Diabetes mellitus is a condition in which the body does not produce enough of the hormone insulin, resulting in high levels of sugar in the bloodstream. There are many different types of diabetes; the most common are type 1 and type 2 diabetes, which are covered in this article. Gestational diabetes occurs during the second half of pregnancy and is covered in a separate article. Diabetes can also be caused by disease or damage to the pancreas, Cushing's syndrome, acromegaly and there are also some rare genetic forms.
The American Diabetes Association sponsored an international panel in 1995 to review the literature and recommend updates of the classification of diabetes mellitus. The definitions and descriptions that follow are drawn from the Report of the Expert Committee on the Diagnosis and Classification of Diabetes Mellitus. The report was first approved in 1997 and modified in 1999. Although other terms are found in older literature and remain in use, their use in current clinical practice is inappropriate. Epidemiologic and research studies are facilitated by use of a common language.
High blood sugar (hyperglycemia). Your blood sugar level can rise for many reasons, including eating too much, being sick or not taking enough glucose-lowering medication. Check your blood sugar level often, and watch for signs and symptoms of high blood sugar — frequent urination, increased thirst, dry mouth, blurred vision, fatigue and nausea. If you have hyperglycemia, you'll need to adjust your meal plan, medications or both.
People with diabetes aim for a hemoglobin A1C level of less than 7%. Achieving this level is difficult, but the lower the hemoglobin A1C level, the less likely people are to have complications. Doctors may recommend a slightly higher or lower target for certain people depending on their particular health situation. However, levels above 9% show poor control, and levels above 12% show very poor control. Most doctors who specialize in diabetes care recommend that hemoglobin A1C be measured every 3 to 6 months.
Patients who suffer from diabetes have a lifelong struggle to attain and maintain blood glucose levels as close to the normal range as possible. With appropriate blood sugar control, the risk of both microvascular (small blood vessel) and neuropathic (nerve) complications is decreased markedly. Additionally, if hypertension (high blood pressure) and hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol) are treated promptly and aggressively, the risk of cardiovascular complications should decrease as well.
Is type 2 diabetes serious? Type 2 diabetes is not a death sentence, but it is a very serious disease that demands attention and careful monitoring. There is no such thing as ‘mild’ diabetes. Elevated glucose levels can damage the nervous system, blood vessels, eyes, heart, and kidneys. These complications really impact quality of life (through blindness, amputations, dialysis etc). They also significantly increase the chance of a stroke or heart attack. Managing blood glucose levels immediately, along with other health risk factors (e.g., cholesterol, blood pressure, weight), is necessary for preventing these complications. Losing even a small amount of weight and keeping it off can also improve glucose control as well as have other clinical benefits (read more tips on managing diet and exercise below for more on weight loss). Keep in mind that better diabetes management also has benefits in the here and now – mood and energy levels are adversely affected when your glucose levels are high.
Threshold for diagnosis of diabetes is based on the relationship between results of glucose tolerance tests, fasting glucose or HbA1c and complications such as retinal problems. A fasting or random blood sugar is preferred over the glucose tolerance test, as they are more convenient for people. HbA1c has the advantages that fasting is not required and results are more stable but has the disadvantage that the test is more costly than measurement of blood glucose. It is estimated that 20% of people with diabetes in the United States do not realize that they have the disease.
The body’s immune system is responsible for fighting off foreign invaders, like harmful viruses and bacteria. In people with type 1 diabetes, the immune system mistakes the body’s own healthy cells for foreign invaders. The immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. After these beta cells are destroyed, the body is unable to produce insulin.
Large, population-based studies in China, Finland and USA have recently demonstrated the feasibility of preventing, or delaying, the onset of diabetes in overweight subjects with mild glucose intolerance (IGT). The studies suggest that even moderate reduction in weight and only half an hour of walking each day reduced the incidence of diabetes by more than one half.
In autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, the immune system mistakenly manufactures antibodies and inflammatory cells that are directed against and cause damage to patients' own body tissues. In persons with type 1 diabetes, the beta cells of the pancreas, which are responsible for insulin production, are attacked by the misdirected immune system. It is believed that the tendency to develop abnormal antibodies in type 1 diabetes is, in part, genetically inherited, though the details are not fully understood.
How does high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) feel? To maintain the right amount of blood sugar, the body needs insulin, a hormone that delivers this sugar to the cells. When insulin is lacking, blood sugar builds up. We describe symptoms of high blood sugar, including fatigue, weight loss, and frequent urination. Learn who is at risk and when to see a doctor here. Read now
For example, the environmental trigger may be a virus or chemical toxin that upsets the normal function of the immune system. This may lead to the body’s immune system attacking itself. The normal beta cells in the pancreas may be attacked and destroyed. When approximately 90% of the beta cells are destroyed, symptoms of diabetes mellitus begin to appear. The exact cause and sequence is not fully understood but investigation and research into the disease continues.
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can be caused by too much insulin, too little food (or eating too late to coincide with the action of the insulin), alcohol consumption, or increased exercise. A patient with symptoms of hypoglycemia may be hungry, cranky, confused, and tired. The patient may become sweaty and shaky. Left untreated, the patient can lose consciousness or have a seizure. This condition is sometimes called an insulin reaction and should be treated by giving the patient something sweet to eat or drink like a candy, sugar cubes, juice, or another high sugar snack.
Long-term complications arise from the damaging effects of prolonged hyperglycemia and other metabolic consequences of insulin deficiency on various tissues. Although long-term complications are rare in childhood, maintaining good control of diabetes is important to prevent complications from developing in later life.  The likelihood of developing complications appears to depend on the interaction of factors such as metabolic control, genetic susceptibility, lifestyle (eg, smoking, diet, exercise), pubertal status, and gender. [40, 41] Long-term complications include the following:
While unintentional weight loss may seem like a dream to some people, it can also be a scary sign that your pancreas isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. Accidental weight loss is often one of the first signs of diabetes. However, weight loss may also help you prevent developing the condition in the first place. In fact, losing just 5 percent of your body weight may lower your risk of diabetes by as much as 58 percent. And when you’re ready to ditch a few pounds, start by adding the 40 Healthy Snack Ideas to Keep You Slim to your routine.
Before blood glucose levels rise, the body of a person destined for type 2 becomes resistant to insulin, much as bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics. Insulin is the signal for the muscles, fat, and liver to absorb glucose from the blood. As the body becomes resistant to insulin, the beta cells in the pancreas must pump out more of the hormone to compensate. People with beta cells that can't keep up with insulin resistance develop the high blood glucose of type 2 diabetes.
Oral Agents. Oral antidiabetic drugs (see hypoglycemic agents) are sometimes prescribed for patients with type 2 diabetes who cannot control their blood glucose with diet and exercise. These are not oral forms of insulin; they are sulfonylureas, chemically related to the sulfonamide antibiotics. Patients receiving them should be taught that the drug they are taking does not eliminate the need for a diet and exercise program. Only the prescribed dosage should be taken; it should never be increased to make up for dietary indiscretions or discontinued unless authorized by the physician.
Diabetes has often been referred to as a "silent disease" for two reasons: 1) Many people with Type 2 diabetes walk around with symptoms for many years, but are not diagnosed until they develop a complication of the disease, such as blindness, kidney disease, or heart disease; 2) There are no specific physical manifestations in individuals with diabetes. Therefore, unless a person chooses to disclose their disease, it is possible that friends and even family members may be unaware of a person's diagnosis.
Type 2 diabetes is a preventable disease that affects more than 9 percent of the U.S. population, or about 29 million people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a quarter — some 8 million people — remain undiagnosed. With complications including nerve damage, kidney damage, poor blood circulation, and even death, it’s important for us all to know the early signs of type 2 diabetes.