November is Diabetes Awareness Month, an international push to raise awareness of these widespread, life-changing diseases. And, as we’ll see, it’s a great opportunity to shed some light on healthy habits that can really benefit all of us, even if we’re not personally facing diabetes.
What is Type 1 diabetes?
Both types of diabetes result in the possibility of dangerously high levels of glucose (aka blood sugar) in the blood. Insulin is a vital hormone because it regulates blood sugar throughout the body. You can imagine insulin as a key that unlocks each cell’s door so that glucose can get in and fuel the cell. Without enough insulin, sugar builds up in the bloodstream and can do tremendous damage to many different organs.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the beta cells in the pancreas which produce insulin. For all intents and purposes, individuals with Type 1 don’t have the key to begin with, so they need to have insulin injected or pumped into their bloodstream. Type 1 diabetes is often diagnosed at an early age and is (currently) a lifelong diagnosis with no cure.
Doctors aren’t certain what causes this autoimmune response, but genetic factors seem to be involved, and environmental factors — such as exposure to certain viruses — may impact someone’s risk as well.
What is Type 2 diabetes?
People with Type 2 diabetes generally find out later in life because the body is able to produce insulin. However, over time they develop insulin resistance, meaning their cells no longer respond to the insulin as they should. It’s as if the cell’s locks have been changed, so their key no longer fits. This leads to the same excess sugar in the blood and the same potential complications.
The pancreas of a Type 2 diabetic will produce more and more insulin to try to compensate for the excess blood sugar. Over time, this can lead to the organ weakening, eventually leading to the individual developing the same problem as a Type 1 diabetic, including the need for insulin injections.
Again, doctor’s aren’t certain what causes insulin resistance in all patients, but studies have clearly linked a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes with certain lifestyle elements that will sound very familiar:
- Being overweight or obese
- Being sedentary
- Eating high amounts of sugar and a lot of heavily processed foods
How can people with Type 1 diabetes manage their disease?
For diabetic patients who have been prescribed insulin (including Type 2 diabetics whose pancreas has stopped producing enough insulin), establishing a proper schedule of injections is absolutely vital to maintaining a balanced level of insulin in the blood. In addition, their insulin level needs to be carefully calibrated to their eating schedule and the foods they eat. A glucose monitor becomes a constant companion.
If you or a loved one is new to taking insulin to treat diabetes, listen closely to your doctor’s instructions and ask every question that comes to mind. Don’t experiment or assume “I can handle this” when it comes to your insulin and your diet. Listen to your body and be prepared anywhere and everywhere to take a quick shot of insulin or a quick bite of something sweet, just in case your levels fluctuate unexpectedly. Drastic spikes or drops in blood sugar levels are both unpleasant and dangerous.
Type 1 diabetics that are most successful at managing their disease find that a balanced diet based around whole foods, eaten in several smaller meals throughout the day, works best. They keep a close eye on their intake of carbohydrates, opting for more complex carbs with plenty of fiber and steering away from anything with a lot of refined or added sugar. This diet tends to naturally keep the level of glucose in the blood relatively even throughout the day, meaning they can usually stick to a regular dose of insulin without having to measure, calculate, or guess about it very often.
Staying active with regular exercise that’s also factored into the amount of fuel they’re taking in helps maintain that balance as well, along with all the other health benefits that come from physical activity.
Likewise, the most successful diabetics learn how to manage their stress, quit smoking, and only drink alcohol in moderation, since all of these tend to create large blood sugar swings and make it harder to stay in balance.
How can people with Type 2 diabetes manage their disease?
Since those with Type 2 diabetes can still produce insulin early on, it’s often possible to manage and even eliminate the disease through diet and exercise alone. There are also medications doctors can prescribe to help your body better utilize the insulin you’re producing, but those medications won’t be able to completely manage ongoing insulin dependence alone.
The most effective treatment for newly diagnosed Type 2 diabetics is remarkably similar to the lifestyle habits followed by the most successful Type 1 diabetics:
- A healthy, balanced diet designed to lose excess fat and maintain a healthy weight
- Several small meals spread throughout the day
- Focus on whole foods, very limited intake of added sugar or foods that have been highly processed
- Regular exercise
- Moderate use of alcohol
- No smoking
This same formula works well because it will help you lose weight at a healthy rate and increases physical activity — both of which are key risk factors for Type 2 diabetes — while offering the same blood sugar balancing benefits previously discussed. So, while you’re lowering your risk factors, you’re also putting less strain on your pancreas and dealing with less of the unpleasant symptoms that come with fluctuating glucose levels.
That’s really what all of us can learn from Diabetes Awareness Month, whether we’re at risk for or have been diagnosed with diabetes or not: the basic lifestyle choices that can effectively manage or even eliminate diabetes are choices we can all make, and they’ll always be beneficial.