Diabetes Mellitus, more commonly known as diabetes, is a metabolic disease characterized by impaired carbohydrate metabolism and elevated blood sugar levels. Simply put, diabetes means problems digesting carbs, causing a cascade of health events contributing to chronic disease.
There are 3 main types of Diabetes, Type 1, Type 2, and Gestational Diabetes.
Gestational diabetes is characterized by elevated blood sugar during pregnancy. Although this typically resolves postpartum, the mom continues to be at an increased risk for developing Type 2 Diabetes. More importantly, the baby is also at a much higher risk for childhood obesity and becoming a diabetic later in life. Since the mom and baby shared a blood supply for 9 months, the baby was being fed high amounts of sugar early in life, causing elevated insulin levels and metabolic imbalance.
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 Diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, is typically diagnosed early in life (around age 13-14) and is related to an autoimmune condition. Essentially the body no longer recognizes its own pancreas and the immune system begins attacking this organ. Once the pancreas is severly damaged, it can no longer make insulin.
Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that helps regulate blood sugar levels and promote fat storage. Type 1 diabetics must use supplemental insulin to manage their daily blood sugar levels.
Type 1 diabetes is very different than Type 2 Diabetes.
Type 2 Diabetes
With type 2 diabetes initially, the pancreas makes too much insulin and the body becomes resistant to insulin’s effects. Eventually, the pancreas may slow down or stop the production of insulin altogether, which would then require the use of supplemental insulin as well to manage elevated blood sugar levels.
The biggest concern is that insulin acts like a growth hormone, encouraging fat cell growth and causing more weight gain. Fat cells store and release their own hormones that also play a role in carbohydrate metabolism, which means the more weight you gain, the harder it can be to manage blood sugar levels. Therefore, the goal of diabetes management should be to balance insulin and blood sugar levels with diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes to require as little supplemental insulin as possible.
Does Sugar Cause Diabetes?
Diabetes, often referred to as sugar diabetes, got its name from the theory that sugar causes diabetes. Although sugar doesn’t necessarily directly cause diabetes, it does play a major role in the development of Type 2 Diabetes.
When sugar and starches are consumed, these carbohydrates are absorbed into the bloodstream, elevating glucose levels. Normally the pancreas receives a signal that the blood sugar is too high and it starts producing insulin.
Insulin opens cells to that glucose can leave the bloodstream and enter the cells for energy. However, if we consume more sugar/starches than the body’s energy needs, the excess will be stored in fat cells. This leads to increased inflammation and weight gain.
Over time, eating excess sugar causes the liver to start producing more fat molecules, especially when we eat a lot of fructose. This means when sugar is processed in the liver, insulin signals liver cells to turn sugar into fatty molecules. Some of these fatty molecules are released into the bloodstream causing higher triglyceride levels, which contribute to cardiovascular disease. Over time, fat molecules start to back up in the liver, increasing the risk for Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, which means too many fat cells in the liver.
Once Fatty Liver Disease starts to develop, the hepatic cells, or liver cells, start to resist the signal of insulin, which is to tell the liver to convert sugar to fat. Therefore, the pancreas pushes out more insulin to get the job done and return the blood sugar back to normal. As the years pass, more cells continue to become even more resistant to insulin, which likely results in prediabetes.
What is Prediabetes?
1 in 3 adults is prediabetic and most are unaware as there aren’t major symptoms and can go undetected for years, which is why it is so important to have your blood levels checked routinely.
Prediabetes is the early stage of Type 2 Diabetes. If left untreated, prediabetes tends to develop into Type 2 diabetes within 5-10 years. However, with lifestyle changes, you can prevent or delay the onset of Type 2 Diabetes.
What is Type 2 Diabetes?
Type 2 Diabetes is generally diagnosed later in life, usually around age 45, but is recently being diagnosed at a much younger age, as young as teens/20s. Unfortunately, we will likely continue to see younger diabetics due to the Western Diet filled with highly sugary and starchy processed foods, while lacking in whole foods filled with fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.
“Diabetes will remain a major health crisis in America, in spite of medical advances and prevention efforts. The prevalence of diabetes (type 2 diabetes and type 1 diabetes) will increase by 54% to more than 54.9 million Americans between 2015 and 2030; annual deaths attributed to diabetes will climb by 38% to 385,800; and total annual medical and societal costs related to diabetes will increase 53% to more than $622 billion by 2030” (Rowley et al., 2017).
Cause of Type 2 Diabetes
Sugar doesn’t cause diabetes directly. Nor does diabetes develop overnight. You won’t get diabetes from eating an ice cream Sunday. However, sugar is the fuel to the fire if you will, the more sugar you consume the higher your insulin levels and the greater the risk of diabetes to develop. Although there are other causes for elevated blood sugar aside from diet, what we eat directly highly affects our blood sugar levels.
When the blood sugar elevates and insulin is released, glucose is pushed into any cell in the body, including fat cells. If the other cells of the body are already full of sugar storage, they can become resistant to insulin’s signal. Sugar remains in the bloodstream causing blood sugar to elevate above normal levels. This is where the problems can start happening and progresses until disease results unless lifestyle changes are made.
When the body is no longer able to process sugar effectivly, the blood glucose remains elevated, known as hyperglycemia.
Diabetes develops from years of lifestyle habits that may or may not be combined with genetic and other risk factors. That being said, the exact cause of Type 2 diabetes is yet to be determined, but it’s likely a combination of genetic factors, environmental influences, and lifestyle patterns.
Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes
Treatment of diabetes is typically managed with lifestyle changes and medications.
Lifestyle changes like diet modifications and increased physical activity can help to reduce glucose intake and also increase the energy needs of the body, which helps metabolize carbohydrates more efficiently. If lifestyle changes are not implemented, it’s anticipated that more medication will be needed to manage diabetes. Typically oral medication is the initial treatment, but if diabetes is out of control or little to no insulin is being produced, then supplemental injectable insulin may be required to manage glucose levels.
The problem is that the more injectable insulin you need to manage your blood sugar levels, the more weight you gain, and the harder your diabetes is to manage.
Complications of Insulin Resistance & Diabetes
Diabetes is a complex disease to manage and comes with its own list of potential complications like heart disease, vision loss, kidney disease, poor circulation, poor wound healing, amputations, neuropathy, and more!
Having lots of sugar molecules in the blood causes increased viscosity, essentially thickening the blood, acting more like syrup in your vessels rather than water. Sticky blood narrows blood vessels leading to poor circulation and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Hyperglycemia can also cause vascular complications in the tiny vessels of the eyes and kidneys and could lead to vision problems and/or kidney disease. Having diabetes increases your overall mortality risk from related complications.
It’s true, diabetes is largely preventable! We can’t change our genetics, but we can change our lifestyle habits to reduce insulin levels and maintain a healthy weight.
Type 2 Diabetes is mainly linked to obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, which are essentially preventable. If we move more and eat a balanced diet we can reduce our risk of diabetes and obesity.
Studies show that we can prevent or delay the onset of diabetes Type 2 diabetes, but once diagnosed, it’s likely for life. Talk to your healthcare provider about your diabetes risk and screening test. It’s never too soon to start implementing diabetes prevention strategies into your life and here are some of my top tips:
- Know Your Risk – Discuss with your healthcare provider about your family history and lifestyle habits that could influence your risk for diabetes.
Type 2 Diabetes Risk Factors: being prediabetic, overweight, age 45+, significant family history, sedentary lifestyle, had gestational diabetes when pregnant.
- Get Tested – ask your healthcare provider to get screened for diabetes. CVS clinic also offers diabetes screenings through your health insurance or you can pay cash for around $60.
- Reduce sugar and starch intake – Switch to 100% whole grains. Reduce intake of refined grains & sugars. Natural sugars found in fruit, milk, some vegetables, and grains, can still elevate blood sugar levels, but on a much lower scale as these foods also have fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to help slow down the rate of sugar absorption, keeps you feeling fuller longer, and helps to reduce the risk of insulin resistance by regulating carbohydrate metabolism.
Added sugars commonly found in sodas, juices, yogurts, baked goods, and nearly all processed foods, usually have low fiber which causes sugar to become rapidly absorbed into the blood, spiking sugar levels, and dumping lots of insulin into your body. This promotes more fat storage, weight gain, fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, and eventually diabetes.
- Avoid/Limit Artificial Sweeteners – contrary to popular belief, artificial sweeteners still stimulate an insulin response as your body senses incoming sweetness. Artificial sweeteners can increase cravings in the brain and lead you to consume more food than you typically would.
- Balance meals – Fill your plate with lean protein, heart-healthy fats, whole grain carbs, and lots of fiber-filled veggies. Eating balanced meals will help to regulate blood glucose levels and reduce insulin resistance.
- Exercise – Helps promote a healthy weight, reduces stress cortisol levels, and regulates blood sugar levels better
- Manage stress– reduce stress to help lower cortisol levels. Having high cortisol levels causes more glucose to be released into the blood, which means more weight gain. Check out these 10 Tips to Lower Stress Levels Fast!
- Sleep – During sleep is when your body repairs itself and also allows for a time of fasting so insulin levels can reduce. Allowing time for insulin levels to lower helps to restore sensitivity to insulin.
- Limit Alcohol & Avoid Smoking – Alcohol is metabolized the same way as sugar in the liver. Alcohol increases blood sugar levels but also damages liver cells in the process. Smoking cigarettes is linked to a 30-40% increased risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes. The more you smoke, the higher your risk of developing diabetes and other related health conditions.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.