Diabetes 101: Causes, Types, Symptoms, Treatment, and More (2023)
Time to read 8 min
Time to read 8 min
According to the American Diabetes Association, 37.3 million adult Americans had diabetes in 2019.
The interesting part is that around 8.5 million of those were undiagnosed. Considering that all you need to do is get some simple blood sugar tests, such statistics become more unacceptable.
Knowing when to seek medical attention is key to getting diagnosed early in the disease and avoiding potential complications.
So, follow along as we walk you through the full diabetes 101, covering causes, symptoms, management, and more.
Diabetes is a longstanding metabolic disease where the body cells can’t efficiently utilize sugar to produce energy.
This leads to high blood sugar levels, also known as hyperglycemia, which in turn affects many organ systems.
Depending on the type of diabetes, the contributing causes to the disease can differ. Here are some of the mechanisms behind the abnormal blood sugar levels associated with diabetes:
Without enough insulin production, the body cells can’t make use of glucose to generate energy.
Abdominal obesity and sedentary lifestyle.
Insulin resistance, which is the body's inability to respond to normal ranges of insulin levels.
A genetic component plays a crucial role in the development of the disease, especially in young adults and teens.
Hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy can contribute to a special type of pregnancy-associated diabetes.
Diabetes goes hand-in-hand with conditions like hemochromatosis, in which the body stores abnormal amounts of iron. This leads to an iron buildup in various tissues, including the pancreas. When left unchecked, iron loads can be toxic and will eventually harm the pancreatic cells and affect insulin production.
A disease like cystic fibrosis involves the production of abnormally thick mucus that poses more challenges for organs to excrete. As you’d imagine, thick mucus building up in the pancreas can be detrimental as it leads to scarring and tissue damage. Insulin-producing cells can take a hit leading to the development of diabetes.
We’re barely scratching the surface here, as there are plenty of causes involved with neonatal diabetes, different endocrine disorders, and more.
Diabetes research is at the forefront of science, especially since the condition touches the lives of so many people. So, you can only expect our understanding of the disease to get better as science advances.
It’s true that different types of diabetes present with elevated blood sugar levels, but the mechanism behind such abnormal blood sugar can be completely different. It’s the key to understanding the differences between the various types of diabetes, as each requires its own management plan.
Once diagnosed, healthcare providers provide a personalized plan to ensure long-term disease control and avoidance of complications. Let’s explore the three main types of diabetes: type 1, type 2 diabetes, and gestational diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes develops when the body's immune system goes rogue and starts attacking the beta cells of the pancreas. Those are the cells responsible for producing insulin: a hormone that facilitates glucose uptake by the body cells.
The reason behind such an autoimmune reaction can be attributed to genetic and environmental factors. It’s believed that viral infections can ramp up the immune system and act as the trigger for autoimmunity.
When it comes to type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance is what comes into play for disease development. Here, insulin levels can be within the normal range, but the main issue lies in how the liver, muscle, and fat cells are not responding to the hormone properly.
Earlier in the disease, the pancreas tends to increase its insulin production to make up for the suboptimal action. However, the pancreatic cells can’t sustain such an extra workload for too long. It comes to a point when the beta cells become exhausted, and insulin production dips down significantly.
Physical inactivity, abdominal obesity, and family history all play a role in the development of type 2 diabetes as well. This shows that the condition is multi-factorial, and we can’t just pinpoint one cause to be responsible for the complex disease mechanism.
Let’s switch gears to gestational diabetes, which is the type of diabetes affecting pregnant women. Here, the condition is highly influenced by hormonal imbalances throughout pregnancy. The placenta produces higher levels of hormones, especially during late pregnancy. Such hormones compete with insulin and cause a degree of insulin resistance.
For the most part, pregnant women are able to produce more insulin to compensate for such an inconvenience.
However, some women are more susceptible to gestational diabetes than others due to genetic and lifestyle variations.
As expected, women with a family history of diabetes and those with abdominal obesity are at higher risk of developing diabetes during pregnancy.
It’s worth noting that gestational diabetes is usually a benign condition, and it completely resolves following childbirth. The mother might have to use oral medications to lower blood sugar levels during pregnancy to prevent complications that might affect the newborn.
Such complications might range from abnormally increased birth weight, with all the associated delivery challenges, to placental insufficiency and decreased access to nutrients leading to nutritional deficiencies in the newborn.
Diabetes presents with common symptoms related to increased blood sugar levels. Furthermore, different types can have specific presentations.
Let’s explore the various symptoms of diabetes so that the next time a family member has such complaints, you can direct them to seek medical attention.
Frequent urination: The kidneys’ answer to managing blood sugar levels is to overdo their job. In an attempt to filter out the excess bloodstream sugar, more urine is produced.
Excessive thirst: The excess blood glucose levels mess up the blood’s osmolarity, which is a measure of the amount of solutes in a solution. This triggers the thirst center in the brain to promote more fluid intake in an effort to restore normal blood properties. Add this to the frequent urination, and you’d begin to see the complete picture and why it makes sense for diabetic patients to be thirsty all the time.
Unexplained weight loss: Due to the fact that the body cells can’t utilize blood glucose properly, the body stores are broken down for energy. So, even if the person appears to eat normally, they still might see unintentional weight loss. This is especially evident in type 1 diabetes.
Tingling and numbness: Diabetes is associated with nerve damage, especially the peripheral ones. Such nerve inflammation, which is also referred to as neuropathy, manifests with tingling in the hands and feet. This can progress to complete loss of sensation. For this reason, diabetic patients are advised to wear footwear as they might injure their feet without even noticing.
Blurred vision: In addition to affecting the eyes' blood vessels, diabetes also causes eye swelling. This results in blurry vision and might require you to change your prescription glasses more often.
If left untreated, diabetes can present with a number of debilitating complications.
Poor blood sugar control and failure to follow the treatment plan can usher in an early emergence of complications.
These can involve the following:
Heart disease: High blood sugar levels are associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes due to damage to the body’s blood vessels. The underlying mechanism involves the deposition of fatty plaques in the vessels impeding normal blood flow. You can read more about it on the UK National Health Institute’s (NHS) website.
Kidney failure: Diabetes is one of the leading causes of associated kidney disease. The minute blood vessels of the kidney are subjected to the same stress and start becoming leaky over time. Such patients are more at risk for renal dialysis and kidney transplantation down the line.
Increased risk of infection: As part of our diabetes 101, we need to highlight how the disease weakens the immune system. This leads to increased susceptibility to infections involving the skin, lungs, and urinary tract.
The care for diabetes involves lifestyle changes in addition to medication. The plan differs drastically depending on which type of diabetes you have.
Though we’re giving you the broad lines of diabetes management in our beginners’ guide, you still need to consult your physician before taking any medications or changing your current treatment plan.
For type 1 diabetes, the treatment involves the following:
Insulin: A lifelong insulin therapy is required, whether through injections or the use of an automated pump.
Blood sugar monitor: Type 1 diabetes patients are prone to hypoglycemia, which is a drop in the blood sugar levels if they receive a larger than intended dose of insulin for their respective meal. This emphasizes the importance of self-monitoring your blood sugar levels to ensure you’re in the clears.
Carbohydrate counting: Since the insulin dosages are adjusted according to the food you consume, you need to keep track of your carbs to calculate your insulin requirements more accurately.
On the other hand, type 2 diabetes care includes the following:
Lifestyle changes: You’d be surprised how much lifestyle modification contributes to the disease control of type 2 diabetes. Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and maintaining a healthy body weight all help improve insulin resistance.
Oral medication: For type 2 diabetes, the treatment strategy is centered around making the most of the already available insulin. So, oral medications can help boost the cells’ insulin sensitivity and stimulate the pancreas to secrete more of the much-needed hormone.
By adopting some healthy habits, you can avoid many of the risk factors associated with diabetes.
Here are some useful tips to nudge you one step further from developing diabetes:
Quit smoking as it raises the risk for type 2 diabetes significantly.
Avoid excessive alcohol intake.
Reducing stressors in your everyday life is key to avoiding diabetes. Stress management techniques like yoga, exercise, and meditation can all help you wind down after a long day at work.
Fit regular exercise into your weekly routine. Shoot for around 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week to maintain the health of your cardiovascular system.
Now that you have a solid base on how diabetes affects different organ systems, we’re confident you can direct the people in your social circles to seek medical attention earlier in the course of the disease.
We hope our diabetes 101 has set you on the right track to lead a more healthy life and avoid long-term complications of the disease.
Remember to schedule regular checkups with your physician to modify the treatment plan and ensure your blood sugar levels are in check!