Condition Center: Diabetes

Photo Illustration by Ava Cruz
Photo Illustration by Ava Cruz

This informational guide, part of POPSUGAR's Condition Center, lays out the realities of this health concern: what it is, what it can look like, and strategies that medical experts say are proven to help. You should always consult your doctor regarding matters pertaining to your health and before starting any course of medical treatment.

Diabetes is a chronic condition that occurs when your body loses its ability to keep the level of sugar in your blood under control. Out of the 37.3 million adults in the US who have diabetes, 90 to 95 percent of them have type 2 diabetes. But one in five people with diabetes don't know they have the condition at all — a problem, since in the long term, untreated diabetes can have dire consequences, including kidney failure, lower-limb amputations, and blindness.

Understanding Diabetes

After you eat, your body breaks down most of the food into glucose, or sugar, and releases it into your bloodstream, causing your blood sugar to rise. When the system is functioning normally, the rise in blood sugar triggers your pancreas to release insulin, a hormone that moves the glucose out of your blood and into your body's cells, where it's used for energy.

There are three main types of diabetes that impact this function: type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes. "When people develop type 2 diabetes, their bodies' insulin doesn't function well, which allows too much sugar to stay in the blood," says Nuha El Sayed, MD, vice president of Health Care Improvement at the American Diabetes Association. As blood-sugar levels increase, cells in the pancreas continue to release more insulin.

The condition, known as "insulin resistance," is dangerous, because over time, having too much glucose in your blood damages blood vessels, which can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke, and injures nerves, which can harm your eyes and kidneys and reduce your skin's ability to heal.

Symptoms of diabetes include increased thirst and hunger, blurred vision, frequent urination, headache, fatigue, weight loss, and vaginal and skin infections. But symptoms can also be mild — one reason so many people remain undiagnosed.

With type 1 diabetes, the body attacks cells in the pancreas, resulting in a complete absence of insulin and sugar buildup in the bloodstream, per the Mayo Clinic. Type 1 diabetes tends to appear during childhood, but it can also develop in adults. Type 1 diabetes symptoms are similar to type 2 symptoms including increased thirst and hunger, blurred vision, frequent urination, headache, fatigue, weight loss, and bed-wetting.

Gestational diabetes is specifically diagnosed during pregnancy and, like other forms of diabetes, is characterized by the body's inability to process sugar. Experts suspect it's caused by changes in hormone levels that occur during pregnancy. Most people who develop it won't notice any symptoms, although it can cause thirstiness and increased urination. But in the US, most pregnant people get screened for it by their ob-gyn because gestational diabetes can result in complications for them (high blood pressure and preeclampsia, C-section delivery, and future diabetes) and their little one (low birth weight, preterm birth, and breathing difficulties, among other things).

Causes of Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body experiences cell resistance (in muscle, fat, and liver) to insulin and the pancreas struggles to make enough insulin to regulate blood sugar. Several factors may be responsible for the development of these issues, per the Mayo Clinic.

  • Poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle are two of the primary contributors to the condition.
  • Excess weight and older age are also important risk factors.
  • Having a family history of type 2 diabetes may also increase your risk. So can having a personal history of gestational diabetes or having certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and polycystic ovary syndrome.
  • Ethnicity may play a role, too. Black Americans, Native Americans, Latinx people, and Asian Americans are more prone to the condition, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. This may be due to a combination of biological factors and environmental challenges, including reduced access to healthy food, healthcare, and health insurance.

Type 1 and gestational diabetes are caused by different factors. For type 1 diabetes, the body's immune system turns on itself, damaging and destroying the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Your genes and environmental factors tend to play a role in your risk. Gestational diabetes, on the other hand, is thought to be triggered by prepregnancy weight gain and hormone changes.

Most Effective Treatment For Type 2 Diabetes

Lifestyle changes, like managing your weight, staying physically active, and establishing healthy eating patterns, are critical for diabetes care, Dr. El Sayed says. In fact, this advice applies to all three common forms of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational. "There are also a number of medications that can help people control their glucose and reduce their risk of complications," she adds.

Insulin pumps, which deliver insulin through a thin tube under the skin, and continuous blood-sugar monitoring, which uses a small sensor under the skin to track blood sugar, have simplified diabetes care and improved the overall outlook of those with the condition.

Although you can't technically be cured of type 2 diabetes, it's possible to go into remission and improve to the point where you can go off medication, Dr. El Sayed says. The same cannot be said for people with type 1 diabetes. Complete remission is very rare, although partial remission or a "honeymoon phase" may be possible. Gestational diabetes, on the other hand, tends to go away after delivery.