Diabetes Mellitus Fact Sheet
Diabetes mellitus is a term that refers to a group of diseases, all of which are related by the common root cause of a disorder in the way the body processes glucose present in the blood (Mayo Clinic 2010; WebMD 2010). All types of diabetes essentially lead to a buildup of glucose in the blood, which can lead to a number of serious health difficulties that may cause other symptoms and complications (Mayo Clinic 2010). These symptoms can initially include increased thirst, frequent urination, extreme hunger, sudden and inexplicable weight loss, fatigue, and an increasing frequency of infections (Medline 2010, WebMD 2010). If left untreated, diabetes can eventually lead to other debilitating conditions such as blindness, kidney failure, and peripheral artery disease (leading to amputations in extreme cases) (Medline 2010). All of these symptoms can be considered part of the basic progression of diabetes, though these latter symptoms are only part of extreme cases.
The basic mechanism that causes diabetes differs from type to type, but simply put the body requires insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, to break down glucose from digested food, which the body then uses as energy; individuals with diabetes either do not produce enough insulin or have a resistance to insulin, or both (Mayo Clinic 2010). It is one or both of these problems with insulin that leads to the glucose buildup in a diabetic’s blood, causing the symptoms of diabetes. Thus, though diabetes is defined by an issue with glucose, it is caused by an issue within the body of proper and/or adequate insulin use.
Types of Diabetes
As mentioned above, there are several types of diabetes and diabetes-related disorders. Prediabetes is a condition with many of the symptoms of diabetes resulting form an increased amount of blood sugar (glucose) that has not yet reached a chronic or fully diabetic state (Medline 2010; WebMD 2010). Gestational diabetes is a condition that can occur during pregnancy, and if left untreated it can be very dangerous for both the pregnant mother and the child she is carrying (Medline 2010). Both of these types of diabetes are reversible, with prediabetes requiring greater control of diet and exercise habits and gestational diabetes ending shortly after the pregnancy has ended (Medline 2010).
Type I and Type II diabetes, which are what most people refer to and think of when they hear the phrase “diabetes,” are not so easily reversible. In Type 1 diabetes, also called “juvenile onset diabetes,” the pancreas produces little or no insulin, due to an immune reaction in which the insulin-producing cells are killed (Mayo Clinic 2010). In Type 2 diabetes, the body becomes resistant to the influence, and the pancreas cannot make enough insulin to overcome this resistance, leaving the glucose in the blood instead of breaking it down (Mayo Clinic 2010). This type of diabetes often occurs in obese individuals, and though the exact cause of the disease is unknown excess fat — especially around the abdomen — appears to be a major factor in the disease (Mayo Clinic 2010; WebMD 2010). Both types require strict monitoring of blood sugar, specific dietary habits, and possibly insulin injections.
Relationship with Cardiovascular Disease/Stroke
Because diabetes can lead to peripheral artery disease, increased atherosclerosis (hardening/narrowing of the arteries), and many other health complications, there is a definite relationship between all types of diabetes and risks for a variety of cardiovascular diseases and even stroke (Mayo Clinic 2010; Medline 2010; WebMD 2010). For diabetes that is well-controlled via insulin injections and/or very careful management of food intake, exercise habits, and glucose levels, however, this risk is virtually non-existent (WebMD 2010). Controlling for other often related health factors, people with diabetes do not have a significantly increased risk for cardiovascular disease or suffering from strokes than do other individuals of similar types that do not have diabetes as long as their diabetes is properly controlled (WebMD 2010).
Type 2 diabetes, and its association with obesity, changes this relationship somewhat. Individuals with Type 2 diabetes typically have poor eating and exercise habits that contribute to the development of their disease, and these same risk factors also contribute to the risk for and progression of cardiovascular diseases and stroke (Mayo Clinic 2010; WebMD 2010). Though not necessarily directly related to diabetes their diabetes, these individuals have a much greater risk for heart attacks, strokes, cholesterol build-up in arteries, and a host of other cardiovascular diseases and conditions (Medline 2010; WebMD 2010). Still, with proper diet, exercise, and other methods for controlling the disease and correcting underlying conditions, much of this risk can be diminished or eliminated.
As mentioned above, the primary treatment for diabetes is through proper dietary habits and monitoring of glucose levels, with the possibility of needing insulin injections. All of these treatments are aimed at keeping the glucose level in the blood within a normal range, correcting the basic imbalance that is the root cause of all types of diabetes, and through this control of the glucose levels these treatments control the other symptoms and potential health hazards of the disease (Medline 2010; WebMD 2010). Dietary changes are needed to ensure that glucose remains at healthy levels; eating too much or too little, especially at the wrong times depending on current glucose and insulin levels, can cause major and immediate problems for diabetics (Mayo Clinic 2010). Carefully monitoring glucose levels helps to ensure that dietary habits remain geared towards promoting health and preventing any extreme flare-up of diabetic symptoms, such as diabetic shock or coma (Mayo Clinic 2010).
Insulin injections are not always a part of diabetes treatment, and other treatment methods have become more effective as the disease has become better understood, but many individuals still need daily injections of insulin to make for what their body cannot produce (WebMD 2010). This, too, works to control glucose levels, enabling the body to break own the glucose in the bloodstream and use it for energy as it is supposed to, instead of having it build up as it does in untreated diabetes (Mayo Clinic 2010; Medline 2010). Dietary recommendations for Type 2 diabetes patients are often much stricter in an effort to reduce weight and other complications (WebMD 2010).
Avoiding and Prevention
For Type 1 diabetes, there is little (truly nothing) that can be done to avoid the disease. Though the reason that the immune system in some individuals attacks the specific site on the pancreas where insulin is produced is still unknown, it appears to basically be a congenital disorder, present since birth and typically causing symptoms beginning in adolescence, and sometimes even earlier (thus the term, “juvenile onset diabetes” that is often applied to this type of the disease (WebMD 2010). The same is true of gestational diabetes, which sometimes simply occurs without a very clear understanding of why (Medline 2010). Diagnosing and controlling the disease early, however, can greatly reduce its symptoms, its ongoing severity, and the health risks that it leads t0 (Mayo Clinic 2010).
Type 2 diabetes can be prevented primarily through maintaining healthy dietary and exercise recommendations (Mayo Clinic 2010; WebMD 2010). In a healthy body, glucose levels are naturally monitored by insulin production and the drive to eat, so as long as the proper nutrient and caloric intakes are provided to this system it continues to function (Mayo Clinic 2010; Medline 2010). Again, the exact mechanism by which a resistance to insulin is built up in this type of diabetes (and prediabetes) is unknown, but a proper diet can definitely forestall incidents of developing Type 2 diabetes (Mayo Clinic 2010; WebMD 2010). Instating proper eating and exercise habits after diagnosis can often be sufficient to control or even reverse the disease, as well.
Mayo Clinic. (2010). “Diabetes.” Accessed 20 July 2010. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/diabetes/DS01121/DSECTION=causes
Medline. (2010). “Diabetes.” Accessed 20 July 2010. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001214.htm
WebMD. (2010). “Diabetes.” Accessed 20 July 2010. http://diabetes.webmd.com/