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A guide to diabetes

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a serious and complex condition that affects roughly one in every 16 people in the UK. If someone has diabetes, their blood glucose (sugar) level is too high. This can be a result of the body either producing not enough or ineffective insulin – which is the hormone needed to help blood sugar enter the cells in your body.

What are the different types of diabetes?

The most common types of diabetes are type 1 and type 2. Although the symptoms displayed are similar, the causes and treatments differ.

Type 1 diabetes is where the body’s immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells, whereas type 2 diabetes (the most common of the two) is where the body doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the cells are unresponsive to insulin.

Some other variations of diabetes have also been discovered, including gestational diabetes – which can develop during pregnancy – along with other, rarer types. Amongst these is type 3c – which develops due to pancreas damage – and Latent Autoimmune Diabetes (LADA) – which appears to be a combination of type 1 and type 2 diabetes, however more medical research is needed to pinpoint the differences.

What causes diabetes?

There isn’t necessarily one direct cause for diabetes – sometimes it can be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Type 2 diabetes has been linked to being overweight or inactive, as well as having a family history of the condition. There’s also evidence that South Asian communities are at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes as they are more likely to store visceral fat around their middle. This can cause insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels.

Diet and exercise can be effective tools for managing diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes, on the other hand, is thought to be caused by an autoimmune reaction, where the body starts to attack itself. This leads to the destruction of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. It’s believed that certain genes make developing type 1 diabetes more likely, however, this outcome isn’t universal. Environmental triggers, such as viruses, can also increase the likelihood of developing type 1 diabetes, whereas diet and lifestyle have no effect.

What are the symptoms of diabetes?

Although there are some similarities between type 1 and type 2 diabetes symptoms, the causes and treatment options differ. Diabetes may go unnoticed in some people, as the symptoms can be mild. Not only this, some of these symptoms of diabetes can overlap with other medical conditions. So, if you experience any of the following, it’s important that you book a doctor’s appointment as soon as you can.

Symptoms of diabetes including:

  • Peeing more frequently, especially at night
  • Experiencing extreme thirst
  • Increased hunger
  • Feeling tired most of the time
  • Losing weight unintentionally
  • Experiencing genital itching or thrush
  • Cuts and wounds take longer to heal
  • Blurry eyesight

How is diabetes diagnosed?

Many people are pre-diabetic. This is where the body’s blood sugar levels are above the normal range, but not so significantly that someone would be diagnosed with diabetes. However, if your blood sugar levels are higher than the normal range, the risk of developing diabetes is increased. With this in mind, early diagnosis and treatment is crucial to prevent your blood sugar levels getting progressively worse.

Long before blood sugar rises, your insulin will spike. High insulin levels is a sign that can precede type 2 diabetes by decades. However, at the moment testing insulin levels is unfortunately too expensive for mass adoption. This highlights even more the importance of maintaining a healthy and balanced diet.

The only way to test for diabetes is to have a blood test, which will reveal your blood’s glucose levels over the previous three months. You should get the results back in a few days, or a few hours if you’ve been taken to hospital with symptoms. If you have diabetes, your doctor will advise you on the next steps. It’s important to note that this test might be unreliable if you have an abnormal haemoglobin, such as in sickle cell or Thalassemia.

Wooden letters spell out diabetes stacked with sugar cubes.

Can diabetes be reversed?

There is increasing evidence that significant weight loss can put type 2 diabetes into remission and sometimes cure it – although there is no guarantee. Research suggests that losing only 5% of your body weight can benefit your health in many ways – you may be put on less medication, have better blood sugar levels, and you may lessen the chance of future weight-related complications. The NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme (NHS DPP) identifies people who may be at risk of developing type 2 diabetes and refers them onto a nine-month, evidence-based lifestyle change programme.

Those living with type 1 and type 2 diabetes can benefit from carb counting (CHO counting), which can help manage blood sugar levels. A good guide is to follow a balanced diet and be mindful that certain foods can cause blood sugar spikes. There is also growing evidence that the order in which we eat what is on our plate can influence blood sugar response. Meals should be combined with fats, protein and snacks if absolutely needed to support blood sugar levels.

If you have type 1 diabetes, you would need to offset the carbs you’ve consumed with mealtime insulin doses. Although there is currently no known cure for type 1 diabetes, scientists are exploring immunotherapy as a treatment, which may help to prevent, stop, and even cure it.

Living with diabetes

Receiving the news that you have diabetes can be overwhelming. However, most people with the diagnosis are able to lead a long, healthy life, providing they have the condition under control. Joint decision-making with your doctor, alongside having access to your medical records, will give you the best chance of managing diabetes. You should also seek support from your friends and family, or join online support forums to exchange knowledge and experiences with others who are also living with diabetes. Not only will you be helping yourself, you’ll be helping others, too.

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Reviewed by:

Anna Keeble – Head of Content

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Picture of Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA

Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA

Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA is Clinical Director at Evergreen Life, and a Medical Expert with more than 42 years’ experience as a GP. Brian supports people in staying as fit and well as possible by having more control over their health and healthcare.