What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease that occurs when blood sugar, or blood glucose, is too high. It can lead to other health problems like heart disease, nerve damage, kidney disease, and eye problems. Approximately 9.3% of Americans have diabetes (29.1 million people), and about 86 million Americans aged 20 and older have prediabetes. One in four people don't know they have diabetes.

Symptoms and Causes

Symptoms of diabetes include:

  • increased thirst and urination
  • increased hunger
  • fatigue
  • blurred vision
  • numbness or tingling in the feet or hands
  • sores that do not heal
  • unexplained weight loss

The symptoms of type 1 diabetes can develop quickly, in a matter of weeks, while symptoms of type 2 can develop over several years. Many with type 2 diabetes don't experience any symptoms and don't even know they have the disease until they experience other health problems. If you experience any of the above, you should talk to your doctor.

Type 1 diabetes does not have a specific cause. Scientists believe that it occurs because of genetics or environmental factors, such as viruses. In people with type 1, the immune system attacks the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin and regulate blood sugar.

Type 2 diabetes can be caused by numerous factors including lifestyle and environmental factors. It is the most common form of diabetes. If you are overweight or obese, you are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Extra weight, especially extra belly fat, is linked to insulin resistance and heart and blood vessel disease.

Insulin resistance is when muscle, liver, and fat cells do not use insulin well. Because of that, your body needs more insulin to regulate blood sugar, so your pancreas has to work harder to produce more. At first it can, but overtime it cannot produce enough and blood sugar levels rise.

Some genes can cause type 2 diabetes, including genes that increase your chance of being overweight or obese. If you are of the following racial/ethnic groups, you may be more prone to type 2 diabetes:

  • African Americans
  • Alaska Natives
  • American Indians
  • Asian Americans
  • Hispanics/Latinos
  • Native Hawaiians
  • Pacific Islanders

Gestational diabetes, or diabetes that develops during pregnancy, is believed to be caused by hormonal changes, extra weight, and genetics.

Diabetes can also be caused by genetic mutations (cause diabetes in young people/newborns which is often diagnosed in adolescence), cystic fibrosis, hemochromatosis, Cushing's syndrome, hypothyroidism, and acromegaly. It can be caused by some medicines including:

  • niacin, a type of vitamin B3
  • certain types of diuretics, also called water pills
  • anti-seizure drugs
  • psychiatric drugs
  • drugs to treat human immunodeficiency virus (HIV )
  • pentamidine, a drug used to treat a type of pneumonia
  • glucocorticoids—medicines used to treat inflammatory illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis , asthma , lupus , and ulcerative colitis
  • anti-rejection medicines, used to help stop the body from rejecting a transplanted organ

Diet and Nutrition for Managing Diabetes

People with diabetes may find that developing a meal plan with their healthcare team is the best way to manage their diabetes. You should consult with your team before dieting. A meal plan may include, for example, fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, chicken or turkey without the skin, fish, lean meats, and nonfat or low-fat milk and cheese. You can use this from the MayoClinicto help you and your team develop a meal plan.

There is no proof that certain supplements can help with diabetes, though you may need to take them if you are not getting vitamins and minerals in your diet. Always talk to your doctor before taking supplements.

Being physically active most days of the week can help manage your symptoms. Always talk to your healthcare team before beginning a new exercise routine. They can help you determine how to exercise safely. They can also help you prevent hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, while exercising, which can be caused by some medications such as sulfonylurea. It is important to wear the proper footwear during exercise to protect your feet. Diabetes can cause problems in the feet by limiting blood flow and causing nerve damage. It is important to do both aerobic and strengthening exercises to prevent injury and to increase your body's ability to process the food you eat.

For more information, visit Nutrition.gov or the American Diabetes Association.