Sunday, November 14, is World Diabetes Day. This global campaign was created in 1991 to spread awareness of diabetes, a disease affecting at least 463 million adults worldwide. Diabetes is a chronic and incurable condition that affects the way your body uses glucose, the simplest carbohydrate. Through modern medicine and a healthy diet and exercise plan, it’s possible to live a long, full, and healthy life with a diabetes diagnosis. In honor of World Diabetes Day, let’s take a closer look at the best ways to avoid diabetes complications.
World Diabetes Day: What Is Diabetes?
Maybe you’ve recently been diagnosed with diabetes, and you’re unclear on what your body’s doing differently. Or maybe you have a loved one who lives with diabetes, and you don’t completely understand what it’s like. Either way, it’s always good to be clear on the facts. So, what exactly is diabetes?
Diabetes mellitus refers to one of several metabolic diseases that affect the way your body processes the food you eat. When you enjoy a meal or snack, your body breaks the food down into simple sugar (glucose). If everything’s working the way it should be, as your blood sugar increases, your pancreas releases insulin. Insulin is a hormone that lets your body absorb that sugar and use it as energy.
If you have diabetes, your body hits a bump in the road somewhere in this process. If you have Type 1 diabetes, your body simply doesn’t produce insulin. That means you have to take insulin every day in order to stay healthy. Type 1 diabetes accounts for about 5 to 10% of all diabetes cases and is usually diagnosed in childhood or young adulthood, although there are exceptions.
If you have type 2 diabetes, your body makes insulin but doesn’t use it efficiently enough to keep your blood sugar at a normal level. Some people with type 2 diabetes require medicine or insulin injections to maintain their target glucose levels, while for others it’s not immediately necessary. (I say “immediately” because you may need it later in life, as diabetes is a progressive illness.) Type 2 diabetes usually develops in adulthood and can be prevented or delayed (though not completely cured) through diet and exercise.
There’s one more kind of diabetes: gestational diabetes (GD), which is when a non-diabetic mother is diagnosed with diabetes for the first time during pregnancy. Most OB/GYN practices screen for GD at around week 28 of your pregnancy, which is why you have to drink that syrupy orange beverage and have a blood draw. A diagnosis of GD requires careful meal planning and blood sugar monitoring and regular checkups with your obstetrician to make sure you and baby stay healthy. You may need to take medication like metformin or even get insulin injections to keep your blood sugar at normal levels for the duration of your pregnancy. Gestational diabetes usually goes away after you’ve delivered the baby, but mothers with GD are at a higher risk for developing type 2 later in life. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll become diabetic, but it’s important to be aware and to live accordingly.
As I said, people with type 1 diabetes are usually diagnosed at a young age, and pregnant women are screened for GD by their doctors. If you haven’t had a full workup by your general practitioner recently, you could have type 2 diabetes and be completely unaware, as not everyone experiences its symptoms. If you think you might be diabetic, it’s time to go see your doctor, who can check your sugar level with a simple blood test. It will reveal your hemoglobin A1C level, which is a measure of your average blood sugar over the last three months. If yours is higher than normal, your doctor will help you develop an appropriate treatment plan to manage your sugar level going forward. If you’re within normal range but have an elevated level, you and your doctor should have a quick chat about simple diabetes prevention strategies.
Complications of Diabetes
Diabetes isn’t a death sentence, and it shouldn’t stop you from living your life. But it does come with some complications if you don’t follow your doctor’s recommendations. Left unmanaged or undermanaged, diabetes can damage your heart, nerves, kidneys, eyes, and ears. In some cases, severe nerve damage (called diabetic neuropathy) can necessitate amputation of the lower limbs.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that having diabetes may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. The relationship between diabetes and cognitive decline isn’t clear yet, but medical experts suggest that effectively managing your diabetes may help protect you from Alzheimer’s.
Diabetes is also considered one of the underlying conditions that can cause people to become severely ill with COVID-19. If you are diabetic, you can lower your risk of becoming very sick from the novel coronavirus by making sure you effectively manage your glucose levels. Here’s a helpful and very timely primer on diabetes and COVID-19 from the American Diabetes Association. It’s more true now than ever: Knowledge is power!
Living Well: The Benefits of Exercise and More
I know some of this information can be frightening, but I promise I’m not telling you all this to scare you. I want you to be empowered to take the best care of yourself and live your very best life. Your medical team (general practitioner, endocrinologist, and other specialists) is your first and best resource for how to stay healthy, but here are some smart lifestyle tips you can also use. The great news? These are things everyone should be doing, so they may already be habits of yours. If not, there’s no time like the present to make them the standard for everyone in your home!
Put Down the Salt Shaker
Salt doesn’t affect your blood sugar level (hooray!), but it does contribute to high blood pressure. As you need to be extra-diligent about your cardiac health, do your best to limit your sodium intake. Try using garlic powder, crushed herbs, or a pinch of grated Parmesan cheese in its place.
Watch Your Carbohydrate Intake
You may think that if you’ve cut dessert and other sweets out of your diet, you’re good to go. While it’s especially important to not give into those pesky sugar cravings as a diabetic, you also need to watch your carbohydrate consumption. A big plate of spaghetti or a generous handful of potato chips can cause your blood sugar level to spike. Ask your doctor to set you up with a registered dietician who can help you learn the basics of carb counting for diabetes.
Make Time for Daily Exercise
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for you to commit to 30 to 60 minutes of exercise five to seven days a week. Just going for a brisk half-hour walk every day can help you lose excess weight and reach a healthy BMI range. It can also lower your blood sugar level and help you combat the effects of stress on the body. (Your mental health and its physical ramifications are extra important for you as a person living with diabetes.) And, if you’re been wondering how to sleep better, getting some fresh air and exercise may be the very best way.
There’s no doubt that living with a diabetes diagnosis can be challenging. It’s not fun to pause what you’re doing to give yourself an insulin shot or to choose lower-calorie foods over your favorite treats. Know that I’m cheering for you as you make choices that will help you enjoy a long and beautiful life. Be good to yourself!
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