There’s a lot of confusion surrounding diabetes, which can make it hard for a lot of people to understand. As this week is National Diabetes Week, we thought it would be helpful to break down some of the common misconceptions around the illness. Here, we separate fact from fiction, with 11 surprising things you might not know about diabetes.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a complex condition where blood glucose levels become too high because the body produces little or no insulin — a hormone produced by the pancreas that regulates your blood sugar levels. It does this by breaking down the glucose (sugar) that's in your blood so that it can be stored or used for energy. Most of the food we eat is turned into glucose, or sugar, for our bodies to use for energy.
With diabetes, the body does not properly process food for use as energy. This is because your body either doesn’t make enough insulin or can’t effectively use the insulin it does make. This, in turn, can lead to a drastic increase in their blood sugar levels. If left untreated, high blood sugar from diabetes can damage your nerves, eyes, kidneys, heart, and other organs, and lead to a number of health issues, including heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, blindness and circulation problems.
What causes diabetes?
The amount of blood glucose that you have in your body typically depends on the foods that you eat, hence if you eat sugary foods, your blood sugar levels will rise. People who consume inordinate quantities of sugar are more likely to develop less severe forms of diabetes.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean that if you eat too much sugar you’ll develop the condition. There can be a number of factors — including genetics — that can cause the illness. In fact, there are three main types of diabetes, and the cause of each type differs from person to person.
Because of the varying forms of the illness, there’s a lot of confusion surrounding diabetes; what causes it, and what you can do to prevent it. So, to separate fact from fiction, we break down some of the most common misconceptions.
Here are 11 surprising things you might not know about diabetes, along with some helpful advice on recognising the symptoms, diabetes management, and how to reduce your risk.
Myth #1: Diabetes is caused by diet or sugar
There are two main types of diabetes; type 1 and type 2.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease and occurs when a person’s immune system attacks insulin-producing cells, which results in little to no insulin in the blood. This condition often is evident in childhood, though it can be diagnosed later in life. It’s not exactly known why the immune system starts attacking these cells, although experts know it’s not contributed to lifestyle choices. Currently there’s no way to prevent type 1 diabetes, and there is also no known cure.
Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, occurs when a person develops high blood glucose levels. This is the most common type of diabetes, and it can develop later in life. Blood sugar levels tend to rise when a person develops insulin resistance. This occurs when excess glucose in the blood reduces the ability of the cells to absorb and use blood sugar for energy.
Again, it’s not exactly known what causes type 2 diabetes, although it’s often associated with certain lifestyle factors. Eating large amounts of sugary foods for long periods of time can certainly increase your risk, but there are a wide range of contributing factors, including genetics, and the natural rise of blood sugar that occurs as we get older, that can all increase the risk of developing the illness.
Myth #2: You have to be overweight to develop diabetes
While it’s true that being overweight increases your risk for developing diabetes, it’s not the definitive factor. Other risks factors include family history, ethnicity and lifestyle factors such as an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity.
Almost 1.2 million Australians are diagnosed with diabetes, but of these, a number of these cases are not solely related to being overweight. People of healthy weight are also also at risk of developing the illness. Type 2 diabetes also has strong genetic and family-related risk factors that are completely out of your control.
Having said that, obesity is one of the leading causes of type 2 diabetes. It also increases your risk of other illnesses including heart disease, stroke and some cancers. Some people may be able to significantly slow down the progression of the condition by changing their diet and increasing the amount of physical activity they do. Maintaining a healthy weight is key to preventing and managing the condition.
Myth # 3: There’s only one type of diabetes
There are actually three main types of diabetes. Whilst type 2 diabetes is the most common, there are two other types as well: type 1 and gestational.
Type 1 diabetes
As we already mentioned earlier, type 1 diabetes occurs when a person’s immune system attacks insulin-producing cells, resulting in little to no insulin in the blood. There is no way to prevent type 1 diabetes, and often it’s hereditary. Anyone who has type 1 diabetes needs lifelong insulin therapy.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is more likely to appear as people age, but it’s now becoming more prevalent in children, too. In this type, the pancreas produces insulin, but the body cannot use it effectively. This means glucose cannot enter the cells. Instead, it builds up in the blood, and can often lead to further health complications. Lifestyle factors appear to affect its development, although genetics and family history also play a part.
Symptoms can sometimes take years to appear. In the early stages, a person with type 2 diabetes does not need supplemental insulin. People may use medications, diet, and exercise from the early stages to reduce the risk or slow the disease.
Although, as the illness progresses, they may need insulin therapy to manage their blood glucose levels in order to stay healthy.
Gestational diabetes occurs in women who are pregnant, and almost always disappears after giving birth, but some people then go on to develop type 2 diabetes later in life.
Myth # 4: Diabetes doesn’t affect that many people
Type 2 diabetes continues to be the fastest growing chronic disease in Australia and is the sixth leading cause of death. It’s estimated that 1.2 million Australians live with diabetes, although 1 in 4 of the population may be living with the condition, but remain undiagnosed. Whilst there are some common symptoms to look out for (read on to myth #5), the best reassurance is to get tested. You can ask your GP to run a simple blood test to test for all types of diabetes.
Myth #5: Diabetes always has symptoms
Yes, there are some common symptoms that give us warning signs, but often many people live with the condition for years, without any symptoms at all. Age, race, family history, lifestyle (poor diet, being overweight and lack of physical activity) and genetics all play a part, so if you fall under any of these categories, it’s important to get tested as early as possible to prevent any further health conditions from developing.
Some common symptoms of diabetes to lookout for include:
- extreme thirst
- dry mouth
- frequent urination
- irritable behaviour
- blurred vision
- wounds that don’t heal quickly
- skin that itches or is dry
- yeast infections
- unexplained weight loss
Myth #6: Diabetes isn’t serious
There’s no such thing as “mild” diabetes. Diabetes is a serious, chronic disease, and can lead to serious complications if not well managed. In fact, people with diabetes are up to four times more likely to have a stroke or heart attack. If left untreated, it can lead to other potential health complications such as heart disease, stroke, kidney damage, and nerve damage.
Once diagnosed, however, diabetes can be controlled with proper medications and lifestyle changes.
Myth #7: You can’t eat sugar if you’re diabetic
Because diabetes affects blood glucose levels, many people think they need to avoid sugar and foods containing sugar altogether. This isn’t actually true. When eaten as part of a healthy diet, or combined with exercise, sugary desserts and carbohydrate-rich foods, such as white rice and white bread, are all ok to eat, providing you eat them in moderation.
Another tip is to eat small portions and include them with other foods. This can help slow down digestion, and help better regulate your blood sugars.
If you are diagnosed with diabetes, you need to be careful of the foods you consume, so you can keep tabs on your blood sugars. For advice on dietary requirements, we recommend speaking to a dietician.
Myth #8: You only develop diabetes when you’re older
Type 2 diabetes usually develops in adults over the age of 45, but is increasingly occurring in younger age groups including children, adolescents and young adults.
The onset of type 1 diabetes occurs most frequently in people under 30, however new research suggests almost half of all people who develop the condition are diagnosed over the age of 30.
Myth #9: Diabetes is hard to manage
We certainly wouldn’t say that managing diabetes is easy, but with certain medications and lifestyle changes you can help alleviate and control the illness.
Here are some tips for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes:
Type 1 diabetes needs to be closely managed with daily care, including:
- Insulin replacement through lifelong insulin injections (up to 6 every day) or use of an insulin pump
- Monitor blood glucose levels regularly (up to 6 times every day or as directed by a doctor or Credentialled Diabetes Educator)
- Follow a healthy diet and eating plan
- Exercise regularly
In some cases, type 2 diabetes can be managed by making lifestyle changes, including:
- Eating healthily — this helps manage your blood glucose levels and your body weight
- Regular exercise — this helps the insulin work more effectively, lowers your blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart disease
- Regular blood glucose monitoring tests — this is to keep tabs of your blood glucose levels, and to establish whether you need to adjust your treatment
Myth #10: Diabetes won’t affect your mental health
Diabetes is a difficult and challenging illness to live with, and can have serious effects on your mental health. In fact, research shows that having diabetes more than doubles the risk of developing depression.
If you do experience any feelings of depression, visit your GP who will be able to give you further advice, or provide a referral for counselling.
Stress can also make it more difficult to control your diabetes. Hormones from stress increase your blood pressure, raise your heart rate, and can cause your blood sugar to rise. If you are feeling stressed or anxious, practice some mindfulness techniques to help you de-stress and unwind.
There are also natural mood-booosting supplements that you can try to help. Our pharmacist recommends the following:
A unique blend of Bach flower remedies. Add a few drops to your tongue or to a drink to relieve feelings of mild anxiety, nervous tension, stress, agitation, and to achieve a sense of focus and calm.
A combination of magnolia, phellodendron, skullcap and passionflower to help allieviate symptoms of stress, mild anxiety and nervous tension.
Available in either a liquid or spray formula, this natural blend contains passionflower and zinc, which are traditionally used in homeopathic medicine to help relieve stress, mild anxiety, restlessness and insomnia.
This practioner-approved supplement has been specially formulated with standardised kava, high-quality lavender extract and standardised Withania, to relieve nervous tension, restlessness and reduce symptoms of stress and mild anxiety.
Lavender is renowned for its natural ability to create a sense of calm and relaxation. Seremind contains silexan, a specially prepared and patented lavender oil that works to relieve symptoms of mild anxiety, nervous tension, and helps improve sleep quality.Shop Now
There are also free support services you can contact too, like Beyond the Blue, who will be able to give you free professional support.
Myth #11: Diabetes can be prevented
Not all types of diabetes can be prevented. Type 1 is an autoimmune condition that can’t be prevented, and there is currently no cure. The cause of type 1 diabetes is still unknown.
There’s no one single cause of type 2 diabetes, but there are well-established risk factors. So, in some cases, if you make certain lifestyle changes you can significantly reduce your risk of developing the illness.
The risk of developing diabetes is also affected by things you can’t change, such as family history and ethnicity. But there are certain lifestyle factors you can control to help prevent you from developing the disease. These include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Regular exercise
- Eating healthily
- Managing blood pressure
- Managing cholesterol levels
- Not smoking
For more advice on diabetes, visit Diabetes Australia.
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