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Understanding Diabetes: Symptoms & Causes

Written by Dr. Pramod Mane on Wed, 16 November 2022

Key Highlights

  • Persistently raised glucose levels damage blood vessels throughout the body.
  • This increases your risk of a heart attack, stroke, loss of vision, kidney failure, foot ulcers and leg amputation.
  • Men with poorly controlled diabetes are likely to develop impotence.
  • Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease by about four times in women but only about two times in men.
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What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic metabolic health condition that affects how your body turns food into energy. About 422 million people worldwide have diabetes, and 1.5 million deaths are directly attributed to diabetes each year. Both the number of cases and the prevalence of diabetes have been steadily increasing over the past few decades.

With diabetes, your body either doesn't make enough insulin or can't use it as well as it should. Most of the food you eat is broken down into sugar or glucose and released into your bloodstream.

When your blood sugar goes up, it signals your pancreas to release insulin. Insulin acts like a key to let the blood sugar into your body's cells for use as energy.

If you have diabetes, your body either doesn't make enough insulin or can't use the insulin it makes as well as it should. When there isn't enough insulin or cells stop responding to insulin, too much blood sugar stays in your bloodstream. Over time, that can cause serious health problems.

Persistently raised glucose levels damage blood vessels throughout the body, including your eyes, heart, kidneys and brain. This increases your risk of a heart attack, stroke, loss of vision, kidney failure, foot ulcers and leg amputation.

Damage to nerve endings can also lead to severe pain, while men with poorly controlled diabetes are likely to develop impotence.

Types of diabetes

There are three main types of diabetes: Type 1, Type 2, and Gestational diabetes (diabetes while pregnant).

Type 1 diabetes

Once known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin by itself.

Type 1 diabetes
 

Once known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin by itself.

It's usually diagnosed in children, teens, and young adults. If you have type 1 diabetes, you'll need to take insulin every day to survive. Currently, no one knows how to prevent type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes

The most common is type 2 diabetes, which is usually diagnosed in adults but is also increasingly being seen in children, teens, and young adults.

It occurs when the body becomes resistant to insulin or doesn't make enough insulin. In the past three decades, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has risen dramatically. About 90-95% of people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes
 

Type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed with healthy lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, eating healthy food, and being active.

Gestational Diabetes

This develops in pregnant women who have never had diabetes. If you have gestational diabetes, your baby could be at higher risk for health problems.

Gestational diabetes usually goes away after your baby is born but increases your risk for type 2 diabetes later in life.
 

Your baby is more likely to have obesity as a child or teen, and more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life too.

Prediabetes

With prediabetes, blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough yet to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes. Prediabetes raises your risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. The good news is if you have prediabetes, a change in lifestyle can help you take healthy steps to reverse it.

Understanding diabetes risk factors

Understanding diabetes
 

Type 1 diabetes risk factors

  • Having a family history with type 1 diabetes.
  • Age is a factor. You can get type 1 diabetes at any age, but it usually develops in children, teens, or young adults.

Type 2 diabetes risk factors

  • Have prediabetes
  • Are overweight
  • Are 45 years or older
  • Have a family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Are physically mostly inactive
  • Have had gestational diabetes
  • If you have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

Gestational diabetes risk factors

  • Had gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy
  • Have given birth to a baby who weighed over 9 pounds
  • Are overweight
  • Are more than 25 years old
  • Have a family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Have a hormone disorder called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

Gestational diabetes usually goes away after you give birth, but increases your risk for type 2 diabetes.

Before you get pregnant, you may be able to prevent gestational diabetes with lifestyle changes. These include losing weight if you're overweight, eating a healthy diet, and getting regular physical activity.

Early symptoms of diabetes: Do you have any?

  • You urinate a lot, often at night: You make frequent trips to the bathroom even when you limit water intake and caffeine in the evening.
  • You are unusually thirsty: If you're drinking more than 4 liters a day and this isn't quenching your thirst, it could be due to high blood sugar.
  • You lose weight without trying: When the glucose doesn't arrive in your cells, your body thinks it is starving and, in an effort to compensate, creates energy by burning fat and muscle at a rapid pace. This causes unexplained weight loss.
  • You are always very hungry: When blood sugar isn't properly regulated it sends conflicting messages to your brain about the need for food. If you find yourself eating more times a day than usual or experience extreme hunger even after a meal, you must speak to your doctor.
  • You have blurry vision: Lingering sugar in the blood can cause swelling in the lens in the eye. This can make it difficult for you to focus. If your blood sugar levels change quickly, the shape of your eye's lens can be affected and your vision can be blurred. Your vision goes back to normal after your blood sugar stabilizes.
  • Your hands and feet feel numb or tingle: Extra sugar in the blood can damage nerve-endings, especially those nerves located farthest from the spinal cord such as your feet. This leads to a pins-and-needles sensation.
  • You feel very tired: When sugar cannot get into your cells to energise them, your kidneys have to work overtime to remove the extra sugar. This can leave you feeling weak and fatigued.
  • You have very dry skin: Poor circulation, along with the loss of fluids because of frequent urination, can cause the skin to dry out, even after increasing water intake. Dry skin might lead to itching.
  • Your wounds, cuts and sores heal slowly: Lingering sugar in the blood disrupts circulation. Without proper blood flow, it takes longer for cuts and bruises to heal.
  • You are more prone to infections: suffer from more infections than usual.

Get your blood sugar tested if you have any of the symptoms of diabetes. A blood sample will be taken after an overnight fast.

  • A fasting blood sugar level less than 100 mg/dL (5.6 mmol/L) is normal.
  • A fasting blood sugar level from 100 to 125 mg/dL (5.6 to 6.9 mmol/L) is considered prediabetes.
  • If it's 126 mg/dL (7 mmol/L) or higher on two separate tests, you have diabetes.

Diabetes in men

Fertility issues

Diabetes in men has a direct effect on fertility, says a report at the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology.

Diabetes adversely influences male fertility at a molecular level. Scientists studied semen samples from men with diabetes who were receiving insulin therapy.

On initial routine microscopic examination, they found that sperm RNA was significantly altered. Diabetics have a significant decrease in their ability to repair sperm DNA, and once this is damaged it cannot be restored.

Sperm DNA quality is known to be associated with decreased embryo quality, low embryo implantation rates, higher miscarriage rates, and some serious childhood diseases, in particular some childhood cancers.

Erectile Dysfunction (ED) issues

ED is common in middle-aged and older men - and millions have it. Men with diabetes are three times more likely to have ED.

Getting older doesn't cause ED, but it does increase your chance of getting it.

Other problems are:

Overactive bladder - You need to urinate often, mostly at night

Male incontinence or leaking urine

Urinary tract infections

Retrograde ejaculation, where semen is released into the bladder.

Diabetes in women

Heart disease

Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease by about four times in women but only about two times in men, and women have worse outcomes after a heart attack.

Vaginal yeast infection

Women with diabetes are at higher risk, especially if their blood sugar levels are high.

Urinary tract infection (UTI)

Your risk may be higher if you have diabetes. High blood sugar levels and poor circulation reduces your body's ability to fight infections. Also, when your bladder doesn't empty fully, it creates a perfect environment for bacteria to grow.

Women are also at higher risk of other diabetes-related complications such as blindness, kidney disease, and depression.

Conclusion

Diabetes is not a death sentence. What is important is to be aware of diabetes symptoms and causes. In case, you do get diagnosed with diabetes, it is important to take the right steps towards effectively managing the disease.

With effective lifestyle management, you can prevent and control type 2 diabetes and manage type 1. Each one of us can make positive changes.

It all comes down to mind-set, determination, action, and the solutions we go out and seek.

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Dr. Pramod Mane

A Doctor of Medicine (MD) in Pharmacology., currently based in Mumbai, India, Dr Pramod Mane, comes with an experience of more than 20 years of working in Medical Affairs in the Pharmaceuticals & Nutraceutical Industry. Director of Medical Services at Mega Lifesciences since 2008, Dr Mane has been associated with several MNCS in the areas of Medical Affairs, Medical Services, Medico-marketing, Pharmacovigilance & Clinical trials in his illustrious career.

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