What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition that means your body is unable to regulate the level of glucose (sugar) in your blood. Blood glucose is the body’s primary energy source and exists because of your food intake.

In healthy individuals, an organ in your body, the pancreas, produces a hormone called insulin. This is what helps the glucose from your food to reach your cells so that it can be used for energy. In some people, your body doesn’t use insulin well, or your body doesn’t make enough (or any) insulin. This means that glucose can’t reach your cells and stays in your blood.

Over time, you can develop serious health problems by having too much glucose in your blood. Diabetes doesn’t have a cure but it is a condition that can be managed and people with diabetes can live relatively normal lives.

Different types of diabetes

There are different types of diabetes, which causes confusion for many people. The main types are Type 1 and Type 2. Gestational diabetes is also common.

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that is not linked to being unhealthy, being overweight or eating badly. If you are a Type 1 diabetic, your body does not make insulin. In fact, your immune system is responsible for attacking the cells that make insulin in your pancreas. Usually, people are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in childhood or as young adults, but it is possible to get it at any age. People with this type of diabetes have to take insulin every day, otherwise, they would die.

Type 2 diabetes

This type of diabetes occurs mainly among middle-aged and older people, though it can occur at any age, even in childhood. With Type 2 diabetes, the body either doesn’t use insulin well or doesn’t make it well. This is the most common type of diabetes and is linked to being overweight or leading an unhealthy lifestyle. This is why many Type 1 diabetics get frustrated as their condition is compared to this one.

Gestational diabetes

This condition develops in some women during pregnancy. A lot of the time, this type of diabetes will go away once the baby has been born. If, however, you do suffer from gestational diabetes during pregnancy, then it does mean that you are more at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in later life. Oftentimes, when diabetes is diagnosed in pregnancy, it is not gestational diabetes but rather Type 2 diabetes that has gone unnoticed.

Other uncommon forms of diabetes

Monogenic diabetes

This is a rare condition that is caused by mutations in one single gene. Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are caused by a problem with multiple genes (as well as lifestyle/obesity for Type 2 diabetes). Monogenic diabetes is mostly inherited and it most often affects younger people. The problem is usually that your body isn’t able to make insulin well. Very rarely, the condition means that the body is severely resistant to insulin, which means it can’t use it properly. This condition is often misdiagnosed in young people as Type 1 diabetes.

Cystic Fibrosis-related Diabetes (CFRD)

This condition often occurs in people with cystic fibrosis and it shares some of the same features as Type 1 diabetes as well as Type 2 diabetes. When people have cystic fibrosis, they produce thick and sticky mucus. This causes scarring to occur in the pancreas, which prevents this organ from producing the amounts of insulin that are needed. So, as with people who have Type 1 diabetes, people with CFRD are insulin deficient. Their bodies do make some insulin but it is not enough for them to maintain good nutrition and be healthy.

How common is diabetes?

In the UK, there are around 3.7 million people with a diabetes diagnosis. It is also believed that a further 550 thousand people have undiagnosed diabetes, which means there are over 4 million in the UK who have diabetes. This means that 6% of people have the condition.

The majority of these diagnoses are for Type 2 diabetes and this is linked to the increasing numbers of obese people. Furthermore, 56% of people with diabetes are male.

Who is at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes?

People aged over 45 and those who are overweight or who have a family history of the condition are more likely to develop the condition. People who are inactive and those with high blood pressure are also more at risk.

What are the associated health problems for diabetes sufferers?

Having high blood glucose over time can lead to the following problems:

  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Dental disease
  • Eye problems
  • Foot problems
  • Nerve damage