Diabetes: What You Should Know

Arm yourself with information to manage or avoid disease

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Chances are you or someone you know is affected by diabetes, a condition that occurs when the body cannot properly process and absorb the blood sugar (glucose) from the circulation into the body's tissues. Incidences of the disease – the seventh leading cause of death United States – are growing at a rate that eclipses most other diseases.

The World Health Organization estimates that by the year 2030, more than 366 million people will be suffering from diabetes. That’s 10 times the number affected by HIV/AIDS.

With that many individuals at risk of developing the disease, information is key. Knowledge is power, right? So let’s get started. In diabetes, the body breaks down the food we eat into basic sugar glucose, which is absorbed from the digestive system into the bloodstream. In healthy individuals, a hormone produced by the pancreas called insulin facilitates the transport of glucose from the bloodstream into tissues. In diabetes, however, patients either have an inability to produce insulin, or their tissues have developed a resistance to its action. This leads to an abnormal excess of glucose in the arteries and veins, causing a state called hyperglycemia.

These abnormally high levels of glucose in the bloodstream can initially cause symptoms such as a frequent need to urinate, excessive thirst and excessive hunger. Sounds manageable, right? But if left untreated, diabetes can cause damage to blood vessels, which may lead to damage in the extremities (ulcers and amputations), eyes (macular degeneration and blindness), kidneys (renal failure) and heart (heart attack).

That is why it’s essential to keep an eye on blood-sugar levels. These levels can be checked by a medical doctor or in the convenience of your home with a blood-glucose monitor. (Keep in mind that home-based readings may not be as accurate as those ordered by your physician and conducted in a laboratory.) After fasting for eight hours, a normal blood-glucose reading measures 70 milligrams per decilitre (mg/dL) to 100 mg/dL. Any fasting blood-glucose reading over 100 is considered a marker for pre-diabetes (101 to 126) or full-blown diabetes (a reading greater than 126).    

There are two kinds of diabetes: type I and type II. Type I Diabetes, also called insulin dependent diabetes, usually develops during adolescence or early adulthood when the body develops an autoimmune response against the insulin-producing islet cells in the pancreas. This response causes the destruction of those insulin-producing cells and therefore a loss of the body’s natural production of insulin. Because the body no longer produces insulin on its own, these patients are dependent on insulin injections for survival.

Here’s some promising news for those newly diagnosed with type I diabetes: Researchers at UT Southwestern and 14 other centers worldwide have found that injections of the drug rituximab (Rituxan) slowed cell destruction in the pancreas of those recently diagnosed for at least a year. The finding suggests a potential treatment option that might help manage symptoms and reduce long-term complications of the disease.

Type II diabetes usually develops later in adulthood in overweight and obese adults, but is not limited to those patients. In type II diabetes the body develops a resistance to the body's normally produced insulin, making its action either ineffective or not strong enough. These patients have a normally functioning pancreas, but it may not be able to produce enough insulin to overcome the body's resistance to it. This again creates a state of hyperglycemia, because the glucose is unable to be removed from the bloodstream into the tissues. Type II diabetics can become dependent on insulin injections due to disease progression or poor management, but they are usually able to be managed with oral medications that augment the pancreas' insulin production or enhance its absorption.

For all you coffee and tea lovers, here’s some good news. According to an analysis of previous studies reported in the December issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, individuals who drink more coffee, either regular or decaffeinated, and tea appear to have a lower risk of developing the type II diabetes.

Another potentially debilitating side effect of the disease is known as diabetic peripheral neuropathy (DPN), a condition that can cause tingling, numbness and loss of sensation in the arms and legs caused by nerves dying. People with DPN can also develop extreme sensitivity to touch that causes significant pain. Diabetics are often initially diagnosed with the disease after experiencing DPN symptoms. The good news is researchers at the University of Kansas have developed a new drug called KU-32 that has been shown to halt and even reverse diabetic peripheral neuropathy in mice.

Speaking of new developments in diabetic treatment, another medicine commonly prescribed to diabetics called Avandia has been shown to cause heart attacks and strokes, outweighing the medicine's benefits for most patients. As a result the medicine has been pulled from shelves in Europe and more heavily restricted in the United States.      

With so many affected by diabetes and millions more at risk,knowing how to avoid or manage the disease (if diagnosed) through exercise and especially diet is vital. So take the first step and get a simple blood test. Untreated diabetes leads to many unpleasant complications and is potentially fatal. But properly treated diabetes is manageable and can allow you to live a lengthy, normal life.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 24, 2010
Last Updated:
February 16, 2011