What is Diabetes

Everyone's heard of diabetes, but few actually know what the disease is about and how to live with it. No, eating too much sugar or being obese does not cause diabetes. No, diabetes isn't an "adult-only" illness. And no, just because you're diabetic does not automatically mean you need insulin shots or you need to eat different foods than everyone else.

Categorized into three types:

Type 1 diabetes (insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus or IDDM) was previously also called juvenile-onset diabetes due to symptoms appearing early in life during childhood. It's an autoimmune condition, which means it happens because your own immune system is going haywire and attacking your body.

In the case of Type 1 diabetes, your immune system is attacking the source of insulin: your pancreas.There are no known specific causes of Type 1 diabetes, but it could be triggered by components that cause the autoimmune reaction, such as bacterial and viral infection or chemical toxins in food. Genetic predisposition is also believed to be a major underlying cause for Type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes (non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus or NIDDM) was previously called maturity-onset diabetes, because it mostly affected adults. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form, accounting for 95% of all diabetes patients in the US -- some 26 million diagnosed American adults.Type 2 occurs when the pancreas creates some insulin, but not enough, or the body is resistant it or not sufficiently sensitive to the signals it gives. While often milder than Type 1 diabetes, Type 2 does tend to progress and lead to complications, which also mean diabetes medication is usually needed.Like Type 1 diabetes, there is no single known cause for Type 2; it's multifactorial, with genetic predisposition being the major deciding factor. A family history of Type 2 diabetes puts you at higher risk, especially if you're older, not very physically active, and or obese.

Gestational Diabetes is the type that is triggered during pregnancy. Being pregnant on its own leads to some degree of insulin resistance. Often diagnosed in middle to late pregnancy, gestational diabetes occurs in about 2 to 10% of all pregnancies.This type of diabetes goes away after pregnancy, though it leaves the mothers at a higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes in the future.

If not properly managed, it can present significant risks to the unborn baby, even more so than the mother. Causes for gestational diabetes also remain largely unknown, though risk factors are similar to Type 2 diabetes, with the addition of polycystic ovary syndrome, and whether you've had a very large baby (over 9lbs) previously.

Diabetes is an illness that basically affects the way your body uses the energy in the food you eat. It's chronic and lifelong, and there is no cure. If you have diabetes that means your body either doesn't create enough of a certain hormone called insulin, or your body can't properly make use of the insulin it does produce, or both. This is a problem because insulin plays a significant role in turning the sugar in your food -- the glucose -- into energy for your body. If you can't create enough of it or can't use it properly, it's going to lead to a number of issues.

How Food is Turned into Sugar (Glucose) in Your Body

It's important to touch briefly on your body's internal processes concerning glucose production and absorption.The food you eat contains carbohydrates, and these are comprised of important energy sources such as glucose, a simple form of sugar. When you digest your food, you break down the carbohydrates and the glucose is either used by your cells for energy or stored for future use.

The Role of Insulin Your Body

A hormone created by your pancreas, insulin helps your body use up the glucose from the food you eat. The glucose in your blood can't be absorbed by your cells directly. If your blood sugar levels reach a certain point, your pancreas creates insulin, and that insulin attaches to your cells and signals them to go ahead and absorb the glucose.The glucose is essentially locked out from your cells until insulin acts as "keys" that allow them to be absorbed.

If you have more sugar than you currently need, insulin also helps store the extra glucose in your liver for future use.Therefore, in general insulin helps manage your blood sugar level, keeping it from getting too low (called hypoglycemia) or too high (hyperglycemia).

Rare Cases of Diabetes

Around 1 to 5% of all diabetes cases are rare types, not categorized under the above three, and can only result from very specific situations, such as diseases of the pancreas, infections, or certain medications and surgeries.

Complications of Diabetes regardless of type, remains pretty similar: there's too little insulin at work (because there's too few to begin with or because the body's rejecting it), so in effect, there's too much sugar in the blood. That leads to a lot of problems down the line, such as, Neuropathy (Nerve and kidney damage) and Nephropathy (damage to the nerve and kidney) due to high blood sugar levels. These conditions have complications of their own.

Nerve damage can ultimately cause you to lose sensation in affected limbs, and kidney damage can require dialysis or a transplant, if not managed properly right away.

Eye and foot damage -- if you've got too much sugar in your blood, which flows everywhere in your body, this can also lead to damage to the eyes and feet. If not treated, diabetes can leave you blind or at higher risk for other vision impairments.

Wounds to your feet can also heal slowly and may become  infected easily as diabetes damages the nerves in your lower body. If left untreated, infections can ultimately lead to amputation.

Cardiovascular disease -- stroke and narrowing of arteries (atherosclerosis), heart attack, coronary artery disease with chest pain (angina) -- these are all cardiovascular complications that can arise from diabetes. You're simply at greater risk of these diseases because of diabetes.

 Alzheimer's disease -- there are theories how diabetes and Alzheimer's connect, but right now it's simply on the list as it's been observed that diabetes patients are at higher risk than others. 

How To Check Blood Sugar

Obviously, it's prudent to always keep an eye on your blood sugar levels, so it's worth covering briefly. If you're already diagnosed with diabetes, sugar tests aren't optional, you have to really monitor your blood sugar levels on a regular basis.

There are traditional home glucose testing kits that require you to prick your finger and put a droplet of blood on a test strip for reading. A small meter can give you results in 15 seconds and often stores this information for future use. You can buy these kits over the counter.

There are also meters that take readings from other parts of your body, but fingertip readings are most accurate. Listen to your doctor's specific advice on how often you need to test your blood sugar levels.

Carb Counting and Watching Your Diet

Simply put, carb counting is keeping track of the carbohydrates in the food you eat. To properly count the carbohydrates in your food (measured in grams), you'll need to know how many carbs are in the different food groups. To find out how many carbohydrates are in a certain food download a carbohydrate food list to help you. 

Estimate how many grams of carbs are in the food you eat and know your daily carbohydrate limit, then add up the carbohydrates you have consumed based on food intake, always staying below your limit.

Pay close attention to nutrition labels and use online carbohydrate calculators to make it easier.For the nex step, you'll need to do some math. Unfortunately, the amounts of fat, proteins, and carbohydrates required for diabetes patients are not always defined. There's no best amount that suits everyone with the same condition. Ask your doctor to refer you to a dietitian or nutritionist to create a healthy eating plan based on carb counting and your specific needs.

 Stress and mental health

Stress can cause your condition to deteriorate.This means you need adequate support for personal problems and you need effective ways to relieve stress.Talk with your doctor to help you learn ways to reduce stress and anxiety. Staying active will also help relieve stress and improve your diabetes. Do your best to avoid a sedentary lifestyle. Try and plan active pursuits and workout sessions weekly to avoid increasing the factors that worsen diabetes.

Diabetes is a condition that effects your entire lifestyle, so you need to counter that with an entire lifestyle shift as well. Remember to take prescribed medication and note and report any side effects.

Check your feet for cuts and blisters and anything that can lead to infections. If you smoke, it's time to quit. Ask your health care provider for recommendations on quitting.

This is by no means a comprehensive or extensive guide to living with diabetes, but it gives you all the accurate facts to understand the condition as well as a glimpse on how to manage it. It's worth reiterating that your first and foremost task is to know and understand as much as possible, not just about the disease, but how to live with it.