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What is diabetes?
Diabetes is diagnosed when a person has too much glucose (sugar) in the blood. This happens because the pancreas cannot make enough insulin.
Glucose is an essential source of energy for the brain and is one of the sources of energy for the body. Glucose in the bloodstream comes from carbohydrate foods, which are changed into glucose after we have eaten them.
Glucose also comes from the liver, where it has been previously stored. This ensures a constant supply even when we have not eaten recently.
For people without diabetes the level of glucose in the body is between 4 and 8 mmol/L.
Insulin is produced in the pancreas and has two jobs in the body - the first is to transport glucose from the blood supply into fat and muscle cells, where it can be used for energy. The second is to switch off the liver once the level of glucose in the blood is high enough.
Diabetes is the result of the body not creating enough insulin to keep blood glucose levels in the normal range. It cannot presently be cured but it can be controlled and you can lead a full and active life.
There are three types of diabetes:
People who do not make any insulin (or very little) have type 1 diabetes. Because the immune system destroys the pancreas they have stopped making insulin, and their body is unable to use glucose for energy. They tend to lose weight very quickly because their body is actually being starved. Their health rapidly deteriorates and they would die if insulin were not given.
They therefore require insulin by injection several times each day. Along with some dietary changes, this will allow the person to maintain good health.
People with type 2 diabetes are still making insulin but the production is sluggish or their body is resistant to insulin. Becoming overweight is almost always the cause of the body becoming resistant to insulin and can trigger type 2 diabetes, even in young people. Type 2 diabetes can be treated with weight loss and regular physical activity. Medication in the form of tablets is often required to reduce the resistance to insulin or to stimulate the pancreas to make more insulin. Type 2 diabetes is a progressive condition in that the pancreas continues to get more sluggish over time. People with type 2 diabetes may eventually require insulin.
Gestational diabetes is when a pregnant woman has high levels of glucose in her blood. High blood glucose is caused because the mother cannot produce enough insulin (a pregnant woman's insulin needs are two to three times that of someone who is not pregnant). Unlike type 1 and type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes is only temporary and usually disappears after pregnancy. However, a woman who has had gestational diabetes has an increased risk (50-60%) of developing type 2 diabetes in the future; therefore they should be tested for type 2 diabetes each year.