“It’s not like you wake up one day and all of a sudden you’re thirsty, hungry, and [going to the bathroom] all the time,” says Melissa Joy Dobbins, RD, a certified diabetes educator in Illinois and a spokesperson for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. “It picks up gradually.” Indeed, “most people are unaware that they have diabetes in its early or even middle phases,” says Aaron Cypess, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and staff physician at Joslin Diabetes Center. Just because you’re not keyed in doesn’t mean you’re immune from problems associated with diabetes, he adds. The longer you go without controlling diabetes, the greater your risk for heart disease, kidney disease, amputation, blindness, and other serious complications. “We recommend that people with risk factors for diabetes, such as a family history or being overweight, get evaluated on a regular basis,” Dr. Cypess says. If you’ve been feeling off, talk to your doctor about getting a simple blood test that can diagnose the disease. And pay attention to these subtle signs and symptoms of diabetes.
What is type 2 diabetes and prediabetes? Behind type 2 diabetes is a disease where the body’s cells have trouble responding to insulin – this is called insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone needed to store the energy found in food into the body’s cells. In prediabetes, insulin resistance starts growing and the beta cells in the pancreas that release insulin will try to make even more insulin to make up for the body’s insensitivity. This can go on for a long time without any symptoms. Over time, though, the beta cells in the pancreas will fatigue and will no longer be able to produce enough insulin – this is called “beta burnout.” Once there is not enough insulin, blood sugars will start to rise above normal. Prediabetes causes people to have higher-than-normal blood sugars (and an increased risk for heart disease and stroke). Left unnoticed or untreated, blood sugars continue to worsen and many people progress to type 2 diabetes. After a while, so many of the beta cells have been damaged that diabetes becomes an irreversible condition.
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.
When diabetes occurs in women during pregnancy, it is called gestational diabetes. It usually is diagnosed between the 24th and 28th weeks of pregnancy. Like in type 1 and type 2 diabetes, blood sugar levels become too high. When women are pregnant, more glucose is needed to nourish the developing baby. The body needs more insulin, which is produced by the pancreas. In some women, the body does not produce enough insulin to meet this need, and blood sugar levels rise, resulting in gestational diabetes.
Supporting evidence for Shulman's theory comes from observations about a rare genetic illness called lipodystrophy. People with lipodystrophy can't make fat tissue, which is where fat should properly be stored. These thin people also develop severe insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. "They have fat stored in places it doesn't belong," like the liver and muscles, says Shulman. "When we treat them . . . we melt the fat away, reversing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes." Shulman's theory also suggests why some people who carry extra fat don't get type 2. "There are some individuals who store fat [under the skin] who have relatively normal insulin sensitivity, a so-called fit fat individual," he says. Because of the way their bodies store fat, he believes, they don't get diabetes.
Childhood obesity rates are rising, and so are the rates of type 2 diabetes in youth. More than 75% of children with type 2 diabetes have a close relative who has it, too. But it’s not always because family members are related; it can also be because they share certain habits that can increase their risk. Parents can help prevent or delay type 2 diabetes by developing a plan for the whole family:
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Insulin is essential to process carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Insulin reduces blood glucose levels by allowing glucose to enter muscle cells and by stimulating the conversion of glucose to glycogen (glycogenesis) as a carbohydrate store. Insulin also inhibits the release of stored glucose from liver glycogen (glycogenolysis) and slows the breakdown of fat to triglycerides, free fatty acids, and ketones. It also stimulates fat storage. Additionally, insulin inhibits the breakdown of protein and fat for glucose production (gluconeogenesis) in the liver and kidneys.
Excessive thirst typically goes hand-in-hand with increased urination. As your body pulls water out of the tissues to dilute your blood and to rid your body of sugar through the urine, the urge to drink increases. Many people describe this thirst as an unquenchable one. To stay hydrated, you drink excessive amounts of liquids. And if those liquids contain simple sugars (soda, sweet iced tea, lemonade, or juice, for example) your sugars will skyrocket even higher.
Pay attention if you find yourself feeling drowsy or lethargic; pain or numbness in your extremities; vision changes; fruity or sweet-smelling breath which is one of the symptoms of high ketones; and experiencing nausea or vomiting—as these are additional signs that something is not right. If there’s any question, see your doctor immediately to ensure that your blood sugar levels are safe and rule out diabetes.
Along with following your diabetes care plan, you may need diabetes medicines, which may include pills or medicines you inject under your skin, such as insulin. Over time, you may need more than one diabetes medicine to manage your blood glucose. Even if you don’t take insulin, you may need it at special times, such as during pregnancy or if you are in the hospital. You also may need medicines for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other conditions.
"We know that there is a very large genetic component," Rettinger says. "A person with a first-degree relative with Type 2 diabetes has a five to 10 time higher risk of developing diabetes than a person the same age and weight without a family history of Type 2 diabetes." Heredity actually plays a larger role in Type 2 diabetes than Type 1, Rettinger says.
ORAL GLUCOSE TOLERANCE TEST. Blood samples are taken from a vein before and after a patient drinks a thick, sweet syrup of glucose and other sugars. In a non-diabetic, the level of glucose in the blood goes up immediately after the drink and then decreases gradually as insulin is used by the body to metabolize, or absorb, the sugar. In a diabetic, the glucose in the blood goes up and stays high after drinking the sweetened liquid. A plasma glucose level of 11.1 mmol/L (200 mg/dL) or higher at two hours after drinking the syrup and at one other point during the two-hour test period confirms the diagnosis of diabetes.
Hypoglycemic reactions are promptly treated by giving carbohydrates (orange juice, hard candy, honey, or any sugary food); if necessary, subcutaneous or intramuscular glucagon or intravenous dextrose (if the patient is not conscious) is administered. Hyperglycemic crises are treated initially with prescribed intravenous fluids and insulin and later with potassium replacement based on laboratory values.