What is diabetes?
Diabetes mellitus (DM), or just diabetes refers to a group of metabolic diseases which result in an inability to regulate blood sugar levels. Having too much glucose in your blood can damage the kidneys, eyes, nerves and other parts of the body, including the blood vessels themselves. In extreme cases, diabetes can cause heart disease and strokes, and patients may even require amputation of limbs.
This inability to control blood sugar comes from a problem with the hormone insulin. Insulin is produced by the pancreas, enters the bloodstream, and moves glucose out of the blood and into cells, where it is used to generate energy.
There are two types of diabetes:
- Type 1 diabetes – the cells that create insulin are attacked and destroyed by the body’s immune system as part of a defective immune response. It can develop rapidly over weeks or even days.
- Type 2 diabetes – either the body does not produce enough insulin, or the body’s cells stop responding to it. Patients may not be diagnosed for years, due to generic symptoms. It is by far the most common type of diabetes.
What are the symptoms?
Classic diabetes symptoms include:
- Frequent urination
- Itching around the genitals, or thrush
- Weight loss/muscle loss
- Blurred vision
- Slow healing
- Vascular issues, such as diabetic foot
- Diabetic neuropathy
- Diabetic nephropathy
- Diabetic retinopathy
What causes diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition – something causes the immune system to attack healthy pancreatic cells that produce insulin. It appears to run in families, so may be genetic. No one knows exactly what causes the immune system to attack the pancreas, but one theory is that it is triggered by a virus. In rare cases, neonatal diabetes can occur at birth and is usually diagnosed within the baby's first nine months.
Type 2 diabetes is acquired, and usually affects older people. It tends to be associated with obesity and lack of exercise.
How can it be prevented?
Type 1 diabetes appears to be genetic, so there is no way to prevent it.
To reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, it is important to have a healthy and balanced diet, take plenty of exercise, and lose weight if you are overweight or obese. Stopping smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation are also useful tips.
What is the treatment?
Diabetes can’t be cured, but the symptoms can be managed. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and regular blood tests are essential to keep blood glucose levels in check.
Type 1 diabetes patients require regular insulin injections for the rest of their lives to make up for the lack of insulin production by the pancreas.
Type 2 diabetes patients may eventually need to take tablets, as the condition is progressive (it will worsen over time).
Complications, such as diabetic foot, can sometimes be treated using vascular and microsurgery techniques.
You should see your doctor or a specialist as soon as possible if you are experiencing symptoms. If diagnosed with diabetes, a patient is usually referred to a specialist care team for treatment and long-term monitoring of the condition.