Understanding Diabetes: Health Matters

Health Matters: Understanding Diabetes and What it Could Mean for You
By Dr. Brian S. Stevens

More than 29 million adults have diabetes and 25% of those adults don’t know they even have the disease. Not only can diabetes be detrimental to your health, but left untreated, it can result in heart attacks and other health complications.

The problem with diabetes is that it’s insidious and subtle. Understanding what diabetes is and how it affects your body is important for creating a healthy life.What is Diabetes
So, what exactly is diabetes and what does it do to your body? Diabetes is a disease that impacts your body and processes the food you eat. When you eat, your body breaks down your meal into glucose for energy. As your blood sugar increases, your body signals your pancreas to make insulin that then lets that glucose inside your cells. People with diabetes do not process carbohydrates correctly, which causes blood glucose to increase and remain in the bloodstream.

There are multiple types of diabetes – type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes. The disease is diagnosed based on blood glucose levels, fasting glucose levels, and HB A1C, which indicates how much sugar is in the blood. HB A1C of 6% – 6.5% is diagnostic for Pre-Diabetes and greater than 6.5% is considered diabetes. The medical community is lowering the standard A1C level from 6.0 % to 5.7 % to help catch diabetes sooner in at-risk patients.

Type 1 diabetes is an auto immune disease that destroys the pancreatic cells that make insulin causing a complete loss of insulin production over time. Previously known as juvenile diabetes, type 1 diabetes was often diagnosed in children whose bodies could not produce insulin. 
However, it is now being seen in adults as well.

Types of Diabetes
People with type 1 diabetes are insulin dependent and need it to be healthy for the rest of their lives. Symptoms of type 1 diabetes in children include increased thirst, frequent trips to the bathroom, extreme hunger, unintentional weight loss, fatigue, irritability and fruity-smelling breath. Adults with any type of diabetes might experience similar symptoms.

Type 2 diabetes is a slower, metabolic disorder and is more common in adults. For those with type 2 diabetes, their pancreas may not be producing enough insulin and their cells may not be responding to insulin in the way they should.

Unlike type 1 diabetes, there are steps patients can take to manage their disease and reduce its impacts. This includes eating a healthy diet, exercising and losing weight.

Though neither type is curable. I encourage patients with type 2 diabetes to look at their disease as a life-long diagnosis, even if their A1C levels are under control. It is critical to maintain the healthy lifestyle that helped control this disease and to avoid denial that it still there.

Many people with type 2 diabetes are asymptomatic and live their lives for a long time not aware that they have the illness. Though someone who does experience symptoms may experience excessive thirst, dehydration, cloudy vision and chronic yeast infections or UTIs.

Gestational diabetes impacts some pregnant women, whose bodies can’t produce enough insulin during pregnancy. It often reverses once the baby is born, though it can make them more at risk for type 2 diabetes later in life.

Resources for Patients with Diabetes
Your primary care physician can be a valuable and comforting resource for patients with diabetes. They are often the first point of contact for patients with the illness. Some patients may ultimately be referred to a specialist as well. If you think you might have diabetes or are at-risk for the disease, your medical team can help you navigate your next steps to assessing your health.

Diabetes, no matter the type, affects your life daily and can be costly. Insulin and additional medications that are sometimes needed to manage the illness can be expensive. Insulin-dependent patients must also prick their fingers to test their blood sugar and give themselves insulin multiple times a day, every day. The psychological and emotional impact can be hard. However, it’s important to remember that no one struggling with diabetes is alone in their fight against the disease.

 *Brian Stevens, PA-C, is a board-certified physician assistant, specializing in endocrinology for Mercy Health. Prior to his time in endocrinology, he was a cardiothoracic surgical PA for 15 years and served as a United States Navy corpsman.

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