What is diabetes?

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What is Diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus is a metabolic disorder associated with higher than normal blood sugar levels. For people with diabetes, the body either produces insufficient insulin, no insulin at all or the body fails to respond to the insulin that is produced. However, insulin is an important hormone as it reduces blood sugar levels.

Even today, the exact causes for diabetes remain unknown. However, we do know that a combination of factors are involved. Modern lifestyles, for instance, play a significant role: a lack of exercise combined with excessive eating. Type 2 diabetes also has a strong hereditary component.

Diabetes symptoms

Characteristic symptoms are tiredness, weakness, generally feeling unwell, increased thirst and drinking, frequent urination, itching sensation, urinary tract infections, loss of weight, impaired vision and mood swings.

In spite of this, diabetes is often only discovered by chance. This is because high blood sugar frequently causes few or no symptoms over a long period – especially with type 2 diabetes. In the past, it was frequently referred to as "adult-onset diabetes", and is the most common form of diabetes. In this guide, we will also look at type 1 diabetes, gestational diabetes and some rarer forms of diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes tends to occur before the age of 40, often in childhood, and is not usually associated with obesity.Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, whereby the immune system attacks and destroys healthy cells in the body by mistake. In the case of type 1 diabetes, it is the beta cells of the pancreas which are attacked. These beta cells are responsible for producing insulin and distributing it into the bloodstream.

When around four fifths of the beta cells have been destroyed, the body's own insulin is no longer able to control the blood sugar. The result is hyperglycaemia, which means that the blood sugar is excessively high. Eventually, the destruction of the beta cells results in absolute insulin deficiency. Research has not yet been able to determine what causes this disruption to the autoimmune system. It is thought that hereditary factors, viral infection and environmental factors play an important role.

Type 1 diabetes affects around 10 % of all people with diabetes.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes typically only occurs after the age of 40, but can also occur at a younger age. Due to the fact that obesity is a major risk factor in developing the disease, and given that obesity in childhood is on the increase, growing numbers of children and young people are being diagnosed with the condition.

In type 2 diabetes, the beta cells do still produce insulin, but it is no longer used effectively by the other cells in the body: their sensitivity to insulin is reduced. Fat and muscle cells in particular become "insulin resistant". Initially, the body can compensate for this by increasing its production of insulin. However, as the disease progresses, the continuing activity of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas results in the gradual failure of insulin production. Over the long term, type 2 diabetes also leads to absolute insulin deficiency. Hereditary factors play a significant role for type 2 diabetes. Having a parent with type 2 diabetes significantly increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In addition to an impaired sugar metabolism, type 2 diabetics often suffer from additional medical conditions, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), obesity or morbid obesity (adiposity), disruptions to the lipometabolism and vascular disease. In combination, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and obesity are grouped together under the term metabolic syndrome.

Type 2 diabetes affects around 90 % of all people with diabetes.


Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes is high blood glucose that is first discovered during pregnancy. This is primarily caused by hormones that elevate blood glucose; at the same time, the mother's pancreas does not produce enough insulin to reduce the blood glucose. The high blood sugar can endanger the child, since the glucose will be passed to the foetus through the umbilical cord – the foetus then has to produce large amounts of its own insulin in order to normalise the blood glucose. 

Gestational diabetes affects approximately four in one hundred pregnant women, primarily obese women or those with a family history of diabetes. However, all of the complications can be avoided with early diagnosis and treatment!

The following put you at increased risk of developing gestational diabetes:

  • Obesity 
  • Parents or siblings with diabetes 
  • Previous delivery of a baby weighing more than 10lbs at birth 
  • Previous miscarriages 
  • Gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy