Diabetes: What it is and how to manage it 

Diabetes: What it is and how to manage it 

Diabetes: What it is and how to manage it
Diabetes: What it is and how to manage it
Diabetes: What it is and how to manage it

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Learning a bit about our body and any health conditions we have goes a long way in helping us manage those conditions and our overall health. The more knowledge and understanding you have of diabetes, the better equipped you are, and the more you will understand your diabetes management plan.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a long-term condition in which your body cannot maintain healthy glucose levels (a type of sugar) in the blood. This can lead to high blood glucose levels, which can have long and short-term health complications.*  Diabetes can occur due to the pancreas not being able to make insulin, not making enough insulin, or when insulin is produced, it does not work effectively. Insulin is a hormone that is essential for ensuring our blood glucose levels stay at a healthy level.*

Starches, sugars, and other nutrients are normally broken down into glucose, which is absorbed by the bloodstream1 and transported to your body cells. The cells use insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, to help convert glucose into energy. Without insulin, your body cannot use or store the glucose from the food that you eat. This glucose then builds up in your bloodstream and urine, which can cause numerous problems. Type 1 diabetes is diagnosed when already-damaged pancreatic cells cannot produce insulin 2 in the body. 

This condition is usually diagnosed in children and young adults but may also occur at any age. Type 2 diabetes usually occurs in middle age, when your body is either unable to produce sufficient insulin or your body cells are resistant to the effects of insulin.

There is the potential for some complications when you have diabetes, such as heart attacks and strokes.1 Speak to your healthcare professional to learn more about these.

Proper management of diabetes is the key to staying healthy and preventing damage to tissues and body organs. Left uncontrolled, this health condition can lead to long-term complications such as cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, blindness, erectile dysfunction, and foot infection.

How insulin usually works

To understand diabetes, we have to first understand how insulin normally works to control blood glucose.

Carbohydrates are a source of energy for your body, especially your brain. They break down and are digested and release glucose into the bloodstream.3

Glucose is absorbed in all areas of the body for energy, with excess glucose being stored in the liver or converted to fat and stored in other body tissues.

Insulin is the hormone produced by the pancreas, opens the glucose channels in cells to allow the glucose to move from the bloodstream to the other areas in the body.4 

If you have diabetes, you either don't have insulin to help move the glucose to the cells, there isn't enough insulin, or the insulin produced does not work properly to move the glucose into the cells4.

Types of diabetes

There are two main types of diabetes – type 1 and type 2.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body’s immune system destroys the insulin-making cells in the pancreas, so insulin is no longer produced. This means the body cells cannot take up glucose, and it is left in the bloodstream.1

In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas is still producing insulin, but the body’s cells are not responding to it properly (so glucose is not taken up from the bloodstream the way it normally is). This is sometimes referred to as ‘insulin resistance’ – meaning your body is building resistance to the effect of insulin. As insulin resistance builds, the pancreas cannot keep up with the increasing demand for insulin, resulting in too much glucose being left in the blood.1

During pregnancy, some women develop high blood sugar levels. This condition is known as gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) or gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes typically develops between the 24th and 28th weeks of pregnancy. If you develop gestational diabetes while you’re pregnant, it doesn’t mean that you had diabetes before your pregnancy or will have it afterward. But gestational diabetes does raise your risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the future.

How to manage the condition

Take a more active role in understanding the disease so that you learn to manage it well and keep your blood glucose levels as close as possible to normal. A blood glucose monitor is a helpful tool to help determine patterns of blood glucose control. Do test your blood glucose levels frequently. By testing your blood glucose level and keeping a record of the results, you’ll find out whether you need to make changes in your diet, exercise, or medication.

Take your medication on time.

Insulin injections are required for people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes to help regulate their blood sugar levels3.

For type 2 diabetes, the treatment will depend on how well controlled your blood glucose levels are. You may need to change your lifestyle, take oral medication (in the form of pills), or do insulin injections.

Do take your pills or insulin shots simultaneously each day and follow your doctor's guidelines. Never miss any pills or insulin shots.

Eat Smart.

Knowing what food to eat and avoid can help your body use insulin better. Certain foods can also help to keep your blood sugar under control.

Opt for a diet with a good balance of fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, meats, and milk products. Avoid foods that are high in sugar. Check the food labels if you’re unsure. Sources of sugar in food include corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, molasses, and honey.

Eat regularly and do not skip meals, as irregular meal times can affect your blood sugar levels.

Do pick up healthy cooking habits if you prefer home-cooked food. Broil, bake, boil or grill your food instead of frying, and of course, limit high-fat foods such as potato chips, butter, ice cream, and mayonnaise.

Exercise regularly.

Exercise is an important part of diabetes care. Besides improving your overall fitness and boosting your sense of well-being, it helps control your blood sugar levels.

Always consult your doctor before starting any exercise program. Check your blood glucose levels before exercising and retest your blood glucose after exercise.

Do carry carbohydrate-packed snacks such as fruit or a power bar to replenish the glucose you need if your blood sugar levels are low.

When to see a doctor immediately

High blood sugar levels

If your blood sugar levels spike, you should see a doctor as soon as possible4. Symptoms of high blood sugar levels include increased thirst, fatigue, frequent urination, upset stomach, and vomiting. These symptoms may occur within hours or may develop over several days. High blood sugar levels could be caused by a lack of insulin, an infection, stress, or a heavy meal.

Drink plenty of sugar-free fluids and do not stop medication without a doctor's advice. Be sure to test your blood sugar levels every four hours and check your blood or urine for ketones.

Low blood sugar levels

If you’re suffering from low blood sugar levels, you should also see a doctor immediately. Symptoms include shaking, trembling, sweating, hunger, and irritability5. You might also feel faint within minutes.

Low blood sugar levels may be caused by too much insulin and infrequent meals. Too much exercise might also lead to low blood sugar levels.

Take a fast-acting sugar source like fruit juice or regular soda as a stopgap measure. Check your blood glucose level in 15 minutes, and see a doctor if it is still low. Let your friends and family know beforehand that they should call for a doctor immediately if you pass out or lose consciousness.

* Better Health Channel. Diabetes. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/diabetes

1 Health Promotion Board of Singapore. Retrieved on Aug 31, 2015 from: http://www.hpb.gov.sg/HOPPortal/dandc-article/680.

2 Mayo Clinic. Retrieved on Aug 31, 2015 from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/type-1-diabetes/basics/definition/con-20019573.

3 WebMD. Retrieved on Aug 31, 2015 from: http://www.webmd.com/diabetes/guide/type-1-diabetes?page=3. 

4 WebMd. Retrieved on Aug 31, 2015 from: http://www.webmd.com/diabetes/features/diabetes-symptoms-to-never-ignore.

5 Ibid.

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