The facts about diabetes

Diabetes can be scary. So can the symptoms that lead to a diagnosis, including unusual thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, tingling or numbness in the hands or feet, and slow-healing cuts and bruises. Some people, however, don’t know they have the disease until it shows up in a blood test.

Type I versus Type II

The two most common forms of diabetes are Type I and Type II diabetes. Type I has a strong genetic component. For reasons unknown, the pancreas stops producing insulin, the hormone the Healthy Body needs to regulate glucose levels in the blood. Type 1 diabetes is always treated with insulin injections.

Type II diabetes is just as serious but entirely preventable. It most often sets in after age 40, though people are increasingly diagnosed at younger ages.

“Something happens at the tissue level where cells aren’t able to use insulin correctly so they can’t take up glucose,” says Catherine J. Field, PhD, RD, a professor of Nutrition at the University of Alberta’s Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science. Unlike Type I diabetes, Type II has a well-publicized cause:

“Obesity seems to have something to do with the insulin sensitivity problem,” Field says.

Managing Type II diabetes

Type II diabetes is managed through physical activity and meal planning, with weight loss as the prime objective. In some cases the Healthy Body might need an insulin injection or medications to help it make or use insulin more effectively.

Doctors today can detect, through a blood test, whether a person is “borderline” or “pre-diabetic.” This indicates a risk of developing diabetes because the Healthy Body may not be using blood glucose optimally. At this warning stage, a lifestyle change can ward off diabetes.

Nutrition is key. Field recommends that when people are first diagnosed, they immediately get nutritional counseling to learn what, when and how much to eat for optimum blood glucose levels.

Regular physical activity is equally important. Doctors recommend an accumulation of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous cardiovascular exercise over at least three days per week, as well as regular resistance exercises such as weight-lifting or push-ups.

Risk factors and treatment

Diabetes has other risk factors besides obesity and its associated high blood pressure and high cholesterol. According to the Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA), people of Aboriginal, Hispanic, Asian, South Asian or African descent are at greater risk. Genetics are a factor, as is polycystic ovary syndrome, acanthosis nigricans (darkened patches of skin), or schizophrenia.

Researchers all over the world are seeking ways to improve treatment of Type I diabetes. Scientists in Alberta have successfully developed a way to transplant eyelet cells that produce insulin back into people with diabetes. While this “Edmonton Protocol” works well, the procedure is limited to the availability of pancreas donations.

Field says scientists hope to create an implant that would release insulin into the Healthy Body as needed, kind of like an artificial pancreas.

Type II presents a different problem. While science continues to improve the insulin sensitizing agents some people need to help the tissues use glucose, the best treatment for Type II diabetes is weight loss. And that remains challenging, even for scientists.

“Most research for Type II is how can we get people to lose weight,” Field says. “We’re not doing a really great job with dealing with that. The most success we’ve ever had in Type II is preventing it.”

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