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.
Although some people with this type of diabetes are thin, the majority of people (90%) are overweight. Losing weight, even 2 kg to 5 kg (5 lbs to 10 lbs) can help lower blood glucose levels. For many people, following a healthy diet and an exercise program may be all that is needed to help control glucose levels. For others, healthy eating and exercise alone aren't enough to lower blood glucose levels.
The roots of type 2 diabetes remain in insulin resistance and pancreatic failure, and the blame for the current diabetes epidemic lies in an overall dietary pattern emphasizing meat, dairy products, and fatty foods, aided and abetted by sugary foods and beverages, rather than simply in sugar alone. A diet emphasizing vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes and avoiding animal products helps prevent diabetes and improves its management when it has been diagnosed.
People with type 1 diabetes are unable to produce any insulin at all. People with type 2 diabetes still produce insulin, however, the cells in the muscles, liver and fat tissue are inefficient at absorbing the insulin and cannot regulate glucose well. As a result, the body tries to compensate by having the pancreas pump out more insulin. But the pancreas slowly loses the ability to produce enough insulin, and as a result, the cells don’t get the energy they need to function properly.
Type 2 Diabetes: Accounting for 90 to 95 percent of those with diabetes, type 2 is the most common form. Usually, it's diagnosed in adults over age 40 and 80 percent of those with type 2 diabetes are overweight. Because of the increase in obesity, type 2 diabetes is being diagnosed at younger ages, including in children. Initially in type 2 diabetes, insulin is produced, but the insulin doesn't function properly, leading to a condition called insulin resistance. Eventually, most people with type 2 diabetes suffer from decreased insulin production.
Oral medications are available to lower blood glucose in Type II diabetics. In 1990, 23.4 outpatient prescriptions for oral antidiabetic agents were dispensed. By 2001, the number had increased to 91.8 million prescriptions. Oral antidiabetic agents accounted for more than $5 billion dollars in worldwide retail sales per year in the early twenty-first century and were the fastest-growing segment of diabetes drugs. The drugs first prescribed for Type II diabetes are in a class of compounds called sulfonylureas and include tolbutamide, tolazamide, acetohexamide, and chlorpropamide. Newer drugs in the same class are now available and include glyburide, glimeperide, and glipizide. How these drugs work is not well understood, however, they seem to stimulate cells of the pancreas to produce more insulin. New medications that are available to treat diabetes include metformin, acarbose, and troglitizone. The choice of medication depends in part on the individual patient profile. All drugs have side effects that may make them inappropriate for particular patients. Some for example, may stimulate weight gain or cause stomach irritation, so they may not be the best treatment for someone who is already overweight or who has stomach ulcers. Others, like metformin, have been shown to have positive effects such as reduced cardiovascular mortality, but but increased risk in other situations. While these medications are an important aspect of treatment for Type II diabetes, they are not a substitute for a well planned diet and moderate exercise. Oral medications have not been shown effective for Type I diabetes, in which the patient produces little or no insulin.
Patients need to ensure that their blood glucose levels are kept as normal as possible so that delicate tissues in the body (especially blood vessels in the eyes, kidneys and peripheral nerves) are not damaged by high glucose levels over a long period of time. To achieve this, patients need to measure their glucose regularly and learn how to adjust their insulin doses in order to optimise their glucose levels (diabetes control). Good diabetes control helps to minimise the risk of long-term diabetes complications, as well as short-term symptoms (such as thirst).
If, on the other hand, you are already starting to develop complications or your medication regimen has changed because your blood sugars are getting higher, remember that diabetes is a progressive disease—and sometimes these things just happen without any influence from your own actions. As you age, beta cells in the pancreas get tired and stop working. If you've had diabetes for 20 years and now need to start insulin, for example, it doesn't mean you've failed. It just means that your body needs some help. Make sure you continue to receive education and that you continue to have someone to lean on when you need it, and keep the lines of communication open with your doctor. It truly can make a difference.
It's not as clear what the rest of the type 1 genes are up to, but researchers are eager to find out. "Even though something accounts for a small part [of the genetic risk], it could have a significant impact," says Stephen Rich, PhD, director of the Center for Public Health Genomics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Understanding these genes' role may clue researchers in to less obvious biological pathways involved in type 1 diabetes, and to possible prevention strategies.
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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.
Type 2 diabetes usually begins with insulin resistance, a condition in which muscle, liver, and fat cells do not use insulin well. As a result, your body needs more insulin to help glucose enter cells. At first, the pancreas makes more insulin to keep up with the added demand. Over time, the pancreas can’t make enough insulin, and blood glucose levels rise.
Janis McWilliams, RN, MSN, CDE, BC-ADM, responds: Yes, in type 1 diabetes in particular, the onset of symptoms like frequent urination and extreme thirst can be very sudden. In type 2 diabetes, the symptoms tend to come about more gradually, and sometimes there are no signs at all. People who have symptoms should contact their health care provider immediately for an accurate diagnosis. Keep in mind that these symptoms could signal other problems, too.
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.
Diabetes mellitus is linked with an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, poor blood circulation to the legs and damage to the eyes, feet and kidneys. Early diagnosis and strict control of blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels can help to prevent or delay these complications associated with diabetes. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle (regular exercise, eating healthily and maintaining a healthy weight) is important in reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Healthy lifestyle choices can help you prevent type 2 diabetes. Even if you have diabetes in your family, diet and exercise can help you prevent the disease. If you've already received a diagnosis of diabetes, you can use healthy lifestyle choices to help prevent complications. And if you have prediabetes, lifestyle changes can slow or halt the progression from prediabetes to diabetes.
Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). If your blood sugar level drops below your target range, it's known as low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Your blood sugar level can drop for many reasons, including skipping a meal, inadvertently taking more medication than usual or getting more physical activity than normal. Low blood sugar is most likely if you take glucose-lowering medications that promote the secretion of insulin or if you're taking insulin.
Type 2 diabetes: Type 2 diabetes affects the way the body uses insulin. While the body still makes insulin, unlike in type I, the cells in the body do not respond to it as effectively as they once did. This is the most common type of diabetes, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and it has strong links with obesity.
Type 2 diabetes, which is often diagnosed when a person has an A1C of at least 7 on two separate occasions, can lead to potentially serious issues, like neuropathy, or nerve damage; vision problems; an increased risk of heart disease; and other diabetes complications. A person’s A1C is the two- to three-month average of his or her blood sugar levels.