Diabetes is a common illness in the UK – around 3.2 million people are living with the daily challenges of an impaired or completely broken sugar management system.
But as it’s so prevalent, have we become blasé? It’s a very serious condition, and if uncontrolled, it will kill you.
What is diabetes?
There are two variants:
Type 1 or insulin dependent diabetes: This is considered a lifetime condition. The body ceases to produce its own insulin and you need to inject insulin or have it introduced via a surgically installed pump to manage blood sugar and keep your body balanced and healthy.
Type 2 or late onset diabetes: This is caused by diet and lifestyle factors such as stress and the body becomes less sensitive to insulin that is produced. Over time insulin production declines until, in some cases, type 2 becomes type 1 and the sufferer is obliged to inject insulin.
What is insulin and why do you need it?
Insulin is your body’s sugar-balancing mechanism and, as sugar levels rise, so does insulin.
Insulin is a compound produced by the pancreas. Its job is to allow sugar to be moved from the bloodstream into cells, where it can be used as fuel for the metabolic processes.
It has been described as the key that unlocks cells so sugar can get in. Too much sugar in the bloodstream triggers cells in the pancreas to release insulin. This then binds to the membranes of cells, signalling to the sugar that there’s an opening and telling the cell to let the sugar in.
Insulin signals your liver to store excess sugar from your bloodstream for later.
People with type 1 diabetes have, in most cases, ceased to produce any of their own insulin. People with type 2 diabetes have a reduced sensitivity to insulin or do not produce enough.
What does untreated diabetes or poorly managed blood sugar mean for your health?
If diabetes isn’t treated or if, despite taking a drug or injecting insulin, blood sugar still isn’t managed, diabetes is a life-limiting disease.
Any one or many of the following problems will occur:
- Peripheral neuropathy – loss of sensation, tingling or pain in extremities
- Severe cardiovascular disease and heart attack
- Gastroparesis – nerve damage in the digestive system impairing digestion
- Retinopathy – damage to the nerves in the eye
- Slower wound healing
- Greater susceptibility to disease, as the excess sugar feeds bacteria beautifully
- Organ failure
- Damage to foetus if pregnant
- Stroke due to impaired circulation in the brain
What are the symptoms of diabetes?
The best known symptoms of diabetes are intense thirst, the need to drink a great deal and passing more water than normal.
In the past, before blood tests were used, doctors tested for diabetes by tasting the patient’s urine. If it was sweet, diabetes was diagnosed. Luckily for doctors, things have moved on a bit now.
Any of the following symptoms could be relevant:
- Going to the toilet a lot, especially at night
- Being really thirsty
- Feeling more tired than usual
- Losing weight without trying
- Genital itching or thrush
- Cuts and wounds take longer to heal
- Blurred vision
Type 2 diabetes can be diagnosed in older people without obvious symptoms but once blood sugar is under control people usually feel a lot better.
Risk factors for type 2 diabetes are:
- Weight gain particularly around your tummy
- A diet high in carbohydrates
- Race (African Americans, Mexican Americans, Hawaiians and people of Central Asian heritage are more prone to type 2 diabetes)
- Gestational diabetes
- Family history
If your parents or your siblings suffer from diabetes, you and your children have a higher risk of developing the disease than people with no family history.
Racial factors in diabetes risk may be related to changes in dietary patterns when moving from one part of the world to another.
American research showed that poverty was a factor in diabetes risk in mainland America and it was suggested this might be because carbohydrate-rich diets are cheaper than diets with higher levels of vegetables and protein.
How is diabetes treated?
Type 1 is usually treated with insulin injections or by surgical installation of an insulin pump, which introduces insulin without need for injections. There are various types of insulin and if you are diagnosed with diabetes the options will be discussed with you.
Type 2 is treated in several ways. The most important changes are to reduce refined carbohydrates and if possible eliminate them. It’s also advised that you stop drinking alcohol and eat a diet of healthy protein, lower-sugar fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates such as brown rice.
If you need advice, speak to an experienced dietician, your diabetes team, a nutritionist with a special interest in blood sugar or a medical herbalist who will also be able to prescribe you herbs which will help manage your blood sugar.
Where blood sugar is uncontrolled, your doctor or diabetic team might prescribe drugs that increase your sensitivity to the insulin you produce, such as Metformin and Sulfonylureas.
These can improve health but without lifestyle changes to diet and exercise you will never be completely well.
Prevention is always better than cure
We can all seriously alter our chances of developing type 2 diabetes by making some simple changes to our lives. If we look above at the risk factors it is very simple:
- Move! Get some regular exercise – cleaning, gardening, walking instead of driving, it all counts. Using the sugar up rather than storing it leads to less fat storage and better cardiovascular health too. Don’t overdo it – half an hour a day of mild to moderate exercise will make a significant difference.
- Eat better. Leave refined carbohydrates for occasional treats. Eat whole grains, protein foods like lean meat, pulses, nuts and cheese, but try not to eat an excess of any one food.
- Introduce healthy fats. These include coconut oil, unheated extra virgin olive oil and oily fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, consider taking an evening primrose, starflower or hemp oil supplement. This will help your hormone balance in general.
- Avoid lower sugar, sugar-free or diabetic foods. They have no benefit and can often mess with your blood sugar. Research has shown that we have taste receptors throughout our digestive system. It is thought that the physical taste of sweet may be part of the insulin-triggering system as well as the sense of the molecular shape of sugars.
Diabetes is a complex condition but for the most part it can be managed, treated or prevented – it’s a case of taking control and making some all-important changes.
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