World Diabetes Day takes place on 14 November to raise awareness of the escalating health threat posed by diabetes. ₁
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), diabetes is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attack, stroke and lower limb amputation.
What is diabetes? The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) defines diabetes as a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas is no longer able to make insulin, or when the body cannot make good use of the insulin it produces.
There are three main types of diabetes, says the IDF.
- Type 1 – When the pancreas does not produce insulin.
- Type 2 – When the pancreas does not produce enough insulin (or it cannot be processed).
- Gestational diabetes – When the insulin is less effective during pregnancy.
The IDF explains that your body needs insulin to transform glucose into energy. Insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas, acts like a key to let glucose from the food we eat pass from the blood stream into the cells in the body to produce energy. ₂
Bottom line is, “all carbohydrate foods are broken down into glucose in the blood and insulin helps glucose get into the cells”.
Insulin regulates blood sugar, WHO notes. “Hyperglycaemia, or raised blood sugar, is a common effect of uncontrolled diabetes and over time leads to serious damage to many of the body’s systems, especially the nerves and blood vessels.”
The Dietitians Association of Australia notes that a person with insulin resistance has a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. ₃ “In people with insulin resistant, the muscles and the liver resist the action of insulin, so the body has to produce higher amounts to keep the blood glucose levels within a normal range.”
Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include genetics, age and family history. ₄ WHO notes though that some behaviours can increase your risk:
- Unhealthy diet – 1 in 3 people worldwide are overweight
- Physical inactivity – 1 in 10 people worldwide are obese
Of the 425 million people who have diabetes in the world, there were 1 826 100 cases of diabetes in South Africa in 2017. ₅
WHO lists five key actions for everyone to minimise their risk for type 2 diabetes:
- Eat healthy
- Be physically active
- Avoid excessive weight gain
- Check blood glucose levels if in doubt
- Follow medical advice
“Diabetes can be treated and its consequences avoided or delayed with diet, physical activity, medication and regular screening and treatment for complications,” WHO says.
Diabetes South Africa underscores the fact though that “there is no such thing as ‘mild’ diabetes. Diabetes is always serious.”
“Early diagnosis is very important,” Diabetes SA says. “You need to know what the symptoms of diabetes are and whether you are at risk.” ₆
The IDF says type 2 diabetes may remain undetected for many years and the diagnosis is often made when a complication appears or a routine blood or urine glucose test is done.
Signs and symptoms of diabetes, listed by Diabetes SA, include the following:
- Unusual thirst
- Frequent urination
- Unusual weight loss
- Extreme fatigue or lack of energy
- Blurred vision
- Frequent or recurring infections
- Cuts and bruises that are slow to hear, boils and itching skin
- Tingling and numbness in hands or feet
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed some surprising things that can spike your blood sugar. ₇
- Sunburn – The pain causes stress and stress increases blood sugar levels.
- Coffee – Even without sweetener! Some people’s blood sugar is extra-sensitive to caffeine.
- Losing sleep – Even just one night of too little sleep can make your body use insulin less efficiently.
- Skipping breakfast – Going without that morning meal can increase blood sugar after both lunch and dinner.
- Dehydration – Less water in your body means a higher blood circulation.
For more information on diabetes, please speak to your local healthcare practitioner or pharmacist.