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When you eat, your body turns most of the food into a type of sugar called glucose. Then a hormone called insulin kicks in, moving glucose from the blood into your body’s cells so it can be used for energy.
In diabetes, the glucose level in the blood gets too high because the body isn’t making enough insulin or can’t use the insulin it makes like it should. Getting a diabetes or prediabetes diagnosis can be scary. With an estimated 37.3 million people in the U.S. living with diabetes and an additional 96 million with prediabetes, according to the CDC, the condition is more common than you may think. Among these numbers is an important one: According to the CDC, 8.5 million people are living with diabetes undiagnosed. And without proper treatment and management, undiagnosed diabetes can lead to complications like vision impairment, kidney disease, heart disease, stroke, amputations, and more. You likely have heard a lot about this condition but might not know what living with diabetes looks like. It is not a one-size-fits-all condition. There are several types, all with distinguishing risk factors and symptoms. Use this guide as a starting point to learn more.
Causes: Sometimes referred to as juvenile diabetes, because it’s most often diagnosed in children and young adults, those with type 1 diabetes have a pancreas that makes little to no insulin on its own. The primary cause of type 1 diabetes is either genetic predisposition or an autoimmune reaction in the body.
Symptoms: Symptoms may come on suddenly or take weeks or months to be noticed. According to the America Diabetes Association, symptoms include:
Diagnosis & treatment: Type 1 diabetes is the less common–according to the CDC, just 5 to 10% of those with diabetes are diagnosed with it. It can be diagnosed with a simple blood test called a glycated hemoglobin (A1C) test, which looks at average blood sugar levels. The goal of treatment is to keep blood sugars at a healthy level. Along with a modified diet and routine exercise, all type 1 diabetes patients require insulin. This can be administered by injection or a self-releasing pump attached to the arm or abdomen.
Causes: With the CDC noting that 90 to 95% of cases are type 2, this is by far the most prevalent type of diabetes. With type 2 diabetes, your body doesn't use insulin properly. The pancreas is able to produce insulin, but the cells in the body have become resistant to it—making it difficult to convert glucose to energy. And while some people can control their blood sugar levels with healthy eating and exercise, others may need medication or insulin to manage it.
Symptoms: Those with type 2 diabetes typically experience symptoms gradually over time. They may include:
Diagnosis & treatment: The same diagnostic tests are used for both type 2 and type 1 diabetes. However, to differentiate between the two conditions, an autoantibody blood test may also be performed. When it comes to treating type 2 diabetes, each case is different and will need guidance from a medical professional. Treatment and management options range from insulin and diabetes medication as well as lifestyle changes, such as implementing a healthier diet and exercising frequently. Research shows that you can lower your risk for type 2 diabetes by 58% by, 1) losing 7% of your body weight, and 2) exercising moderately, such as brisk walking, 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Even if you don’t reach you ideal body weight, 10-15 pounds can make a big difference.
Causes: The CDC estimates that 38% of the adult population has prediabetes. This means that your blood sugar is higher than normal, but not yet at a level to diagnose diabetes. This diagnosis can act as a warning sign, and some people may be able to manage their condition and prevent it from developing further. The same risk factors that apply to a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis apply here; being overweight and inactive are the main causes.
Symptoms: Here’s the tricky thing about prediabetes: it’s silent, meaning you likely won’t experience any symptoms. Mayo Clinic notes that one early sign that may signal prediabetes is darkened skin on certain types of the body, typically around the neck, armpits, elbows, or knees.
Diagnosis & treatment: Getting an annual wellness check is a smart way to help catch prediabetes. Your clinician will test your blood sugar levels to flag it before a more serious condition develops. If prediabetes is a concern there’s some good news: the CDC states that losing 5 to 7% of your body weight and exercising for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, can prevent and reverse prediabetes.
Causes: Affecting 10% of pregnancies in the U.S. each year, according to the American Diabetes Association, gestational diabetes can happen to a woman even if she didn’t have diabetes before pregnancy. That’s because the placenta makes hormones during pregnancy that can cause glucose to build up in the blood. If the pancreas can’t support this with enough insulin to push that glucose into cells for energy, blood sugar levels will rise.
Symptoms: Like prediabetes, there aren’t many symptoms with gestational diabetes. Some may feel thirstier and have to urinate more often, but these are also common symptoms of pregnancy.
Diagnosis & treatment: Your healthcare provider will screen you for gestational diabetes with a glucose tolerance test between 24 to 28 weeks, according to Nemours Children’s Hospital. If you don’t pass the initial test, a follow-up test will be conducted to monitor your blood sugar levels during specific timeframes. From there, your clinician will outline lifestyle and diet changes along with any pregnancy-safe medications to manage the condition. After your baby is born, blood sugar levels will likely stabilize. And if you continue practicing healthy habits, diabetes may not be a lingering issue. It’s important to take diabetes seriously, no matter the type. We can help if you have questions or think you might be experiencing symptoms.
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