Diabetes: The Basics – General Information
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What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is an illness that makes it hard for your body to use the food you eat the right way.
Some of the food you eat turns into glucose. Glucose is also called “sugar,” and is your body's main source of energy. Glucose travels through your body in your blood. Insulin is a substance made in the pancreas, which is a small organ behind your stomach. Insulin helps get the glucose out of the blood and into your cells. Just like a key unlocking a door, insulin is like the key that unlocks the door to the cells in your body, and lets the glucose in to be used as energy.
These are diabetes risk factors. The more you have, you are more likely to get diabetes:
- Having family members with diabetes
- Being overweight or obese
- Not being physically active
- Being over the age of 45
- Being a person of color (African American, Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian)
- Having high blood pressure
- Having heart disease
- Having a baby over 9 pounds or having diabetes when you were pregnant also makes it more likely that a woman will get diabetes.
These signs may mean that you have diabetes:
- Being very thirsty
- Having to urinate a lot
- Feeling very tired or weak
- Having wounds or infections that do not heal
- Having pain, tingling or numbness in your hands or feet
- Having blurry vision
- Losing weight without trying
Talk to your doctor if you have any of these signs of diabetes, especially if you have more than one of them.
How do you know if you have diabetes?
A blood test will tell you if you have diabetes. Any one of these three blood tests can tell you if you have diabetes.
- The A1C (also called hemoglobin A1C) is a test that measures your average blood sugar for the last 3 months. If it is over 6.5%, you have diabetes.
- If you are fasting, that is, if you have not had anything to eat or drink for 8 hours before your test, and your blood sugar is 126mg/dl or higher, you have diabetes.
- If you have had something to eat or drink before the test, and your blood sugar is above 200mg/dl, you have diabetes.
There are 3 types of diabetes
- If you have Type 1 diabetes, your body does not make any insulin and you must take insulin shots. The insulin shots help keep your blood sugar in control. You can get Type 1 diabetes at any time, but most people get it before they are 30 years old.
- If you have Type 2 diabetes, your body makes insulin, but does not make enough or does not use it very well. You might control your diabetes with diet and exercise. Or you might have to take pills or insulin to help keep your blood sugar in control. You can get Type 2 diabetes at any age, but most people get it after the age of 40.
- Women who are pregnant can get gestational diabetes. They may have to take insulin shots to help keep their blood sugar in control. This type of diabetes usually goes away after the baby is born. But women who had gestational diabetes often get Type 2 diabetes later in their lives.
Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes never go away. There is no cure for diabetes. Eating the right way, exercising, taking diabetes medicine (if needed), testing your blood sugar, and managing stress can all help control diabetes.
Increased Risk for Diabetes, or Pre-Diabetes
What is increased risk for diabetes, or pre-diabetes?
If you have “increased risk for diabetes,” or pre-diabetes, it means your blood sugar (glucose) levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to have diabetes diagnosis. This is sometimes called pre-diabetes. Even during this stage of increased risk, long-term damage to your heart and circulatory system can begin to happen. Many people with blood sugar at these in-between levels type 2 diabetes within 8 years. What blood sugar levels indicate increased risk for diabetes, or pre-diabetes?
For fasting blood glucose that is, if you have not had anything to eat or drink for 8 hours before your test, if your blood sugar is between 100-125 mg/dl, you have increased risk for diabetes, or pre-diabetes. The A1C (also called hemoglobin A1C) is a test that measures your average blood sugar for the last 3 months. If it is between 5.7%- 6.4%, you have increased risk for diabetes, or pre-diabetes.
Could I have increased risk for diabetes, or pre-diabetes, and not know it?
Yes. Often, people with increased risk for diabetes, or pre-diabetes, do not have symptoms. If there are symptoms, they usually develop gradually, and the person might not notice them. The symptoms include the same symptoms that can indicate diabetes: unusual thirst, frequent urination, blurred vision or a feeling of tiredness for no apparent reason.
Who should be tested for increased risk for diabetes, or pre-diabetes?
You should be tested if you are:
- Over age 45 and overweight
- Under age 45 and have any of these diabetes risk factors:
- Have a family history of diabetes
- High blood pressure or high cholesterol
- Are African-American, Native-American, Hispanic, or Asian.
- Have had gestational diabetes or have given birth to a baby weighing 9 pounds or more.
What should I do if I have increased risk for diabetes, or pre-diabetes?
The first step is to lose some weight. You do not need to lose all your extra weight right away. Aim for losing 5-10 % of your total body weight, or at least 10 lbs. You should do this by eating a healthy diet and doing regular, moderate exercise. For example, you could try walking for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. To help you lose weight, ask your doctor about a referral to a Registered Dietitian, so you can get advice tailored to fit you and your life.
Working With Your Diabetes Team
Managing your diabetes is a team effort. Your diabetes management team should include:
- The most important member of your diabetes team, YOU
- A doctor
- A nurse diabetes educator
- A dietitian
- A pharmacist
- A dentist
Other professionals who often help people manage diabetes are:
- A mental health professional
- A dentist
- An ophthalmologist (eye doctor)
- A podiatrist (foot doctor)
- An exercise physiologist
Each one of these professionals can help you with an important area of diabetes care.
- Your doctor is responsible for your routine diabetes care. You should have a routine follow-up visit with your doctor every 3 to 6 months. Visits should be scheduled more frequently if you are having trouble keeping your blood glucose under control, or if you have some complications from diabetes, or if you are sick. Your doctor will order your diabetes lab tests, prescribe medications, and watch for signs of diabetes complications. Your doctor can also help you decide when you need to work with any of the other professionals on this list.
- A nurse diabetes educator can help you understand diabetes self-management, or and what you need to do to stay healthy with diabetes. A nurse diabetes educator can also help you solve problems about how to do any parts of your diabetes care that are difficult for you.
- A dietitian can help you understand healthy meal planning. You need to know what kinds of food to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat to keep your body healthy. A dietitian can help you design a personal meal plan that meets your medical needs and also takes your culture and personal tastes into account.
- A pharmacist can help you understand your medications. You need to know how your medications work, how much to take, when to take them, what side effects to watch for, and whether your medications have any special precautions.
- A mental health professional can be a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or a social worker. A mental health professional can help you if you are having trouble accepting your diabetes or your diabetes treatment, or if you have depression, anxiety, or high stress.
- A dentist can help with care of your teeth and mouth. People who have diabetes often have problems with their teeth and gums.
- An ophthalmologist can help with your eye care.
- A podiatrist can help with your foot care.
- An exercise physiologist can help you develop an exercise plan that works for you.
YOU are the most important member of your health care team. The other members of the diabetes care team can only do their jobs if you are actively involved. You are the person who actually does the day-to-day diabetes care. You are the expert on your own life, and on what can work for you. Only you can tell the other team members if something is not working. You are the vital link that helps all the different parts of the team work together. And if you succeed in working well with your diabetes care team, you are the person who will reap the benefits of having a long and healthy life.