What is diabetes?

Diabetes is the common term for several metabolic disorders in which the body no longer produces insulin or uses the insulin it produces ineffectively.

It is a common condition and is characterised by abnormally high blood sugar levels.

Diabetes is known as "diabetes mellitus" - where diabetes comes from the Greek word for siphon, which describes the excessive thirst and urination of this condition, and mellitus is the Latin word for honey, because diabetic urine is filled with sugar and is sweet.

Diabetes essentially changes the way your body uses food

The key to the problem is insulin - as insulin's role in the body is to help glucose get into the body cells where it is used to make energy.

Diabetes is characterized by a partial or complete lack of insulin production by the body. The most common forms of diabetes are type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. In both types of diabetes, people have little or no ability to move sugar out of the blood stream and into the cells, where it is used as the body's primary fuel.

Symptoms and complications

Symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Extreme thirst and/or hunger
  • Weight loss 
  • Fatigue
  • Numbness 
  • Sores that are slow to heal, and
  • Increased infections

Learning how to best manage your diabetes is key to your treatment.  Poor control of diabetes can lead to an increased risk of:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Kidney and bladder failure
  • Gum disease
  • Blindness
  • Foot and leg infections

How common is diabetes?

According to the World Health Organization, over 175 million people throughout the world have diabetes.

Of these, 90% have type 2 diabetes, and 10% have type 1 diabetes.

There are three main types of diabetes:

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition that is treated with injections of insulin. Injections must be given each day and some people require multiple injections a day to help maintain blood glucose control.

Type 1 diabetes develops when an "autoimmune reaction" destroys beta cells in the pancreas. Autoimmune reaction means that the body creates antibodies against its own cells. As a result, the pancreas stops producing insulin or cannot produce enough insulin on its own. Treatment involves daily insulin injections, in conjunction with healthy eating and regular exercise.

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes are usually:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Sugar in the urine
  • An acetone-like smell around the body
  • Fatigue, weakness, drowsiness
  • Excessive weight loss over a short period of time, for no apparent reason

Although the cause of diabetes is unknown, there are certain risk factors that can increase the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

Risk factors for type 1 diabetes include:

  • Ethnic background or race (more common in people of Caucasian descent)
  • Having a parent with type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes most often affects people under 20 years of age. It was previously called juvenile-onset diabetes or Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus (IDDM).

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a term for several disorders with different causes and degrees of severity. It is the most common type of diabetes.

Often, people with type 2 diabetes can still make their own insulin in the pancreas, but the insulin that is produced is not used as effectively by the body.

Many people manage type 2 diabetes simply by following a healthy diet and regular exercise. In overweight individuals, type 2 diabetes often improves as a result of weight loss, a healthy diet and exercise.

With the progression of the disease, some people may have to take oral medication(s) or insulin injections.

Type 2 diabetes is much more common than type 1 diabetes.

Although the cause of type 2 diabetes is unknown, there are some risk factors that can predispose some people to this condition.

Risk factors of type 2 diabetes include:

  • Age (being over 45 years old)
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having a family history of diabetes
  • Ethnic background or race (Native/Indigenous, African, Hispanic or Asian descent)
  • Having given birth to a large baby (over 4 kg or 9 lbs)
  • Impaired glucose intolerance

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes are the same as type 1 diabetes. Some people may also experience slow healing cuts and bruises, recurring gum or bladder infections, or tingling in their hands or feet.

Other terms previously used for type 2 diabetes are adult-onset diabetes and Non-Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus (NIDDM).

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is another common type of diabetes. It is a temporary condition that occurs during pregnancy.

Extra demands on the pancreas cause some women to develop diabetes during pregnancy. Often, it goes away after delivery. But, later in life, diabetes may return.

Gestational diabetes affects 2% to 4% of all pregnancies, with an increased risk of developing diabetes for both the mother and the child.

The risk of type 2 diabetes returning is greater if the mother has given birth to a baby that weighed over 4 kg (9 lbs) at birth.

Treatment will involve following a healthy diet, physical activity, and in some cases, insulin therapy.