometimes the amount of insulin is not sufficient, which leads to an increase in blood sugar level.
The symptoms of diabetes include:
- Increased thirst;
- Frequent urination.;
- Unexplained weight loss;
- Nausea or vomiting;
- Blurred vision;
- Frequent vaginal infections (for female);
- Yeast infection or candidiasis;
- Dry mouth;
- Slow healing of sores or cuts;
- Skin irritation, especially in the groin or vaginal area.
While the symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes often develop quickly, those of Type 2 Diabetes may develop over years without you noticing.
Diabetic complications include:
- Heart diseases. Diabetes significantly increases the risk of other cardiovascular problems, including coronary artery disease, chest pain, heart attack, stroke and arterial stenosis (atherosclerosis).
- Neurological damage (neuropathy). Extra sugar levels can damage small blood vessel walls (capillaries) that nourish the nerves, especially in the legs. This can cause itching, numbness, burning or pain that usually starts at the tips of your toes or fingers, and then gradually spreads upward. If left untreated, you may lose your complete sensation in the affected limb. Damage to digestive nerves can cause problems such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation. For men, it can result in erectile dysfunction.
- Kidney disease. Kidneys contain millions of small blood vessels (platelets) to filter waste from your blood. Diabetes can damage this delicate filtration system. Severe kidney damage may lead to irreversible kidney failure or end-stage renal disease, which will then require dialysis or kidney transplantation.
- Eye damage (retinopathy). Diabetes can damage the blood vessels of the retina (diabetic retinopathy), potentially causing blindness. It may also increase the risk of other serious vision conditions, such as cataracts and glaucoma.
- Skin problems. Patients are more susceptible to skin problems, including bacterial and fungal infections.
- Deafness. Hearing problems are more common in people with diabetes.
- Alzheimer. Type 2 diabetes may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The less control you have over your blood sugar level, the greater your risk of diabetes complications.
Gestational Diabetes Complications
Most women with gestational diabetes give birth to healthy babies. However, untreated or uncontrolled blood sugar can cause problems for you and your baby.
For the baby:
- Overgrowth. The excess sugar in the mother’s body can pass through the placenta, causing the baby’s pancreas to produce more insulin. This may result in overgrowth and require a C-section.
- Low blood sugar. Sometimes, the baby will have low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) right after birth because of their high insulin production. However, breastfeeding and glucose injection may provide a remedy to this problem.
- Higher risk of Type 2 Diabetes. The infant is at higher risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes when they grow up.
- Death. Untreated gestational diabetes can lead to the baby’s death before or after birth.
For the mother:
- Preeclampsia. This condition is characterized by high blood pressure, excess protein in the urine, swelling in the legs and feet. Pre-eclampsia may cause serious or even life-threatening complications for both the mother and the child.
- Gestational diabetes at the next pregnancy. Once you have gestational diabetes in one pregnancy, you are more likely to suffer from that condition again during your next pregnancy.
Diagnosis & Treatment
Patients need to undergo blood sugar tests to verify if they have diabetes, and what type it is. These procedures include:
- A1C Test. The doctor will measure your average blood sugar level over the past 2-3 months.
- Fasting Blood Sugar Test. You will take this test after an overnight fast.
- Glucose Tolerance Test. You will have your blood sugar measured before and after drinking a liquid containing glucose.
- Random Blood Sugar Test. Patients can take this test at any time without the need to fast first.
For Type 1 Diabetes:
Insulin injection is the mandatory treatment method in order to promote glucose absorption. Those who suffer from this condition must receive supplementary insulin at different points during the day.
For Type 2 Diabetes:
In this case, additional insulin is not as necessary. Instead, the most important thing is that patients make changes to their lifestyle. Aside from a balanced, low-sugar diet, they must commit themselves to regular exercise to burn the excess glucose and increase their muscle sensitivity to insulin.
On the other hand, there are also medical treatments that deal with the regulation of blood sugar. These include:
- Bariatric surgery (weight loss surgery): The purpose of this procedure is to help diabetes patients re-balance their blood glucose level.
- Artificial pancreas: This plays the role of measuring blood sugar levels every five minutes and automatically administering appropriate doses of insulin and glucagon.
- Pancreatic islet transplantation: Islets from a donated pancreas are used to replace deceased islets in a patient with Type 1 diabetes.
- Stem cell therapy: Although new, the treatment is proven to have great potential in treating diabetes. After being transplanted into the patient’s body, stem cells will replace damaged cells in the pancreas, hence promoting insulin production and glucose absorption.
For people with diabetes, limited consumption of foods that contain a high amount of fat and sugar is essential. These include:
- Sweets: cakes, candy, carbonated soft drinks, artificial sweets, etc;
- Foods high in saturated fat & cholesterol: fatty meat, animal organs, chicken egg yolks, cheese, dairy;
- Dry fruits;
- Alcohol, beer and alcoholic beverages.
The foods they can eat include:
- Low sugar fruits: apple, grapefruit, guava, citrus, …;
- Lean meat, especially beef;
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Accessed on June 18, 2019
Causes of Diabetes. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/Diabetes/causes-diabetes/Pages/index.aspx. Accessed on June 18, 2019
Diabetes. U.S. National Library of Medicine. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001214.htm.
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