Understanding Diabetes: Symptoms and Causes

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Diabetes is India’s fastest growing disease and still a large part of the population remains unaware of the mechanism, prevention and symptoms. Contrary to popular belief, diabetes is not caused by high blood sugar but by low or no insulin in the body, which leads to high blood sugar. So high blood sugar is not the cause but the result that leads to many undesirable effects on the body. Diabetes is a lifestyle disease, which means it has no sudden cause and slowly creeps into one’s life if health and fitness have been ignored for too long. This article is a primer on understanding the diabetes’ causes and symptoms.

HOW DIABETES WORKS: WHAT IS GLUCOSE AND INSULIN?

Glucose is the name for blood sugar, which means it is that chief element of energy we derive from food that our blood carries and powers our cells with. In fact, some cells like red blood cells and brain cells need a constant supply of glucose to function. Other than sources of direct sugar in food, carbohydrates are a major source of blood sugar as they are converted into glucose by our body. Simple carbs contain 1-2 units of sugar and are digested easily as opposed to complex carbohydrates which have pretty complicated chains and are digested slowly, so the latter has a benefit of providing glucose (energy) without the sudden spike.

diabetes causes
Working of Glucose and Insulin in the body (Source)

Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that regulates the blood sugar level. Once the food is digested and broken down inside the stomach, glucose is released in the blood. Insulin then carries the glucose to the cells and allows them to use that up for energy, and cells accept glucose only from insulin. Different cells use that glucose for different purposes, for example it stimulates fat cells to produce fatty acids, cells in the muscles use it to make protein from amino acids, etc.  In this way the production and consumption of glucose and insulin continues throughout the day and leads to different blood sugar levels at all times.

Insulin also helps in storing extra glucose for use later in the liver and muscles as glycogen and thus maintains a sufficient supply of glucose at all times for the body to run. The other important use of insulin is in storing fat and protein in the body. During prolonged fasting, the hormone Glucagon, which has a function opposite of Insulin is released to extract the stored glycogen from liver and muscles and prevent the blood sugar level from falling drastically. 

HOW DIABETES EFFECTS THE BODY

During diabetes, there is either lack of insulin or no insulin or the body is unable to use it. As a result, there is no one to carry glucose to the cells for energy and the blood sugar level rises because it is only getting produced and not being consumed; not to forget the disruption in the working of those cells that rely solely on glucose for energy. The excess glucose is flushed out in urine and doesn’t reach the body cells. This causes the body to think it is starving and causes the production of glucagon which further raises the glucose levels by extracting body’s stored glucose. In the case of lack of glucose, body starts using fat to produce energy with ketones as a by-product. High level of ketones can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis and can be life threatening.

TYPES OF DIABETES 

Type 1 diabetes is caused by no insulin in the body. This can due to genetics, environmental factors or sometimes the response of a person’s own immune system. This mostly impacts children and adolescents. 

Type 2 diabetes is caused due to body’s inability to either produce enough insulin or to become insensitive to it and thereby becoming insulin resistance. This is the most widespread type and is commonly found in adults. 

Other than these pregnant women also sometimes get diabetes, Gestational diabetes, that usually goes away after the gestation period.

DIABETES SYMPTOMS

  1. Frequent urination to flush out the excess sugar. This also leads to dehydration, excessive thirst, dry mouth and itchy dry skin.
  2. Lethargy and hunger due to improper use of energy in the body.
  3. Weight loss due to breakdown of fat cells and muscles to extract glycogen.
  4. Numbness in limbs due to poor blood circulation.
  5. Poor blood circulation also causes slow healing of wounds and infections, and in severe cases can cause Gangrene leading to amputation.
  6. For men, diabetes can lead to erectile dysfunction and other urological issues such as inability to control bladder.
  7. The abnormally high or low level of blood sugar level also leads to depression in some people.
  8. Blurred vision due to rapid changes in blood sugar level. This is often an early sign of diabetes 2 as later the body adapts and the vision returns to normal.

These symptoms sometimes are very mild and people notice them only after significant damage has been done to the body. So if anything looks off, and especially if you know that your physical activity level is not good and you also eat unhealthy food a lot, do take note at the earliest. People with diabetes need to ensure that blood sugar level remains normal and this is achieved by insulin shots, strict diets and fit lifestyle. Those on the verge on diabetes too can avoid it by increasing their energy expenditure and avoiding junk food.

Now that you understand diabetes’ causes and symptoms, check out how to prevent it and the recommended diet

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