Understanding diabetes — symptoms, risks & management

photo by: LMH Health

LMH Health, 325 Maine St., is pictured in May 2021.

The chances of someone you know being diagnosed with diabetes in their lifetime are high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 10 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with diabetes at some point in their lives. An additional one in three people have prediabetes. As the number of people living with prediabetes and diabetes continues to rise, it is important to understand the signs, symptoms and risks.

Diabetes is a chronic health condition that affects how the body turns food into energy.

“All the food we eat is broken down into nutrients,” said James Florez, a registered nurse and an LMH Health diabetes education coordinator. “It is then converted into glucose (sugar) which is put into the bloodstream. The only way for it to be pulled back out of the bloodstream and converted into energy is when the body releases insulin.”

When you have diabetes, your body either doesn’t make enough insulin or doesn’t process the insulin efficiently.

There are several different types of diabetes:

• Gestational diabetes: This only occurs in pregnancy. Pregnancy hormones can cause a woman’s body to become resistant to insulin, and her pancreas may not be able to make enough insulin to overcome this resistance. Gestational diabetes lasts throughout pregnancy, but usually quickly resolves after the baby has been born. Those who have had gestational diabetes are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

• Prediabetes: During this stage, the body is still able to create and use insulin, though the body is starting to become more resistant to the insulin. While blood sugar levels are higher than normal, they are not high enough to be considered type 2 diabetes. People who have prediabetes may be able to prevent their diagnosis from progressing to type 2 diabetes or eliminate their prediabetes through lifestyle changes.

• Type 1 diabetes: This is an autoimmune condition that eventually stops the body from creating any insulin. The primary treatment is medical intervention through blood sugar monitoring and insulin.

• Type 2 diabetes: This is the most common type of diabetes. With type 2 diabetes, the body struggles to create enough insulin, which can progress to the point where it stops making insulin entirely. The body also responds poorly to insulin, called insulin resistance. Both of these things lead to consistently high blood sugars. Unlike prediabetes, type 2 diabetes is not reversible but can improve and be managed successfully with lifestyle changes and sometimes medications.

“Receiving a diabetes diagnosis of any stage does not have to affect your quality of life,” said Aubrey Kough, an LMH Health registered dietitian nutritionist and diabetes education coordinator. “With the right help and lifestyle adjustments, you can continue to do what you love.”

Risk factors

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason some people develop diabetes, but there are factors that may increase your likelihood of developing the condition. You may be at higher risk if you:

• Are overweight or obese

• Are 45 years of age or older

• Are not physically active

• Have a family history of diabetes

Diet can also affect a person’s risk of developing diabetes. People whose diet consists of more nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, are at a lower risk. But while nutrition plays a large part in preventing diabetes, it is even more effective when paired with physical activity, which allows cells to respond better and become more sensitive to insulin and helps balance blood sugar levels. The CDC says that combining 30 minutes of walking per day with a healthy diet can significantly lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Diagnosing diabetes

Symptoms of diabetes vary from person to person, and in some cases, they may be very mild or not even show up at all. Common symptoms include:

• Blurry vision

• Fatigue

• Frequent urination

• High blood pressure

• High fasting glucose levels

• Increased thirst or hunger

• Patches of dark skin

• Skin tags

• Slow healing of cuts and bruises

• Unintentional weight loss

“Because it can be hard to know what to look for, it is always important to routinely screen for diabetes,” Kough said.

You can get screened for diabetes at health fairs and at some pharmacies, but the best screening available is an annual physical. Your primary care provider will use lab work to check your blood sugar levels and your body’s resistance to insulin. They will also be able to identify if you are at higher risk based on your weight, family history and any medications which could contribute to insulin resistance.

“Working closely with your primary care provider can help catch a diabetes diagnosis early and lead to better outcomes in the long term,” Florez said.

If left untreated, diabetes can lead to chronic complications. People with untreated diabetes are at higher risk of:

• Gum disease

• Heart attack

• Kidney problems

• Loss of eyesight

• Nerve damage

• Skin infections

• Stroke

“Diabetes affects how your blood and blood vessels work, and how your body responds is very individualized,” Florez said. “In a lot of cases, you feel fine until you don’t. You may not think it is a big deal, but even when you don’t feel it, the damage is still occurring.”

Managing diabetes

With blood sugar monitoring, medication, and changes in diet and exercise, people with diabetes can have a much better quality of life.

“The good news is that every year our understanding of diabetes expands and we are able to provide different options for treatment,” Kough said. “Our hope is to give you helpful tools and resources to make it so you are not solely reliant on medications and are able to continue doing what you love.”

Blood sugar monitoring allows you to see the progress you are making and how things such as food, exercise and medications affect your blood sugar. It also allows you and your care team to come up with a personalized plan to manage your condition.

“Everyone’s blood sugar responds differently, so checking it lets you learn more about how your body works,” Kough said.

Medications such as pills, weekly injections or insulin administered through a pen or a pump are available to help manage symptoms. While they do provide relief, they work best when paired with lifestyle changes.

“It doesn’t always need to be major changes in lifestyle,” Kough said. “They can be small, such as switching to sugar-free drinks. You are more likely to stick to small changes.”

In particular, Kough said, a healthy diet need not be complicated — if you are more likely to cook and eat frozen vegetables or precut fruit than something that takes longer to prepare, you’ll still see the benefits. Whatever you do, Kough said, it shouldn’t be a dramatic change, because it will be harder to keep up your new habits if you are feeling restricted and deprived.

“Your changes are going to have to be realistic to your current lifestyle,” Kough said. “You’ve got to be able to stick to it for the rest of your life.”

The LMH Health Diabetes Education Center is a resource for those diagnosed with prediabetes or diabetes and their support teams. It offers individual appointments, four-week-long classes, a free monthly support group and free quarterly prediabetes classes. It also provides advice about nutrition and meal planning, psychosocial effects of diabetes, self-management, preventing complications, insulin and insulin pump options and checking blood sugar with a glucose meter or continuous glucose monitor.

“It’s all very individualized, and that’s why it is important to see someone to help meet your specific needs,” Florez said. “Do not be anxious or scared of a new diagnosis. We are here for you and can help give you the tools and support to manage your diabetes.”

— Kade Han is the social media and digital communications specialist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.


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