You may know someone who has diabetes, or you may even have diabetes yourself. Diabetes affects 382 million people worldwide. To put that in perspective…in the United States, 1 out of every 11 people have diabetes. That means over 29 million people in the U.S. alone are living with diabetes. But, here’s the thing… According to Center for Disease Control statistics, out of the more than 29 million who have diabetes in this country, only 21 million are actually diagnosed. Which means that over ONE QUARTER of Americans with diabetes don’t even know they have it. That’s what makes our question, and its answer, so incredibly important…What is diabetes? Our story begins with a breakdown: the breakdown of the food we eat by our digestive system into energy our cells can use. Cells are a lot like cars. They need fuel to run. Cars use gasoline.
Your cells use a different fuel, a simple sugar called glucose. When you eat certain foods, your body breaks these foods down into glucose. Glucose is amazing. It is our bodies’ key source of energy. It’s a sugar, but not the kind we bake with or put in our coffee. That’s sucrose. Glucose tastes less sweet than sucrose, but cells love it. They are able to use glucose to power themselves. Glucose is used by LIFE, from bacteria to humans— it’s very important. But turning food into glucose is not the final step. It still has to get to the cells, where it can be used for energy. Cells all over your body count on glucose to function, including the cells in your muscles and your brain. We are able to move and smile and breathe and think because our bodies are able to process human food into cell food like glucose.
Just like gas stations have pumps to get gasoline into your car, your body needs insulin to get glucose into your cells or to store it for later. So what does diabetes have to do with all this? Well, there are 2 types. Type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. With type 1 diabetes, the body makes little or no insulin because the beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin are mistakenly destroyed by the body’s own immune system. Type 1 is usually diagnosed in children and young adults.
The other type of diabetes is…type 2. Type 2 is what I’m going to be talking about throughout this video series. Most adults who have diabetes, 90% of them in fact, have type 2. With type 2 diabetes, the beta cells in your pancreas produce insulin, but not enough to keep blood sugar levels within a normal range.
Or the body doesn’t respond properly to insulin. Or…both. Without the help of enough insulin to direct glucose into cells or into proper storage, the glucose you make has nowhere else to go and can build up, unused, in the blood. This is what happens when someone has what’s called “high blood sugar.” Now let’s separate diabetes myth from fact with some help from WebMD MYTH: You can always feel it when your blood sugar, or glucose, is high. FACT: Not always. Testing your blood sugar is the only way to know for sure. Many people with diabetes don’t even know they have it.
When your blood glucose levels are where they should be, you get the energy you need so your body performs at its best. Too little glucose in your blood, and you start to run out of energy. Too much, and the extra glucose starts to build up, which can lead to some serious problems in time. This is why insulin is so important. Insulin helps move glucose out of your bloodstream, and into the cells, where it can then be used for energy.
They say no man, or woman, is an island. We are all dependent on one another. That may be true, but you are literally FILLED with islands, about a million of them, in fact. They’re in your pancreas and they’re called the Islets of Langerhans because, like islands, they’re each separated from surrounding tissue. And it’s from the same root word, insula, that we get the name for what beta cells produce…insulin.
Insulin is a hormone. It’s a chemical that your organs and tissues send out and receive so they can communicate with each other across distances. You see, instead of using phone lines to call each other up, they secrete and ‘listen’ for hormones in the bloodstream from one another. Hormones play a role in things like your growth, reproduction, and in the case of insulin, managing how much glucose is in your blood and wrangling it into cells or storage as needed.
Your pancreas releases different amounts of insulin depending on how much glucose is in your blood. A small, steady stream of insulin is released throughout the day. This handles the relatively smaller amount of glucose that’s in your blood when you haven’t eaten for a while, between meals and overnight while you’re sleeping. Your pancreas will also release bursts of insulin in response to rising blood glucose levels from food. This happens when you eat a meal or a snack. Many cells have little locks on them called insulin receptors. Insulin fits into these locks like a “key”. When insulin opens the locks, glucose is allowed to enter the cells. When you have type 2 diabetes…your cells don’t respond to this insulin key, something called insulin resistance. Or if you have type 1 diabetes, there’s no key to respond to.
Glucose can’t get into the cells where it’s needed, and the sugar builds up in your blood. But just how sweet is your blood when your blood sugar level is high? Would someone with high blood sugar be a dessert to a vampire? It’s hard to say. Glucose is actually less sweet than regular baking sugar. But even a little extra glucose in your blood can make a big difference to your body. Too much sugar, or glucose, in your blood for too long can put you at higher risk for problems with your eyes, kidneys, and the nerves in places like your hands and feet. Which is why it’s important to keep your blood sugar levels under control to help prevent complications. Over time, type 2 diabetes can change, or progress on its own as more and more beta cells in the pancreas stop working. So as you and your health care provider work to manage your diabetes, your treatment may need to change too. There is currently no cure for diabetes, but there ARE many things you and your health care provider can do to manage type 2 diabetes and reduce your risk of diabetes complications down the road.
When it comes to type 2 diabetes, there are several risk factors to think about. Family history is one factor. In fact your risk increases for type 2 diabetes if a parent or sibling has type 2 diabetes. Another factor is ethnicity. In the United States, diabetes tends to appear in higher numbers in certain ethnic groups. Although it’s unclear why, you may be more at risk for diabetes if you’re Native American Indian, African American, Hispanic, or Asian American. As you get older, your risk of type 2 diabetes increases. If you’re 45 or older…even if you have no other factors…your age could put you at risk. Of course, these are risk factors for diabetes you can’t really control. But there are plenty that you can. Weight can be another cause of type 2 diabetes. But get this. If you are overweight, losing even a small amount of body weight can help you manage your type 2 diabetes.
Making the right food choices goes a long way to helping you lose weight. So does staying physically active. Small changes like taking the stairs instead of the escalator can go a long way. By reducing the risks you CAN control…you MAY reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. So let’s break it all down: Diabetes is an epidemic. Millions of people have it. So if you’re one of them, you are not alone. If you’ve been diagnosed, and are already taking steps to control your blood sugar, congratulations! Know that you are on the right path. With type 2 diabetes, either the beta cells in your pancreas aren’t producing enough insulin. Or your body isn’t able to use insulin correctly, or both…leaving excess sugar in the blood, which can cause serious health problems down the road.
How did we get here? Well, family history has a lot to do with it. So does age. But it’s the risks you CAN control like your weight and levels of physical activity that can help reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, even if it runs in your family.