Definition and Overview

Diabetes, also known as diabetes mellitus, is a chronic metabolic disease characterized by abnormally high blood sugar levels. Although some people may have blood sugar levels that are slightly higher than normal, it has to reach a certain level for it to be considered diabetes. However, this is an early sign of a person’s risk of developing the disease.

The disease presents in two types, namely type 1 and type 2, the latter of which is more common, but the former is more serious, mainly because it can develop pretty quickly and can worsen in just a matter of weeks or days. On the other hand, patients with type 2 diabetes normally do not experience noticeable symptoms.

Regardless of what type they suffer from, people with this condition have to live with the disease all their lives, and thus have to make several adjustments in their lifestyles to manage the symptoms and complications brought on by their condition.

Causes of Condition

Diabetes is mainly caused by a problem in the pancreas, a small gland located behind the stomach that is responsible for producing insulin, the main hormone that enables the body to break down glucose from food and turn it into energy. Insulin works by first filtering the glucose out of the blood and moving them into the cells, where they are used to produce energy.

If the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or the insulin it produces does not function well, the body is unable to turn glucose into energy, causing the glucose to stay in the blood, pushing blood sugar levels to soar.

Two Types of Diabetes

  • Type 1 diabetes - This is caused by an immune system overreaction wherein the body itself attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Due to this, people with this condition require an artificial supply of insulin all throughout their lives. They also need to constantly monitor their blood glucose levels to keep it as balanced as possible.

  • Type 2 diabetes - This type develops when (A) the body is able to produce insulin but it is not enough and (B) when the cells of the body do not react to the insulin produced. The latter is called insulin resistance. However, since insulin is still produced, the effects of this type are less severe and can easily be managed. This, however, does not mean that the patient does not require medical attention. Although less severe, type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease, which means that it can worsen over time. A proper treatment and management plan can help prevent this from happening.

Type 2 diabetes is linked to obesity. An obese person has the tendency to have excessively high blood glucose levels that even when the body is producing insulin, it is simply not enough to break the blood glucose down.

There is an additional type of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy. Known as gestational diabetes, it develops when a woman’s blood glucose levels soar during pregnancy, so the insulin produced by the body becomes inadequate. In the majority of cases, this develops around the second trimester then resolves after childbirth.

Meanwhile, diabetic patients who become pregnant face a higher risk of passing on some health problems to their unborn child. This is why pregnant diabetics should work closely with their healthcare providers to keep their blood glucose levels balanced.

Key Symptoms

The primary symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Abnormal feeling of thirst (polydipsia)
  • More frequent urination, especially during nighttime (polyuria)
  • Consistent feeling of hunger (polyphagia)
  • Unexplained feeling of tiredness
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Penile or vaginal itching
  • Recurrent thrush
  • Delayed healing of cuts and wounds
  • Blurry vision

Vision problems are some of the most telltale signs of the disease, so much so that an eye screening, particularly a checkup of the back of the eye, can help detect the disease. Thus, all diabetic patients are advised to undergo annual vision screenings to assess their risk of diabetic retinopathy, which can, in its most severe form, lead to complete vision loss.

The main danger of diabetes lies in the seriousness of complications and permanent damage that may occur due to elevated glucose levels. These complications include:

  • Eye damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Nerve problems
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Hypertension
  • Limb amputations

Statistics shows that type 1 diabetes typically begin at age 40 but sometimes present in juvenile form, affecting individuals as young as teenagers. Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, is in most cases, acquired due to lifestyle or nutrition problems. Thus, it is more commonly known as adult-onset diabetes.

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

Specialists who focus on the treatment of diabetes are called endocrinologists, and they typically work closely with the patient’s general physician or family doctor.

The treatment for diabetes depends on the type that the patient has. Sufferers of type 1 diabetes require continuous insulin injections as well as oral medications. Type 2 diabetes sufferers, on the other hand, only need oral medications.

However, there are some important aspects of diabetes management that are necessary for both type 1 and type 2 sufferers. These include:

  • Controlling blood glucose levels
  • Controlling cholesterol levels
  • Controlling blood pressure

A complete diabetes management plan will also involve:

  • Proper diet
  • Exercise
  • Diabetic eye screening
  • Regular screening for other conditions associated with diabetes
  • Good lifestyle habits, such as quitting smoking and refraining from drinking alcohol
  • Vaccinations or immunizations

Because of these, it is very common that other specialists are brought in to help. These include:

  • Dietitians
  • Mental health professionals
  • Ophthalmologists
  • Podiatrists

In addition, there are also certified diabetes educators who are experts in diabetes management. These can help patients prepare and follow a meal plan, make and maintain consistent lifestyle modifications, and incorporate diabetes management into all aspects of the patient’s life.

  • American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes -- 2014. Diabetes Care. 2014; Jan;34 Suppl 1:S14-S80.

  • Buse JB, Polonsky KS, Burant CF. Type 2 diabetes mellitus. In: Kronenberg HM, Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 31.

  • Eisenbarth GS, Buse JB. Type 1 diabetes mellitus. In: Kronenberg HM, Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 32.

Share This Information: