How Diabetes Affects Your Body

November 20, 2018
Diabetes risk factors for CL

As Americans, we’re getting older and more overweight. One result is the tripling of the number of adults diagnosed with diabetes in the past 20 years.

Of the 30.3 million U.S. adults who have diabetes, one in four doesn’t know it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That lack of knowledge could be bad news because diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. It also is the top cause of kidney failure, lower-limb amputations and adult-onset blindness, the CDC says.

As a certified diabetes educator at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, Linda Wooley, RN, CDE, knows well the factors that put people at risk for diabetes and the steps patients can take to manage the disease.

“Diabetes is a chronic, progressive disease where the body does not produce enough insulin, or the body does not use the insulin properly,” Wooley said.

The most-common diagnosis is Type 2 diabetes, which occurs in 90 to 95 percent of the U.S. population with diabetes. It’s thought to be hereditary, but not always.

“With Type 2 diabetes, the pancreas is working to produce insulin, however it is not producing at 100 percent capacity,” Wooley said.

By the time the patient is diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, his or her pancreas has been working in overdrive for five to 10 years – a state known as insulin resistance. The pancreas is trying to put out enough insulin to bring higher blood sugars back into target.

 “After many years of doing this, the pancreas starts to put out less insulin because of being overworked,” Wooley said. As a result, blood sugars remain higher than normal. 

Wooley explained what’s happening in the body of a person without diabetes.

“Most of the foods we eat go down to the stomach where they are broken down into what we call sugar, then moved through the digestive tract and into the blood stream where it waits for insulin,” she said. “Insulin has a very important job and has to travel to the blood stream to move the sugar from the bloodstream into the cells of the body where we use it for energy for our body.”

When a person has Type 2 diabetes, two things can occur:

  • Insulin comes over to the bloodstream where the sugar is waiting, but not enough insulin is available. As a result, when the sugar is moved over to the cells, some of it is left over in the bloodstream, causing high blood sugars.

  • Enough insulin does come over to the bloodstream, but when the insulin tries to move the sugar over into the cells, the process is faulty and not all the cells let the sugar in, leaving extra sugar in the bloodstream and again causing high blood sugars. 

Several factors put people at risk for Type 2 diabetes:

  • Family history

  • Obesity

  • A sedentary lifestyle

  • A diet high in carbohydrates

  • Pre-diabetes. In the United States, 84.1 million adults -- more than one in three -- have prediabetes, and 90 percent of them don’t know they have it

  • Gestational diabetes, which develops in pregnant women who have never had diabetes

  • Chronic use of medications such as steroids

“Although Type 2 was thought to only affect adults, we are seeing this chronic disease now affect our children as well,” she said.

Another type of diabetes, Type 1, affects only 5 percent to 10 percent of those who have the disease. It’s not hereditary, though it is sometimes thought to have a genetic component.

“Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks the beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin, shutting them down and essentially stopping the pancreas from functioning,” she said. “Since we have to have insulin to live, patients with Type 1 diabetes have to inject insulin into the body to make up for the insulin that their body no longer produces.”

While Type 1 diabetes was thought to only affect children and young adults, patients are now being diagnosed in their 50s and 60s.

Lab tests can show whether the person has Type 1 diabetes or Type 2 diabetes.

While diabetes doesn’t have a cure yet, those with diabetes can make positive choices to reduce its impact on their lives.

Managing diabetes

  • Check blood sugars as prescribed by the health care provider

  • Take medications as prescribed

  • Follow-up visits to health care provider as prescribed

  • Hemoglobin A1c level at least twice yearly

  • Yearly dilated eye exams

  • Yearly foot exams

  • Yearly lipid levels to check cholesterol levels

  • Blood pressure checks at every exam with a goal of less than 130/80

  • Yearly lab work and urine check for kidney function tests

  • Dental exams at least twice yearly

  • Physical activity 30 minutes five times weekly

  • Meal planning balanced between protein, non-starchy vegetables and a small amount of carbohydrates (using a goal for carbohydrates helps)

  • If overweight, lose weight

Sources: Linda Wooley and American Diabetes Association

Common diabetes symptoms

The following symptoms of diabetes are typical. However, some people with Type 2 diabetes have symptoms so mild that they go unnoticed.

  • Urinating often

  • Feeling very thirsty

  • Feeling very hungry -- even though you are eating

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Blurry vision

  • Cuts that are slow to heal

  • Weight loss -- even though you are eating more (Type 1)

  • Tingling, pain, or numbness in the hands/feet (Type 2)

Source: American Diabetes Association

Topics: Diabetes

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