Diabetes mellitus refers to a group of diseases that affect how your body uses blood glucose, commonly called blood sugar. Glucose is vital to your health because it's an important source of energy for the cells that make up your muscles and tissues. It's also your brain's main source of fuel.
If you have diabetes, no matter what type, it means you have too much glucose in your blood, although the reasons may differ. Too much glucose can lead to serious health problems.
Chronic diabetes conditions include type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. Potentially reversible diabetes conditions include prediabetes — when your blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be classified as diabetes — and gestational diabetes, which occurs during pregnancy but may resolve after the baby is delivered.
Diabetes symptoms vary depending on how much your blood sugar is elevated. Some people, especially those with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, may not experience symptoms initially. In type 1 diabetes, symptoms tend to come on quickly and be more severe. Some of the signs and symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes include:
Unexplained weight loss
Presence of ketones in the urine (ketones are a byproduct of the breakdown of muscle and fat that happens when there's not enough insulin)
High blood pressure
Frequent infections, such as gums or skin infections and vaginal or bladder infections
Although type 1 diabetes can develop at any age, it typically appears during childhood or adolescence. Type 2 diabetes, the more common type, can develop at any age and is often preventable.
When to see a doctor
If you suspect you or your child may have diabetes. If you notice any possible diabetes symptoms, contact your doctor. The earlier the condition is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can begin.
If you've already been diagnosed with diabetes. After you receive your diagnosis, you'll need close medical follow-up until your blood sugar levels stabilize.
To understand diabetes, first you must understand how glucose is normally processed in the body.
How insulin works
Insulin is a hormone that comes from the pancreas, a gland situated behind and below the stomach.
The pancreas secretes insulin into the bloodstream.
The insulin circulates, enabling sugar to enter your cells.
Insulin lowers the amount of sugar in your bloodstream.
As your blood sugar level drops, so does the secretion of insulin from your pancreas.
The role of glucose
Glucose — a sugar — is a main source of energy for the cells that make up muscles and other tissues.
Glucose comes from two major sources: food and your liver.
Sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream, where it enters cells with the help of insulin.
Your liver stores and makes glucose.
When your insulin levels are low, such as when you haven't eaten in a while, the liver metabolizes stored glycogen into glucose to keep your glucose level within a normal range.
Causes of type 1 diabetes
In type 1 diabetes, your immune system — which normally fights harmful bacteria or viruses — attacks and destroys your insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This leaves you with little or no insulin. Instead of being transported into your cells, sugar builds up in your bloodstream. Type 1 is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental factors, though exactly what many of those factors are is still unclear.
Causes of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes
In prediabetes — which can lead to type 2 diabetes — and in type 2 diabetes, your cells become resistant to the action of insulin, and your pancreas is unable to make enough insulin to overcome this resistance. Instead of moving into your cells where it's needed for energy, sugar builds up in your bloodstream. Exactly why this happens is uncertain, although as in type 1 diabetes, it's believed that genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of type 2. Being overweight is strongly linked to the development of type 2 diabetes, but not everyone with type 2 is overweight.
Causes of gestational diabetes
During pregnancy, the placenta produces hormones to sustain your pregnancy. These hormones make your cells more resistant to insulin. As your placenta grows larger in the second and third trimesters, it secretes more of these hormones — making it even harder for insulin to do its job.
Normally, your pancreas responds by producing enough extra insulin to overcome this resistance. But sometimes your pancreas can't keep up. When this happens, too little glucose gets into your cells and too much stays in your blood. This is gestational diabetes.
Treatment & Drugs
Depending on what type of diabetes you have, blood sugar monitoring, insulin and oral medications may play a role in your treatment. But no matter what type of diabetes you have, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight and monitoring your blood sugar levels are key to managing your diabetes.
Treatments for all types of diabetes
An important part of managing all types of diabetes is maintaining a healthy weight through a healthy diet and exercise plan:
Healthy eating. Contrary to popular perception, there's no diabetes diet. You'll need to center your diet on more fruits, vegetables and whole grains — foods that are high in nutrition and fiber and low in fat and calories — and cut down on animal products, refined carbohydrates and sweets. In fact, it's the best eating plan for the entire family. Sugary foods are OK once in a while, as long as they're included in your meal plan.
Yet understanding what and how much to eat can be a challenge. A registered dietitian can help you create a meal plan that fits your health goals, food preferences and lifestyle. This may include carbohydrate counting, especially if you have type 1 diabetes.
Physical activity. Everyone needs regular aerobic exercise, and people who have diabetes are no exception. Exercise lowers your blood sugar level by transporting sugar to your cells, where it's used for energy. Exercise also increases your sensitivity to insulin, which means your body needs less insulin to transport sugar to your cells. Get your doctor's OK to exercise. Then choose activities you enjoy, such as walking, swimming or biking. What's most important is making physical activity part of your daily routine. Aim for at least 30 minutes or more of aerobic exercise most days of the week. If you haven't been active for a while, start slowly and build up gradually.
Treatments for type 1 and type 2 diabetes
Treatment for type 1 diabetes involves insulin injections or the use of an insulin pump, frequent blood sugar checks and carbohydrate counting. Treatment of type 2 diabetes primarily involves monitoring of your blood sugar, along with diabetes medications, insulin or both.
Monitoring your blood sugar. Depending on your treatment plan, you may check and record your blood sugar level several times a week to three or more times a day. Careful monitoring is the only way to make sure that your blood sugar level remains within your target range. People who receive insulin therapy may also choose to monitor their blood sugar levels with a continuous glucose monitor. Although this technology doesn't yet replace the glucose meter, it can provide important information about trends in blood sugar levels.
Insulin. Most people with type 1 diabetes need insulin therapy to survive. Some people with type 2 diabetes also need insulin therapy. Often insulin is injected using a fine needle and syringe or an insulin pen — a device that looks like an ink pen, except the cartridge is filled with insulin.
An insulin pump may also be an option. The pump is a device about the size of a cellphone worn on the outside of your body. A tube connects the reservoir of insulin to a catheter that's inserted under the skin of your abdomen. You program an insulin pump to dispense specific amounts of insulin. It can be adjusted to deliver more or less insulin depending on meals, activity level and blood sugar level.
Many types of insulin are available, including rapid-acting insulin, long-acting insulin and intermediate options. Depending on your needs, your doctor may prescribe a mixture of insulin types to use throughout the day and night.
Oral or other medications. Sometimes other oral or injected medications are prescribed as well. Some diabetes medications stimulate your pancreas to produce and release more insulin. Others inhibit the production and release of glucose from your liver, which means you need less insulin to transport sugar into your cells. Still others block the action of stomach or intestinal enzymes that break down carbohydrates or make your tissues more sensitive to insulin.
Transplantation. In some people who have type 1 diabetes, a pancreas transplant may be an option. Islet transplants are being studied as well. With a successful pancreas transplant, you would no longer need insulin therapy. But transplants aren't always successful — and these procedures pose serious risks. You need a lifetime of immune-suppressing drugs to prevent organ rejection. These drugs can have serious side effects, including a high risk of infection, organ injury and cancer. Because the side effects can be more dangerous than the diabetes, transplants are usually reserved for people whose diabetes can't be controlled or those who have serious complications.
Bariatric surgery. Although it is not specifically considered a treatment for type 2 diabetes, people with type 2 diabetes who also have a body mass index higher than 35 may benefit from this type of surgery. People who've undergone gastric bypass have seen significant improvements in their blood sugar levels. However, this procedure's long-term risks and benefits for type 2 diabetes aren't yet known.
Treatment for gestational diabetes
Controlling your blood sugar level is essential to keeping your baby healthy and avoiding complications during delivery. In addition to maintaining a healthy diet and exercising, your treatment plan may include monitoring your blood sugar and, in some cases, using insulin.
Your health care provider will also monitor your blood sugar level during labor. If your blood sugar rises, your baby may release high levels of insulin — which can lead to low blood sugar right after birth.
Treatment for prediabetes
If you have prediabetes, healthy lifestyle choices can help you bring your blood sugar level back to normal or at least keep it from rising toward the levels seen in type 2 diabetes. Maintaining a healthy weight through exercise and healthy eating can help. Exercising at least 150 minutes a week and losing 5 to 10 percent of your body weight may prevent or delay type 2 diabetes.
In other cases, medications to control cholesterol — statins, in particular — and high blood pressure medications are needed. Your doctor might prescribe low-dose aspirin therapy to help prevent cardiovascular disease if you're at high risk. Healthy lifestyle choices remain key, however.
Lifestyle & Home Remedies
Diabetes is a serious disease. Following your diabetes treatment plan takes round-the-clock commitment. Careful management of diabetes can reduce your risk of serious — even life-threatening — complications.
No matter what type of diabetes you have:
Make a commitment to managing your diabetes. Learn all you can about diabetes. Establish a relationship with a diabetes educator, and ask your diabetes treatment team for help when you need it.
Choose healthy foods and maintain a healthy weight. Losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight if you're overweight can make a significant difference in your blood sugar control. A healthy diet is one with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, with a limited amount of saturated fat.
Make physical activity part of your daily routine. Regular exercise can help prevent prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, and it can help those who already have diabetes to maintain better blood sugar control. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise -such as brisk walking — most days of the week is recommended. A recent study found that a combination of exercises — aerobic exercises, such as walking or dancing on most days, combined with resistance training, such as weightlifting or yoga twice a week — helps control blood sugar more effectively than either type of exercise alone.
Lifestyle for type 1 and type 2 diabetes
In addition, if you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes:
Identify yourself. Wear a tag or bracelet that says you have diabetes. Keep a glucagon kit nearby in case of a low blood sugar emergency — and make sure your friends and loved ones know how to use it.
Schedule a yearly physical and regular eye exams. Your regular diabetes checkups aren't meant to replace yearly physicals or routine eye exams. During the physical, your doctor will look for any diabetes-related complications and screen for other medical problems. Your eye care specialist will check for signs of retinal damage, cataracts and glaucoma.
Keep your immunizations up to date. High blood sugar can weaken your immune system. Get a flu shot every year, and get a tetanus booster shot every 10 years. Your doctor will likely recommend the pneumonia vaccine, as well. Doctors also recommend hepatitis B vaccination if you haven't previously been vaccinated against hepatitis B and you're an adult ages 19 to 59 with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. If you are age 60 or older, have diabetes and haven't previously received the vaccine, talk to your doctor about the whether it's right for you.
Pay attention to your feet. Wash your feet daily in lukewarm water. Dry them gently, especially between the toes. Moisturize with lotion, but not between the toes. Check your feet every day for blisters, cuts, sores, redness or swelling. Consult your doctor if you have a sore or other foot problem that doesn't start to heal on its own.
Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control. Eating healthy foods and exercising regularly can go a long way toward controlling high blood pressure and cholesterol. Medication may be needed, too.
Take care of your teeth. Diabetes may leave you prone to gum infections. Brush and floss your teeth at least twice a day. And if you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, schedule dental exams at least once a year. Consult your dentist right away if your gums bleed or look red or swollen.
If you smoke or use other types of tobacco, ask your doctor to help you quit. Smoking increases your risk of various diabetes complications, including heart attack, stroke, nerve damage and kidney disease. Smokers who have diabetes are more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than are nonsmokers who have diabetes.
Take stress seriously. If you're stressed, it's easy to abandon your usual diabetes management routine. The hormones your body may produce in response to prolonged stress may prevent insulin from working properly, which only makes matters worse. To take control, set limits. Prioritize your tasks. Learn relaxation techniques. Get plenty of sleep.
Above all, stay positive. The good habits you adopt today can help you enjoy an active, healthy life with diabetes.