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What is diabetes?

Sarah Kelsey is a lifestyle writer, editor and spokesperson based in Toronto. She was the editor of AOL/The Huffington Post Canada’s StyleList, Style and Living sites. Today, she's a freelancer writing for some of North America’s top pub...

Get to know diabetes

With over 1.6 million new cases diagnosed each year, diabetes is one of the fastest growing diseases in the country. So why should you worry about diabetes and what exactly do you need to know? Keep reading to learn your risk factors, the different types of diabetes, sypmtoms of the disease, and tips to manage diabetes if you have it.

Woman checking blood sugar before meal

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease in which your blood glucose, or sugar, levels are too high. Glucose comes from the foods you eat. Insulin, produced in the pancreas, is a hormone that helps regulate the glucose levels in your cells, giving you energy.

There are three types of diabetes:

Type 1 diabetes – Typically diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body stops producing insulin altogether.

Type 2 diabetes – The most common type of diabetes, Type 2 develops when the body stops making enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels in check, or when the body's cells stop responding to insulin and the glucose level in a person's blood drastically increases. This can lead to many dangerous conditions, like nerve damage and blindness.

Gestational diabetes – Pregnancy can often disrupt the way a woman's body produces or reacts to insulin. Gestational diabetes can become a problem for women who are over 28 weeks pregnant; it often goes away once women give birth. However, it must be carefully monitored by a doctor.

What's your diabetes risk?

Research has shown several groups are more susceptible to developing diabetes than others.

People more at risk for Type 1 diabetes: White children with a family history of the disease.

People more at risk for Type 2 diabetes: Asian, Hispanic, Native or African American descendants; obese people who live an inactive lifestyle or those who store fat around their stomach; those with a family history of the disease; and people older than 40.

People more at risk for gestational diabetes: Women who have previously given birth to a very large baby, have a family history of diabetes or have too much amniotic fluid.

Symptoms of diabetes

Diabetes often goes undiagnosed because many of the symptoms associated with the disease seem harmless. However, early detection is key to preventing diabetes-related complications. Here are the signs and symptoms for each type of diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes – frequent urination, unusual thirst, extreme hunger, unusual weight loss and extreme fatigue and irritability.

Type 2 diabetes – same symptoms as Type 1 diabetes as well as blurred vision, slow-to-heal cuts or bruises, tingling in the hands or feet and recurring skin, gum or bladder infections.

Gestational diabetes - may not cause any symptoms, but pregnant women may experience excessive weight gain, excessive hunger or thirst, excessive urination or recurrent vaginal infections. Gestational diabetes is detected with a glucose tolerance test taken after the 24th week of pregnancy.

Living with diabetes

Once you've received a diabetes diagnosis, there are several things you can do to stay well.

Top tips for managing diabetes include:

  • Get regular exercise
  • Eat healthfully for your condition (work with a registered dietician or your doctor)
  • Closely monitor your blood glucose levels
  • Take insulin on time
  • Quit smoking

Depending on whether you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, there are also some specific things you can do to manage the disease.

Type 1 diabetes – Take insulin on time and on a regular schedule so your body can regulate and use sugar; closely monitor your blood-glucose and hemoglobin levels.

Type 2 diabetes – Oral medications or a form of insulin may be prescribed to regulate insulin levels; monitor your blood-glucose and hemoglobin levels; focus on lifestyle changes.

Treatment is essential for health

If left untreated, diabetes can cause a slew of complications, including depression, digestive problems, vision loss, skin problems, heart disease, sexual complications and thyroid, kidney or celiac disease. Work closely with your doctor to find the most effective treatment plan for your condition.

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