Ever get the feeling that you've just hopped off a carousel, or maybe you're craving a drink of water more often than usual? These are just a couple of the telltale signs of diabetes. Diagnosing (and fighting) diabetes begins with knowing your risk as well as understanding the disease's different forms and their causes.
Below, Dr. Deeksha Mehta an endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism specialist at Summit Health, breaks down the basics of diabetes and offers advice on how to manage it.
Diabetes is caused by either lack of adequate insulin or impaired insulin functioning. Insulin allows the cells in the muscles, fat, and liver to absorb glucose that is in the blood. Insulin deficiency or resistance leads to poor metabolism of carbohydrates and elevated blood sugar levels. Over time, elevated blood sugars can damage blood vessels and organs like the heart, kidneys, and eyes.
Diabetes can be broadly classified into two types as follows:
Type 2 diabetes is by far the most common type of diabetes in adults (>90 percent) and is characterized by hyperglycemia, usually due to insulin resistance. This means that the pancreas is making insulin, but the body is resistant to its action.
If you have type 1 diabetes, your pancreas either doesn't make insulin or is producing too little. It's less common (accounting for approximately 5 to 10 percent of diabetes in adults) and is usually diagnosed in children, teens, and young adults.
Some other conditions causing hyperglycemia are as follows:
Pregnancy hormones can interrupt normal pancreatic function, leading to gestational diabetes mellitus. Most people may not experience symptoms, but it is important to ensure blood sugar levels stay normal during pregnancy. Gestational diabetes usually goes away after the baby is born—but women are at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes later on.
This health condition develops when blood sugar levels are higher than normal. Levels are not quite high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes, but place individuals at higher risk of developing the condition. Most people who have prediabetes don't know it because they don't exhibit symptoms, but with healthy lifestyle habits, individuals with prediabetes can significantly reduce their risk of progressing to full-blown diabetes.
Many people living with diabetes report experiencing no symptoms, which makes it trickier to diagnose and treat if you aren't being regularly screened or go for an annual physical. Here are some early warning signs to look out for:
- Urinating a lot (often at night) and/or excessive thirst
- Increased hunger and/or losing weight without trying
- Blurry vision
- Numbness or tingling in hands or feet
- Feeling tired
- Dry and/or itchy skin
Dr. Mehta explains that diabetic ketoacidosis and hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state are two acute complications of uncontrolled diabetes.
"Diabetic ketoacidosis is a serious problem that happens to people with diabetes when chemicals called 'ketones' build up in their blood," she says. "It can happen to people with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes but is more likely to affect people with the former."
Hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state, on the other hand, is most common in older adults with type 2 diabetes. It happens when someone gets an infection or other illness, stops taking their diabetes medicine (or not as directed), or takes other medicines that affect sugar levels. Dr. Mehta notes the following major symptoms:
- Feeling tired
- Belly pain
- Sweet or fruity-smelling breath
- Nausea and/or vomiting
A balanced diet and healthy lifestyle are the foundation for treatment of diabetes. If you are found to have a high sugar level, you can work with your health care provider to prevent progression to diabetes through healthy lifestyle changes, such as increased physical activity, better eating habits, and weight loss.
Even after a diagnosis of diabetes, most people can enjoy normal lives with healthy lifestyle changes. Dr. Mehta says that patients with newly diagnosed diabetes should participate in a comprehensive diabetes self-management education program. "This includes instruction on nutrition, recommended physical activity, and how to prevent complications."
In addition to meeting with your health care provider and formulating a treatment plan and medication regimen (if needed), these are some things diabetics can incorporate into their weekly routine:
- Aim for a healthy weight and body mass index. Aggressive dietary modification is a highly effective strategy for weight loss in patients who are willing to commit to it.
- Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise spread out over the week.
- Avoid sweets and sugary beverages, including fruit juices. Don’t drink your calories.
- Add more vegetables to your diet and reduce junk food.
- Monitor your blood glucose readings after discussion with your doctor. Continuous glucose monitoring devices, most of which are compatible with a smartphone, can be worn on the upper arm or abdomen, and can help you make better food choices.
- Consider practicing mindful meditation and yoga or prioritizing your favorite hobbies to combat the significant mental and emotional stress that might come from your diabetes-related responsibilities.