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Diabetes for Dummies: Symptoms, Causes, and Complications
Diabetes

Diabetes for Dummies: Symptoms, Causes, and Complications

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Written by Edibel Quintero, RD | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD check
Published on October 25, 2022
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8 min

Diabetes is a chronic health condition that can cause heart disease, kidney failure, or high blood pressure if not managed properly. It occurs when the pancreas can no longer make insulin or when the body doesn’t make good use of the insulin it produces. Although diabetes cannot be cured, there are ways to keep it under control.

diabetes for dummies (what is diabetes)
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Diabetes is a chronic disease when the pancreas cannot make insulin or the body doesn’t use the insulin it produces well. 

But what is insulin, and why do our bodies need it?

Insulin is an essential hormone produced by the pancreas that enables the blood glucose we receive from eating food to pass from our bloodstream into the insulin-producing cells to create energy. Foods are broken down into glucose in the blood, with insulin helping glucose get inside the cells. 

If we cannot produce insulin or put it to good use, then blood glucose levels will get too high, leading to hyperglycemia. Over time, high glucose levels can harm the body and lead to organ and tissue failure. 

This article will analyze the types of diabetes and its symptoms, causes, and complications. It will also provide advice on how to battle it, such as focusing on blood glucose management or even preventing it.

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic condition affecting how the body turns food into energy.

The human body breaks down the greater part of the food we eat, turning it into blood glucose and releasing it into our bloodstream. When the sugar increases, it signals the pancreas to secrete insulin, which is responsible for letting the sugar enter the cells to be used as energy.

When you have diabetes, it means your body doesn’t produce enough insulin, and if it does, it doesn’t use it well. When insulin levels are low, or the body cells do not respond to insulin, large amounts of blood sugar stay in the bloodstream. If this continues for a long time, health complications, like kidney failure, heart disease, or vision loss, can arise.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for diabetes. However, following a healthy diet, doing regular exercise (especially cardio), and maintaining a healthy weight can help. Taking prescribed medicine, having regular health check-ups, and getting proper diabetes support and self-management education are a must, too.

 Symptoms of Diabetes

Diabetes is associated with your glucose levels (how high they are). For example, there’s a chance that people with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes barely experience any symptoms. Meanwhile, type 1 diabetes symptoms usually develop quickly and severely.

The following are the basic symptoms of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes:

  • Frequent urination
  • Constant feeling of thirst
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Feeling weak and tired
  • Ketones in your urine. Ketones are considered a byproduct of muscle breakdown and fat. When that happens, it means the available insulin in the cells is not enough.
  • Blurry vision
  • Slow-healing sores and wounds
  • Feeling irritable
  • Frequent infections, such as skin, gum, or vaginal infections

When to Visit the Doctor

If you observe possible prediabetes or diabetes symptoms, promptly reach out to your doctor or healthcare provider. As with all diseases, the earlier you diagnose the condition, the sooner you can begin the treatment.

If you do get diagnosed, make sure you go for regular doctor visits to get your blood tested and to receive proper management of your condition. 

Diabetes Complications

Short- or long-term diabetes complications develop slowly and gradually. In fact, the longer you have diabetes and don’t manage your blood sugar levels, the greater the risk of complications. Sometimes, diabetes complications like digestive and kidney diseases can be life-threatening. Complications can include the following:

  • Cardiovascular disease. One of the major health problems diabetes causes is an increased risk for heart disease. From the narrowing of arteries (atherosclerosis) to an increased risk of heart attack – diabetes should be treated the soonest. 
  • Vision loss (retinopathy). Diabetes damages the blood vessels of our eyes, potentially leading to blindness. 
  • Kidney failure (nephropathy). The kidneys hold tiny blood vessel clusters that filter waste from our blood. Since diabetes is a blood condition, it can damage our filtering system.
  • Nerve damage (neuropathy). High sugar levels injure the walls of blood vessels that sustain the nerves, particularly the nerves of the legs. Also, nerves responsible for digestion affected by diabetes can lead to problems like vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, or constipation. For men, diabetes can lead to erectile dysfunction.
  • Foot damage. Diabetes causes nerve damage in the feet and blood flow. It also increases the risk of other foot complications. Long-term mismanagement of the condition can sometimes lead to limb amputation.
  • Mouth and skin conditions. Since diabetes leaves you more prone to skin diseases, it may lead to fungal or bacterial infections. 
  • Depression. It’s common for people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes to experience depression symptoms
  • Alzheimer’s. Type 2 diabetes can increase dementia risk, as well as the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. 

Types of Diabetes

There are four main types of diabetes:

  • Prediabetes
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy)

Prediabetes 

Over 96 million adults (1 in 3) are diagnosed with prediabetes in the United States only, with 8 in 10 not knowing they have the condition. 

When someone has prediabetes, their blood sugar levels are higher than normal, yet not high enough to be considered type 2 diabetes. If not managed on time, prediabetes raises the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, among others. 

When you’re at risk

You may be at risk for developing prediabetes if you:

  • Are over 45 years old
  • Are overweight
  • Have a family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Have an inactive lifestyle
  • Have a history of gestational diabetes or gave birth to a baby weighing more than 9lbs
  • Are Hispanic or Latino American, African American, Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, or American Indian

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is believed to be an autoimmune disease developed because of an immune reaction, occurring when the body starts to unintentionally attack itself. This reaction puts an end to your body’s efforts in making insulin. About 5–10% of people worldwide develop type 1 diabetes. 

The symptoms of this type of diabetes develop quickly. And if you are diagnosed with it, you’d need to take insulin daily to survive and function. To put it differently – type 1 diabetes is insulin-dependent.

When you’re at risk

The risk factors associated with type 1 diabetes aren’t very clear, especially when compared with those for type 2 diabetes and prediabetes. Some of the known factors that may cause type 1 diabetes are:

  • Age: You may get type 1 diabetes at any age, especially at a young age.
  • Family history: If your parents or siblings have been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, there’s a high chance you might have it as well.

To this day, it is not known how to prevent type 1 diabetes. Also, in the United States, white people seem to develop type 1 diabetes more commonly than Latino or Hispanic and African American people. 

Type 2 diabetes

With type 2 diabetes, your body cannot use insulin as well as it should and doesn’t keep blood glucose at healthy levels. Almost 95% of people with diabetes combat type 2 diabetes. 

Type 2 diabetes is mostly diagnosed in adults and develops over the years. That said, its diagnosis in children, teens, or young adults has become more common. 

In most cases, type 2 can be delayed or prevented by changing your lifestyle. For example:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Avoiding sugary foods and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Being active and exercising regularly

When you’re at risk

You could be at risk for type 2 diabetes if you:

  • Have been diagnosed with prediabetes
  • Are over 45 years old
  • Are overweight
  • Have a family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Have an inactive lifestyle
  • Have a history of gestational diabetes or gave birth to a baby weighing more than 9lbs
  • Are Hispanic or Latino American, African American, Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, or American Indian

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes develops exclusively in pregnant women with no previous history of diabetes. It can appear at any stage of pregnancy, although it is more common during the second or third trimesters. In this case, the embryos are at a greater risk for health issues, resulting in high-risk pregnancies. 

Gestational diabetes usually disappears after giving birth. 

When you’re at risk

If you’re pregnant, you may be at risk if you:

  • Had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy
  • Are overweight
  • Are over 25 years old
  • Have previously given birth to a baby weighing more than 9lbs
  • Have a family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Are Hispanic or Latino American, African American, Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, or American Indian

Gestational diabetes complications

Generally, most women with this diabetes type give birth to healthy babies. However, uncontrolled glucose can cause problems for both the mom and the baby. 

Complications in the baby can include the following:

  • Low blood sugar: Babies of mothers with gestational diabetes develop hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels) after birth. This happens because their insulin production is abnormally high.
  • Excess growth: Blood sugar can cross and traverse the placenta. This causes the baby’s pancreas to secrete more insulin, causing the baby to grow very large. The result is a challenging birth that may require a C-section. 
  • Development of type 2 diabetes: Babies coming from mothers with this diabetes type have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
  • Death: There’s a chance that if you don’t opt for disease control, it can lead to the baby’s death before or after birth. 

Complications in the mother can include the following:

  • Gestational diabetes: If a mother has it in one pregnancy, she may develop it again in the next one.
  • Preeclampsia: Gestational diabetes can cause this condition. Symptoms include lots of protein in your urine, swollen feet and legs, and high blood pressure.

A Word From Our MD

Diabetes is a serious disease and should not be taken lightly. If you notice any diabetes symptoms or have been diagnosed with diabetes, scheduling an appointment with a doctor is a must.

The sooner you get checked, the better your chances are to prevent or keep it under control if diagnosed.

Remember, there are ways to combat diabetes, and it all comes down to making healthy changes to your lifestyle.

Losing weight, incorporating regular exercise, and eating healthy can make a difference in the fight against this chronic disease.

FAQs

How does insulin work?

Insulin is an essential hormone associated with the pancreas, a gland located below and behind our stomach.

The pancreas is a vital organ of the human body that secretes insulin into our bloodstream. Once there, insulin circulates, enabling sugar to get into our cells.

Insulin decreases the amount of blood sugar in our bloodstream. Insulin secretion drops from the pancreas simultaneously with blood sugar levels.

What is the role of blood sugar?

Blood sugar, also known as glucose, is the energy source that helps the cells make up the muscles and tissues. We receive glucose from two sources: our liver and the food we consume.

When blood sugar levels are relatively low, the liver begins to break down glycogen making its glucose. This function keeps glucose levels within the normal range.

What are the risk factors of diabetes?

The risk factors associated with diabetes always depend on the diabetes type.

For once, family history and genetics play a role in all types of diabetes. Environmental reasons seem to increase the risk of type 1 diabetes.

Occasionally, immediate families with type 1 diabetes undergo check-ups to test whether autoantibodies, diabetes immune system cells, are present in the organism. If you have such antibodies, you have a greater risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

Ethnicity or race seem to have an impact on developing type 2 diabetes. However, it’s not yet clear why specific groups of people are at greater risk than others.

Conclusion

Developing diabetes can be frightening, but with the right help and management, you can live a normal and happy life. 

By following a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, taking your medication, and following your GP’s advice, you can keep diabetes under control and not let it overcome you.

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HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by
Edibel Quintero is a medical doctor who graduated in 2013 from the University of Zulia and has been working in her profession since then. She specializes in obesity and nutrition, physical rehabilitation, sports massage and post-operative rehabilitation. Edibel’s goal is to help people live healthier lives by educating them about food, exercise, mental wellness and other lifestyle choices that can improve their quality of life.
Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD
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