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What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects millions of Americans. Approximately 10.5% of the population has diabetes, and many people who have the disease haven't received a diagnosis. While the risk of diabetes is higher in senior citizens, this disease can affect anyone. It is crucial to understand the risk factors and what this means for your lifestyle. Take control of your health and learn how to recognize the signs of diabetes.

Diabetes affects your glucose, or blood sugar, levels. Glucose is an essential source of energy that we obtain through the foods we eat and via the liver. In someone who is diabetic, glucose levels become too high because the body cannot process it properly. The human body processes glucose via the hormone insulin, which comes from the pancreas. Too little insulin, and you can become hypoglycemic. On the flip side, with too much insulin, you can become hyperglycemic. If untreated, diabetes can lead to severe health consequences. Over time, unmanaged diabetes can cause nerve, kidney and eye damage, cardiovascular disease, foot damage and hearing problems. 

Diabetes is a broad term that encompasses different types: Type 1, Type 2 and gestational. In Type 1 diabetics, the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to process glucose. In Type 2 diabetics, the pancreas still produces insulin, but the body builds up resistance to the hormone, which leads to elevated blood sugar levels. Gestational diabetes can develop during pregnancy. Additionally, people can experience prediabetes, which is a period in which the body can no longer produce enough insulin. Prediabetes can be reversible, but when left unaddressed, it could develop into Type 2 diabetes. 

Who Gets Diabetes?

Diabetes can affect anyone at any age, but specific groups are at higher risk.

  • Family history: If someone in your immediate family, such as a parent or sibling, has Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, you are at higher risk for developing the disease as well.
  • Age: Some age groups are more at risk for different types of diabetes. For example, Type 1 diabetes is more likely to manifest in children and young adults. Type 2 diabetes more commonly develops in people who are 45 years and older. This older age group is also at higher risk for prediabetes. 
  • Obesity: If you are overweight or do not regularly participate in physical activity, you are at an increased risk of developing prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes. 
  • Race: Specific racial groups are at higher risk of diabetes. In the United States, whites have a higher chance of developing Type 1 diabetes, while African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos are at greater risk of Type 2 diabetes. 
  • Pregnancy: Approximately one in 10 pregnancies results in gestational diabetes for the mother. If you have experienced gestational diabetes, you also have an increased risk of developing prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes. Staying healthy during and after a pregnancy with gestational diabetes is essential, so check out our blog for insight into how this can be achieved.

Type 1 Diabetes vs. Type 2 Diabetes

What causes diabetes depends on the type of disease. What is the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes?

Type 1 Diabetes

The exact cause of Type 1 diabetes is difficult to determine. In a Type 1 diabetic, the body's immune system attacks healthy cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. Once this happens, the body can no longer produce insulin, leading to high blood sugar and Type 1 diabetes. Researchers are still trying to determine what sets off this immune response. Genetics and specific infections are potential factors. 

Type 1 diabetes is the less common of the two. Of the total number of Americans living with a diagnosis of diabetes, about 10% have Type 1. Children and young adults are more likely to receive a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, which is why you may sometimes hear people refer to the disease as juvenile diabetes. However, Type 1 diabetes can present at any age. 

Treatment for Type 1 diabetes includes insulin therapy. You will need to take insulin, since your body cannot produce it. In addition to insulin, you will need to monitor your blood sugar regularly. Additional measures will include a healthy diet and exercise to keep your blood sugar levels where they should be.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetics can produce insulin, but their bodies have built up a tolerance to it, which leads to elevated blood sugar levels. Lifestyle factors, such as obesity and genetics, can contribute to the development of Type 2 diabetes. The majority of people who are living with diabetes have Type 2. 

Living with Type 2 diabetes does not always require medication. Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise, to help you lose weight. In other cases, you may need insulin or a different type of medication. It is also vital for Type 2 diabetics to monitor their blood sugar.

Signs of Diabetes

If you are concerned that you may have diabetes, you will need to visit your doctor for a formal diagnosis and treatment plan. Signs to watch for and discuss with your doctor include the following. 

  • Excessive thirst and increased urination: If you find yourself extremely thirsty, this could be a sign of elevated blood sugar. When you have excess glucose in your blood, it forces your kidneys to work harder to clear that excess.  As a result, your kidneys will produce more urine. As you urinate more, you will feel thirstier. The body needs to normalize its blood sugar levels to break this cycle. 
  • Excess hunger: Glucose is an essential component in creating energy for your body. When the body becomes resistant to insulin, the hormone that breaks down glucose and converts it into energy, you are not getting that essential fuel. As a result, your body may tell you to eat more to gain that energy. Unfortunately, this will not help because the body is still struggling to process that blood sugar. Eating more will only contribute to high blood sugar levels. 
  • Delayed healing: Have you noticed that small cuts and scrapes seem to be taking a long time to heal? Slow healing is a potential sign of diabetes. Unchecked hyperglycemia can affect the function of white blood cells, which are an essential part of the immune system and our healing process. Diabetes can also increase the likelihood that a wound will become infected. 
  • Changes in weight: Sudden changes in your weight, whether gain or loss, could indicate diabetes. When your body cannot process insulin, whether due to resistance or lack of production, you will not get the energy you need. 
  • Skin conditions: Several skin conditions can be a sign that you are suffering from diabetes. As a diabetic, you can be more susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections of the skin. You may also notice dark patches of skin on your elbow or knee joints, a skin condition known as acanthosis nigricans, which is a potential result of insulin resistance. 
  • Vision problems: High blood sugar levels can affect the lenses in your eyes. If you develop blurry vision or other eyesight problems, it could be a symptom of diabetes. 
  • Fatigue: Diabetes takes a toll on the body. Lack of energy can signify anything from a poor night's rest to a more severe health condition. If you find yourself regularly fatigued, take a moment to consider any other signs you may have noticed. 

These symptoms can appear in anyone with diabetes, but some signs of the disease can be different in men and women. Men with diabetes can have lower testosterone levels, leading to a lack of energy and erectile dysfunction. Erectile dysfunction may also be due to damage done to nerves and blood vessels. 

Diabetic women may also experience sexual dysfunction in the form of painful intercourse or lack of sex drive. Diabetes can also make women more prone to vaginal yeast infections and urinary tract infections. Additionally, more than half of women with polycystic ovarian syndrome develop Type 2 diabetes by the time they turn 40. 

How to Maintain Diabetes Control

Living with and managing diabetes necessitates some lifestyle changes. Some of the crucial aspects of controlling diabetes include the following. 

  • Medication: People with Type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin. To manage their condition, they need to take insulin throughout the day. Type 2 diabetics may not need to take medication, depending on their condition. In some cases, they may need to take insulin or prescription drugs to control their glucose levels. 
  • Regular doctor's visits. Diabetes is a chronic condition that requires careful management. Your doctor will help you build a care plan and monitor your health. Always come prepared for each visit to discuss what you are doing every day to manage your condition, how you are keeping track of your blood sugar levels and any questions you might have. Your doctor will let you know what your visit schedule should look like and conduct regular testing during those visits. 
  • Healthy diet: Maintaining a healthy diet is a critical part of any diabetic's life. The right diet will help you manage your blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of complications.  Typical diets for diabetics recommend foods high in fiber and healthy carbs and low in added sugar and fats.
  • Exercise: A healthy diet and exercise go hand in hand. Both aerobic exercise and strengthening exercises are a part of an effective workout plan. Exercise can help reduce the body's blood sugar levels. The combination of diet and exercise can also help with weight loss, often a paramount goal for people with diabetes. Working toward a healthy weight can reduce the risk of diabetes-related complications, such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Exercising with Diabetes

Exercise is undoubtedly a vital habit to build if you are concerned about developing diabetes or if you are already living with a diagnosis. However, it is essential to prepare for your exercise routine. If you do have diabetes and take medication, such as insulin, you will need to monitor your blood sugar carefully. Check your blood sugar before, during and after you exercise to ensure your blood sugar levels do not become too low. It is also a good idea to keep a snack with you to help elevate your blood sugar levels if they do drop. You can also carry glucose tablets with you. 

If you have been inactive for a long period, it is likely a good idea to ease into your new workout routine. Some low-impact exercises to consider include the following.

  • Walking: Walking is one of the most straightforward forms of exercise to work into your routine. Try to work a 30-minute walk into your daily routine. Go before, during or after work — whatever fits your schedule and feels right. 
  • Yoga: Yoga has a ton of varieties to choose from, but all forms of this exercise focus on improving strength and flexibility. Start with a beginner's class to learn the poses. All you need for yoga is a mat and comfy workout clothes. Some classes incorporate props such as blocks and straps to help students get into various poses, but any studio/gym you visit will probably provide those. Click here to browse the Gateway Region YMCA's Mind & Body class options!
  • Swimming: Swimming is an excellent way to exercise because it relieves any potential strain on your joints. It is also a great cardio workout. Start slowly by swimming a few laps or trying out a water fitness class like water aerobics. As you build up endurance, you can spend more time in the pool. 

As you build up to longer and more strenuous workouts, try the following.

  • Biking: Cycling is an excellent cardio workout, and it strains your joints less than running. If you like to exercise with a purpose, check to see if you can bike to and from work. If you prefer a more leisurely approach to biking, look for local trails. If you would like a more structured workout, check out the Gateway Region YMCA's cycling classes!
  • Weightlifting: Weightlifting can be as gentle or intense as you want it to be. You can join the YMCA for a wide array of machines, free weights, and strength training classes, or you can opt to buy some dumbbells weights for home. 

If you are finding it tough to stay motivated, consider joining a team sport. The competition and social aspect of playing on a team can be an outstanding way to stay committed to exercise and find a little fun. The Gateway Region YMCA offers plenty of adult sports leagues and open-play opportunities, including pickleball, pickup basketball, racquetball, and volleyball.

Understanding Your Risk

Diabetes is a severe illness. That does not mean you cannot manage it with the right medication and lifestyle, but it does mean you need to educate yourself and understand how it affects your health. If you have received a diagnosis of prediabetes or believe you could have the condition, find out your risk score. Once you have a better understanding of your risk, you can take steps to change the factors that are in your control, such as participating in the YMCA's Diabetes Prevention Program.

The YMCA's Diabetes Prevention Program helps adults at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles by eating healthier, increasing physical activity, and losing a modest amount of weight in order to reduce their chances of developing the disease. At the Gateway Region YMCA, we value your well-being, and we want to support you in your desire to live a happier, healthier life.

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Category: Healthy Living