Every cell in the human body needs energy in order to function. The body's primary energy source is glucose, a simple sugar resulting from the digestion of foods containing carbohydrates (sugars and starches). Glucose from the digested food circulates in the blood as a ready energy source for any cells that need it. Insulin is a hormone or chemical produced by cells in the pancreas, an organ located behind the stomach. Insulin bonds to a receptor site on the outside of cell and acts like a key to open a doorway into the cell through which glucose can enter. Some of the glucose can be converted to concentrated energy sources like glycogen or fatty acids and saved for later use. When there is not enough insulin produced or when the doorway no longer recognizes the insulin key, glucose stays in the blood rather entering the cells.
Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that occurs when your blood sugar (glucose), is too high (hyperglycemia). Glucose is what the body uses for energy, and the pancreas produces a hormone called insulin that helps convert the glucose from the food you eat into energy. When the body either does not produce enough insulin, does not produce any at all, or your body becomes resistant to the insulin, the glucose does not reach your cells to be used for energy. This results in the health condition termed diabetes.
Hemoglobin A1c or HbA1c is a protein on the surface of red blood cells. The HbA1c test is used to monitor blood sugar levels in people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes over time. Normal HbA1c levels are 6% or less. HbA1c levels can be affected by insulin use, fasting, glucose intake (oral or IV), or a combination of these and other factors. High hemoglobin A1c levels in the blood increases the risk of microvascular complications, for example, diabetic neuropathy, eye, and kidney disease.
A proper diet and exercise are the foundations of diabetic care, with a greater amount of exercise yielding better results. Exercise improves blood sugar control, decreases body fat content and decreases blood lipid levels, and these effects are evident even without weight loss. Aerobic exercise leads to a decrease in HbA1c and improved insulin sensitivity. Resistance training is also useful and the combination of both types of exercise may be most effective.
Diabetes mellitus occurs throughout the world but is more common (especially type 2) in more developed countries. The greatest increase in rates has however been seen in low- and middle-income countries, where more than 80% of diabetic deaths occur. The fastest prevalence increase is expected to occur in Asia and Africa, where most people with diabetes will probably live in 2030. The increase in rates in developing countries follows the trend of urbanization and lifestyle changes, including increasingly sedentary lifestyles, less physically demanding work and the global nutrition transition, marked by increased intake of foods that are high energy-dense but nutrient-poor (often high in sugar and saturated fats, sometimes referred to as the "Western-style" diet). The global prevalence of diabetes might increase by 55% between 2013 and 2035.
Using insulin to get blood glucose levels to a healthy level is a good thing, not a bad one. For most people, type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease. When first diagnosed, many people with type 2 diabetes can keep their blood glucose at a healthy level with a combination of meal planning, physical activity, and taking oral medications. But over time, the body gradually produces less and less of its own insulin, and eventually oral medications may not be enough to keep blood glucose levels in a healthy range.
Persons with diabetes who take insulin must be careful about indulging in unplanned exercise. Strenuous physical activity can rapidly lower their blood sugar and precipitate a hypoglycemic reaction. For a person whose blood glucose level is over 250 mg/dl, the advice would be not to exercise at all. At this range, the levels of insulin are too low and the body would have difficulty transporting glucose into exercising muscles. The result of exercise would be a rise in blood glucose levels.
Type 2 diabetes was once rare in children and adolescents but has recently become more common. However, it usually begins in people older than 30 and becomes progressively more common with age. About 26% of people older than 65 have type 2 diabetes. People of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds are at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes: blacks, Asian Americans, American Indians, and people of Spanish or Latin American ancestry who live in the United States have a twofold to threefold increased risk as compared with whites. Type 2 diabetes also tends to run in families.
Most pediatric patients with diabetes have type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM) and a lifetime dependence on exogenous insulin. Diabetes mellitus (DM) is a chronic metabolic disorder caused by an absolute or relative deficiency of insulin, an anabolic hormone. Insulin is produced by the beta cells of the islets of Langerhans located in the pancreas, and the absence, destruction, or other loss of these cells results in type 1 diabetes (insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus [IDDM]). A possible mechanism for the development of type 1 diabetes is shown in the image below. (See Etiology.)
Type 1 DM is caused by autoimmune destruction of the insulin-secreting beta cells of the pancreas. The loss of these cells results in nearly complete insulin deficiency; without exogenous insulin, type 1 DM is rapidly fatal. Type 2 DM results partly from a decreased sensitivity of muscle cells to insulin-mediated glucose uptake and partly from a relative decrease in pancreatic insulin secretion.
Onset of type 2 diabetes can be delayed or prevented through proper nutrition and regular exercise. Intensive lifestyle measures may reduce the risk by over half. The benefit of exercise occurs regardless of the person's initial weight or subsequent weight loss. High levels of physical activity reduce the risk of diabetes by about 28%. Evidence for the benefit of dietary changes alone, however, is limited, with some evidence for a diet high in green leafy vegetables and some for limiting the intake of sugary drinks. In those with impaired glucose tolerance, diet and exercise either alone or in combination with metformin or acarbose may decrease the risk of developing diabetes. Lifestyle interventions are more effective than metformin. A 2017 review found that, long term, lifestyle changes decreased the risk by 28%, while medication does not reduce risk after withdrawal. While low vitamin D levels are associated with an increased risk of diabetes, correcting the levels by supplementing vitamin D3 does not improve that risk.
With gestational diabetes, risks to the unborn baby are even greater than risks to the mother. Risks to the baby include abnormal weight gain before birth, breathing problems at birth, and higher obesity and diabetes risk later in life. Risks to the mother include needing a cesarean section due to an overly large baby, as well as damage to heart, kidney, nerves, and eye.
*All medications have both common (generic) and brand names. The brand name is what a specific manufacturer calls the product (e.g., Tylenol®). The common name is the medical name for the medication (e.g., acetaminophen). A medication may have many brand names, but only one common name. This article lists medications by their common names. For information on a given medication, check our Drug Information database. For more information on brand names, speak with your doctor or pharmacist.
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.
Pre-clinical diabetes refers to the time during which destruction of pancreatic insulin-producing cells is occurring, but symptoms have not yet developed. This period may last for months to years. Normally, 80-90% of the pancreatic beta cells must be destroyed before any symptoms of diabetes develops. During this time, blood tests can identify some immunological markers of pancreatic cell destruction. However, there is currently no known treatment to prevent progression of pre-clinical diabetes to true diabetes mellitus.
In this health topic, we explain the dangers of hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar levels, and diabetes. Hyperglycemia causes many of the warning signs of diabetes listed above. Hyperglycemia may be caused by skipping or forgetting your insulin or diabetes medicine, eating too many grams of carbs for the amount of insulin administered, simply eating too many grams of carbs in general, or from stress or infections.