Between 1997 and 2003, there was a 74% rise in cases of diabetes in the UK – could you be next?
Your body works like any machine: it needs fuel to function, and sugar – or glucose, which is what sugar is converted to in your body – is what provides this energy. Diabetes occurs when your body is no longer able to manage the sugar from your diet.
Usually, you eat and glucose is filtered into the bloodstream where cells absorb it to grow or for energy. But in order for the cells to absorb the glucose, they need insulin, a hormone produced by your pancreas. Most people with type 2 diabetes have what is called ‘insulin resistance’. This means that although their pancreas produces enough insulin, the body doesn’t utilise it effectively. Glucose levels then rise in the blood and it is eventually flushed out via the kidneys and your urine. Raised blood glucose levels trigger a range of symptoms and can ultimately lead to complications including damage to eyesight, kidneys, circulation and peripheral nerves.
“Diabetes type 2 shortens your life expectancy by up to 10 years, with 80% of people with the disease dying from heart problems,” says Libby Dowling, care adviser for Diabetes UK. “We know there are around 2.5 million people with the disease – type 1 and 2 – and we estimate that at least 500,000 people unknowingly have type 2 diabetes”.
In the short term, diabetes’ effects – too much glucose in the bloodstream – will have an immediate impact on the body. High blood sugar (hyperglycemia) occurs when insulin levels are too low or aren’t effective, or from eating an excess of food. This causes the person to feel extremely thirsty, have dry skin, blurred vision and/or an overall feeling of drowsiness. If untreated, it can lead to heart problems and even coma.
Low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) can occur if you are on medication and take too big a dose, if you do strenuous exercise without eating enough, drink alcohol on an empty stomach, or skip meals. The effects of too little glucose in your system are sweating, dizziness and the shakes. And if you do nothing to remedy the situation – by eating something like raisins or a glucose tablet, or drinking a glass of juice, for example – it can result in fainting or even coma.
Diabetes isn’t a death sentence, however, if it’s caught early and managed well, but if is left untreated, it will cause serious damage. Because it affects your body’s source of fuel, almost every body part could potentially be affected – diabetes can lead to blindness, heart disease, kidney failure, and even nerve damage resulting in the need for limb amputation.
The good news is that the test for diagnosing diabetes is simple: your blood glucose levels are checked either after a period of fasting or taking a glucose drink. Once diagnosed, you can adjust your lifestyle to lower your risks of further complications (see below), or if necessary, take regular medication to keep it in check.
The to-do list
Check your genes If a parent or sibling has type 2 diabetes, it puts you at increased risk of developing it too. See your GP for a test.
Cut your risk You can halve your risk of developing diabetes with the right diet and exercise, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health. And even if you already have diabetes, the correct diet can help keep it in check: “If you’ve been advised to lose weight, and depending on what you were eating before, many people can safely cut around 500 calories per day – though you must check with your doctor or diabetes clinic first,” says registered nutritionist Carina Norris.
Curb the simple carbs Because simple refined carbohydrates are broken down into glucose quickly they have the most dramatic – and potentially dangerous – effect on your blood sugar levels. Diabetes UK recommends limiting sugar, but says it’s okay to use it in foods and in baking as part of a healthy diet. Sugary drinks should be avoided, however, as they can cause blood sugar levels to spike.
Get sweaty If cutting back on your food is something you’d like to avoid at all costs, exercise. “If you up your physical activity, then you may not need to reduce your calorie intake as much,” says Norris. “Exercise actually increases your body’s sensitivity to insulin.” Running or doing an aerobics class will lower your blood sugar levels quickly so be prepared to eat something immediately afterward. Lifting weights, however, will have an effect on your blood sugar hours later – so again, be prepared by making sure you’ve got fruit, juice or a cereal bar with you.
Know your numbers High blood pressure is associated with diabetes – as are high cholesterol levels. Keep these in check by eating heart-healthy foods, keeping salt intake low and avoiding stress, if possible.
Keep tabs on it If you are at risk of diabetes or have been diagnosed with it, you can check your blood sugar levels using a glucose meter at home. Normal blood glucose levels should be between 4 to 8mmol/L, depending on how recently you have eaten – you can expect them to be raised after a meal and lower in the morning before breakfast.
Make the call Book an appointment to see your GP if you experience fatigue, a frequent need to pee, thirst, weight loss, blurry vision and/or wounds that are slow to heal. It is possible to have diabetes without any symptoms, however, so if you think you are at risk, ask for a test.