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.
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.
Diabetes mellitus is a public health problem around the world. In 1980, 108 million adults worldwide had diabetes (4.7% of the global population). By 2014 this had risen to 422 million adults (8.5% of the global population). By 2040, the number is expected to be 642 million adults. In the UK, there is estimated to be between 3 and 4 million people with diabetes. Type 2 diabetes accounts for more than 90% of all patients with diabetes.
A healthy lifestyle can prevent almost all cases of type 2 diabetes. A large research study called the Diabetes Prevention Program, found that patients who made intensive changes including diet and exercise, reduced their risk of developing diabetes by 58%. Patients who were over 60 years old seemed to experience extra benefit; they reduced their risk by 71%. In comparison, patients who were given the drug metformin for prevention only reduced their risk by 31%.
Progression toward type 2 diabetes may even be self-perpetuating. Once a person begins to become insulin resistant, for whatever reason, things may snowball from there. The increased levels of circulating insulin required to compensate for resistance encourage the body to pack on pounds. That extra weight will in turn make the body more insulin resistant. Furthermore, the heavier a person is, the more difficult it can be to exercise, continuing the slide toward diabetes.
The glucose level at which symptoms develop varies greatly from individual to individual (and from time to time in the same individual), depending in part on the duration of diabetes, the frequency of hypoglycemic episodes, the rate of fall of glycemia, and overall control. (Glucose is also the sole energy source for erythrocytes and the kidney medulla.)
No single environmental trigger has been identified as causing diabetes mellitus, however both infectious agents and dietary factors are thought to be important. Various viruses have been implicated in the development of type I DM. They may act by initiating or modifying the autoimmune process. In particular, the rubella virus and coxsackie viruses have been closely studied. In particular, congenital rubella infection has shown direct relationships with the development of type 1 diabetes mellitus. This is presumably due to the virus (or antibodies against it) damaging the beta cells of the pancreas. Some research has looked at dietary factors that may be associated with type 1 diabetes. In particular, cow’s milk proteins (such as bovine serum albumin) which may have some similarities to pancreatic islet cell markers may be able to trigger the autoimmune process. Other chemicals including nitrosamines have been identified as causes of diabetes mellitus in animal models, but not in humans.
There are other factors that also fall into the category of environmental (as opposed to genetic) causes of diabetes. Certain injuries to the pancreas, from physical trauma or from drugs, can harm beta cells, leading to diabetes. Studies have also found that people who live in polluted areas are prone to type 2, perhaps because of inflammation. And an alternate theory of insulin resistance places the blame on damage caused by inflammation. Age also factors into type 2; beta cells can wear out over time and become less capable of producing enough insulin to overcome insulin resistance, which is why older people are at greater risk of type 2.
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.
Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and physical inactivity. The risk of developing type 2 diabetes also increases as people grow older. People who are over 40 and overweight are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, although the incidence of this type of diabetes in adolescents is growing. Diabetes is more common among Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders. Also, people who develop diabetes while pregnant (a condition called gestational diabetes) are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life.
Some cases of diabetes are caused by the body's tissue receptors not responding to insulin (even when insulin levels are normal, which is what separates it from type 2 diabetes); this form is very uncommon. Genetic mutations (autosomal or mitochondrial) can lead to defects in beta cell function. Abnormal insulin action may also have been genetically determined in some cases. Any disease that causes extensive damage to the pancreas may lead to diabetes (for example, chronic pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis). Diseases associated with excessive secretion of insulin-antagonistic hormones can cause diabetes (which is typically resolved once the hormone excess is removed). Many drugs impair insulin secretion and some toxins damage pancreatic beta cells. The ICD-10 (1992) diagnostic entity, malnutrition-related diabetes mellitus (MRDM or MMDM, ICD-10 code E12), was deprecated by the World Health Organization (WHO) when the current taxonomy was introduced in 1999.
FIGURE 19-1 ■. This figure shows the hyperbolic relationship of insulin resistance and beta cell function. On the y-axis is beta cell function as reflected in the first-phase insulin response during intravenous (IV) glucose infusion; on the x-axis is insulin sensitivity and its mirror image resistance. In a subject with normal glucose tolerance (NGT) and beta-cell reserve, an increase in insulin resistance results in increased insulin release and normal glucose tolerance. In an individual for whom the capacity to increase insulin release is compromised, increasing insulin resistance with partial or no beta-cell compensation results in progression from normal glucose tolerance, to impaired glucose tolerance (IGT), and finally to diabetes (T2D). Differences between these categories are small at high insulin sensitivity, which may be maintained by weight reduction, exercise, and certain drugs. At a critical degree of insulin resistance, due to obesity or other listed factors, only a further small increment in resistance requires a large increase in insulin output. Those that can increase insulin secretion to this extent retain normal glucose tolerance; those who cannot achieve this degree of insulin secretion (e.g., due to a mild defect in genes regulating insulin synthesis, insulin secretion, insulin action, or an ongoing immune destruction of beta cells) now unmask varying degrees of carbohydrate intolerance. The product of insulin sensitivity (the reciprocal of insulin resistance) and acute insulin response (a measurement beta-cell function) has been called the “disposition index.” This index remains constant in an individual with normal beta cell compensation in response to changes in insulin resistance. IGT, impaired glucose tolerance; NGT, normal glucose tolerance; T2D, type 2 diabetes.
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.