If you or someone you care for has diabetes, it's natural to feel like you’re on a rollercoaster of emotions—fear, anger, guilt, curiosity. You might ask, How will this impact the rest of my life? Should I have seen it coming? Did I do anything to contribute to it? What can I do now to promote a long, healthy life? Luckily, there are many steps you can take right now to lower the risk for diabetes-related health problems.
By getting the correct treatment and making certain lifestyle changes, many people with diabetes prevent or delay the onset of serious complications, such as heart disease or stroke. The actions you take to alter eating habits, lifestyle, and your activity level can have long-lasting positive effects on all of your lives when shared with family and friends.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a complex group of diseases with various causes. Very simply, diabetes is a problem within the body that causes blood glucose levels to rise higher than normal. Glucose is a form of sugar that enters the bloodstream. High blood glucose is also called hyperglycemia.
Another way to think of diabetes is as a metabolism disorder—the way the body uses digested food for energy is faulty. The digestive tract breaks down carbohydrates (sugars and starches found in many foods) into glucose. With the help of the hormone insulin, cells throughout the body absorb glucose and use it for energy. Diabetes develops when the body doesn’t make enough insulin, or is not able to use insulin effectively, or both.
There are three main types of diabetes—genetics play a role in all three:
- Type 1 diabetes. This is usually diagnosed in children and young adults. Type 1 diabetes accounts for only 5% of diabetes cases. The pancreas doesn’t produce insulin, so glucose is unable to enter the cell and stays in the bloodstream. Type 1 diabetes requires a lifetime of treatment, which can usually be managed even by young children with some help.
- Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 is the most common form of this condition, affecting 95% of those with diabetes. If you have Type 2 diabetes, your body does not use insulin properly. This is called insulin resistance, when receptors become desensitized to insulin. At first, your pancreas makes extra insulin to make up for it. But over time, it isn't able to keep up and can't make enough insulin to keep your blood glucose at normal levels.
- Gestational diabetes. During pregnancy, many women develop gestational diabetes around week 24. Hormone changes due to pregnancy may cause cells in the mother’s body to use insulin less effectively. Some level of insulin resistance during late pregnancy is normal. However, with an increased need for insulin many women develop gestational diabetes. It's important for women to follow doctors' directions regarding blood glucose levels while planning for and during pregnancy, so both mom and baby remain healthy.
- Non-diabetic.Insulin attaches to insulin receptors, allowing glucose to enter the cell and be used as energy.
- Diabetes type 1. The pancreas does not produce insulin. Glucose is unable to enter the cell and remains in the bloodstream.
- Diabetes type 2. Receptors become desensitized to insulin. Glucose is unable to enter the cell and remains in the bloodstream.
Having diabetes puts you at greater risk for serious health issues, such as heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, blindness, dental disease, and amputations (due to circulation issues). People with diabetes are more than twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke. The best way to take care of your health is to work with your healthcare team to keep your blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels within your optimal range. Making changes now to manage diabetes also can prevent serious problems with your blood vessels, heart, nerves, kidneys, mouth, eyes, and feet.
Do you know what to look for?
Learn the early warning signs of diabetes from the American Diabetes Association. Early detection and treatment can decrease the risk of developing the complications.
Common Diabetes Symptoms
Diabetes can affect every part of the body. If you have any of these symptoms, don’t wait to get them checked out by a doctor. Early detection and treatment can decrease the risk of developing complications from diabetes.
- Skin problems. Problems with the skin (dry, itchy patches, boils, infections that don’t heal, inflammation, infections around the nails) can be one of the first signs of diabetes. Fortunately, most skin conditions are easily prevented or treated if they are addressed early.
- Frequent urination and feeling thirstier. Urinating 4-7 times within 24 hours is average for most people. Our bodies reabsorb glucose as it passes through our kidneys. But with diabetes, blood sugar goes up and your body may have trouble bringing it all back in. In an effort to rid itself, it produces more urine, which requires liquid. The more you drink, the more you pee. The more you pee, the more you’ll need to drink.
- Feeling very hungry and tired. The food you eat is converted into glucose by your body. Your cells use this glucose for energy. Since your cells need insulin to bring the glucose in, if your body doesn’t make enough (or any) insulin, the glucose can't get into the cells—and you have no energy. This can make you feel both fatigued and famished—even after a meal.
- Blurred vision. High blood sugar causes the lens of the eye to swell, which changes your ability to focus and see normally.
- Cuts and bruises that are slow to heal. Prolonged high blood sugar can affect blood flow. This may cause nerve damage that makes it difficult for your body to heal wounds.
- Tingling, pain, or numbness in hands, feet, or legs. This is another sign of nerve damage brought on by Type 2 diabetes.
- Dry mouth and itchy skin. Frequent urination can lead to dehydration, cotton mouth, and itchy skin. While dryness isn’t uncommon from time to time, people with diabetes may be more susceptible to it.
If you are the one with diabetes…
- Work with your doctor. A lot of people avoid going to the doctor because they dread what they might find out. When you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, you need to keep up with your medical care so your condition doesn’t become more serious. Your doctor is your friend—don’t avoid her.
- Put your curiosity to work. Learn as much as possible about the foods you should eat, what exercises are best, and how diabetes might affect you and your family now and later.
- Find supportive friends. There are many online and in-person diabetes support groups and forums for you and others dealing with the condition. Learning from your peers and just having a community that understands what you’re dealing with can make coping with it a whole lot easier.
- Eat right. Carbohydrate foods like breads, cereals, rice, pasta, fruits, milk, and desserts can raise your glucose levels. One easy rule to follow when preparing a meal is to make sure you fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables (colorful steamed vegetables or a giant salad, perhaps?), one quarter with grains (brown rice, seedy bread anyone?), and the other quarter with lean protein (like fish or poultry).
- Lose weight. Eating healthy foods and exercising regularly can improve blood glucose control. If you’re overweight, start with a goal of shedding just 5% of your weight at first. This decrease can help make your body use insulin better and you’ll most likely feel more energetic, too. Once you’ve reached that goal, reassess where you need to be weight-wise and keep going!
- Communicate directly. Let your friends and family members know what you need and how they can support you in making the best possible decisions to manage your health.
- Look for the silver lining. Having diabetes is not a cause for celebration, but some people describe their diagnoses as a wake-up call. The long-term consequences of unmanaged diabetes can be serious, so take advantage of each new day as an opportunity to be a better you. Team up with friends to rate all the salad bars in town and walk explore new neighborhoods for dog walking.
- The symptoms and progression of diabetes can differ widely from person to person. A home care professional can assist with meal planning, food preparation, initiating new activities, connecting you with others living with diabetes, and exercising safely. The main benefit of home care is enabling a person with diabetes to continue to live independently at home with the help of a compassionate, trained professional.
If you are caring for someone with diabetes...
When someone you love is diagnosed with diabetes, you can play a large part in developing and sticking to a lifelong management plan, which will be necessary for their well-being. Though diabetes is common, every individual needs specialized care. Your role can vary depending on your relationship with the diabetic person, their lifestyle, and how the condition is affecting them.
- Learn all you can. The first step in caring for someone with diabetes is to educate yourself about the condition. You can find many helpful sources of expert information online. Also, you should seek guidance from a clinician who focuses on healthcare for diabetes.
- Make changes together. Adopting a healthier routine together is one of the most supportive ways you can help your loved one deal with diabetes. Don’t dish up a huge bowl of cookie dough ice cream for yourself when you’re sitting down to watch TV together. Do attend a healthy cooking class together.
- Get familiar with diabetic supplies. Depending on treatment, you may need to learn where to buy diabetic supplies and how to properly use and store them. Be ready to learn how to take a finger-prick blood sample and use a glucose monitor if the person you’re caring for needs help with those tasks.
- Talk it out. Communicating with each other, family members, and experts can help you know what your loved one wants help with and what they prefer managing on their own.
- Support oral health and hygiene. People with diabetes are at higher risk for gum problems due to poor blood glucose control. Encourage brushing and flossing after every meal to keep a healthy smile.
- Roughly 25.9% of seniors over the age of 65 have diabetes.
- 1.4 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes every year.
- Nationally, 29.1 million people or 9.3% of the population have diabetes. Of those, 8.1 million people (27.8% of people with diabetes) are undiagnosed.
- More than 1 out of 3 American adults currently have prediabetes.
- 9 out of 10 people with prediabetes don’t know they have it.
Sources: American Diabetes Association and CDC.
This information is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for the advice of a medical professional.
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