By: Sujatha Rajagopal
Even with so much mention of diabetes in the mass media, certain facts about the disease may still surprise you. Here’s indispensable information every family needs on fighting or managing the disease.
Myth 1: Diabetes is caused by eating too much sugar.
Although cutting down on sugary foods reduces risk of type 2 diabetes, the disease isn’t directly caused by eating too much sugar. In fact, diabetics may still eat a sugary snack as long as they have it in moderation and at scheduled times.
To understand why someone gets diabetes, we first have to understand the role of the hormone insulin.
What is diabetes?
The pancreas is an organ inside the belly that helps the body digest food. Our body’s cells get most of their fuel from glucose, a type of sugar. When we eat, the pancreas produces insulin. Insulin allows glucose to enter the body’s cells, lowering the level of glucose in the blood.
Due to still unknown reasons, a person’s body may not be able to produce insulin (type 1 diabetes). Or, even if the body makes insulin, the hormone doesn’t work the way it should (type 2 diabetes) due to factors like being overweight or having high blood pressure. As a result, the glucose from food doesn’t enter cells normally. When the glucose continues to linger in the blood, it leads to high blood sugar levels and can make that person very ill.
As an added note, some women also get diabetes in later pregnancy. This is called gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes may clear after delivery but it leaves the mother at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Myth 2: Children only get juvenile diabetes (type 1 diabetes).
Juvenile diabetes is more often diagnosed in Caucasians before the age of 25. Type 2 diabetes, until recently, was common only in adults in their 40s but due to dietary and other lifestyle factors, is beginning to be seen in children as young as five. Studies show that in diabetic children and teens, up to 30% are of the type 2 variety.
The following factors increase risk of type 2 diabetes:
• Family history
• Unhealthy diet
• Sedentary lifestyle
• Weight gain, especially around the waist and abdomen
Additional risk factors for adults include:
• Age above 45
• Gestational diabetes during pregnancy
• Giving birth to a baby who weighed above 4 kg
• High blood pressure
• Unhealthy cholesterol levels
Certain ethnic groups, such as African-Americans and Asian-Indians also have higher risk.
Myth 3: Both types of diabetes are preventable.
Actually, type 1 diabetes isn’t easily preventable. In fact, scientists aren’t even sure who will get the disease and who won’t although family history is said to play a large role. Moreover, genes alone may not be enough and it requires something else, such as a viral infection, to trigger the disease.
Type 2 diabetes however, is preventable by:
- Watching your weight (studies show that losing 5% to 7% of your weight can reduce your risk by up to 60%!)
- Leading a healthy lifestyle e.g. exercising regularly and eating healthy, balanced meals and choosing foods that are low in fat and high in fibre
- Keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in the healthy range for your age
Myth 4: Insulin injections can cure diabetes
Insulin shots are a method of treatment, not a cure. Insulin shots only treat type 1 diabetics and some but not all type 2 diabetics. Type 2 diabetics may be required to take pills that help their body to make insulin or use their insulin more efficiently. That’s why it is very important to follow your doctor’s instructions closely if you are being treated for diabetes.
Scientists are still aggressively studying ways to cure diabetes but for now, it is a lifelong illness. Even if you get better, reverting to unhealthy lifestyle habits or gaining too much weight can bring the disease back.
Myth 5: Diabetes will only affect my blood glucose levels
No one should underestimate the extent to which diabetes can impact their lives. The most common symptoms of the disease are frequent urination, excessive thirst/ hunger, slow-healing wounds and increased fatigue. However, if not promptly treated, diabetes can lead to chronic complications like:
- Neuropathy or nerve damage
- Foot complications related to neuropathy
- Retinopathy (damage to the eyes). According to the American Optometric Association, diabetes is the number one cause of acquired blindness in adults
- Nephropathy or kidney disease
- Heart disease, including heart attack and stroke
- Skin problems
- Gum disease and other oral health complications
What you shouldn’t ignore about diabetes is its stealth. Diabetes goes undiagnosed because many of its symptoms seem harmless. Worse, people with no family history are also diagnosed with the disease. Having a regular blood glucose test (or your GP can give you a simple pin prick test) helps you keep track of whether you or a family member are at risk. When detected early, diabetes is much easier to manage and its complications easier to prevent.