Insulin is a hormone made by your pancreas that acts like a key to let blood sugar into the cells in your body for use as energy. If you have type 2 diabetes, cells don’t respond normally to insulin; this is called insulin resistance. Your pancreas makes more insulin to try to get cells to respond. Eventually your pancreas can’t keep up, and your blood sugar rises, setting the stage for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. High blood sugar is damaging to the body and can cause other serious health problems, such as heart disease, vision loss, and kidney disease.
People with diabetes either don't make insulin or their body's cells no longer are able to use the insulin, leading to high blood sugars. By definition, diabetes is having a blood glucose level of greater than or equal to126 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) after an 8-hour fast (not eating anything), or by having a non-fasting glucose level greater than or equal to 200 mg/dL along with symptoms of diabetes, or a glucose level of greater than or equal to 200 mg/dL on a 2-hour glucose tolerance test, or an A1C greater than or equal to 6.5%. Unless the person is having obvious symptoms of diabetes or is in a diabetic crisis, the diagnosis must be confirmed with a repeat test.
The typical symptoms of diabetes mellitus are the three “polys:” polyuria, polydipsia, and polyphagia. Because of insulin deficiency, the assimilation and storage of glucose in muscle adipose tissues, and the liver is greatly diminished. This produces an accumulation of glucose in the blood and creates an increase in its osmolarity. In response to this increased osmotic pressure there is depletion of intracellular water and osmotic diuresis. The water loss creates intense thirst and increased urination. The increased appetite (polyphagia) is not as clearly understood. It may be the result of the body's effort to increase its supply of energy foods even though eating more carbohydrates in the absence of sufficient insulin does not meet the energy needs of the cells.
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.
Type 2 diabetes was also previously referred to as non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM), or adult-onset diabetes mellitus (AODM). In type 2 diabetes, patients can still produce insulin, but do so relatively inadequately for their body's needs, particularly in the face of insulin resistance as discussed above. In many cases this actually means the pancreas produces larger than normal quantities of insulin. A major feature of type 2 diabetes is a lack of sensitivity to insulin by the cells of the body (particularly fat and muscle cells).
When there is excess glucose present in the blood, as with type 2 diabetes, the kidneys react by flushing it out of the blood and into the urine. This results in more urine production and the need to urinate more frequently, as well as an increased risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs) in men and women. People with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to get a UTI as people without the disease, and the risk is higher in women than in men.
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