What Is Diabetes?

Everything you need to know about diabetes.

Your journey to understanding diabetes begins here.

Have you been recently diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes? Do you or someone you love have type 1 or type 2 diabetes? If so, you’ve come to the right place. This article gives you an overview of everything you need to know about diabetes. You can live a healthier life through lifestyle changes, improve your blood sugar, and reverse type 2 diabetes. Wherever you are in your fight against diabetes, we’ll give you the knowledge and tools you need to live life to the fullest.

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a metabolic disease that affects how your body turns the food you eat into energy.

When you eat, food is broken down into sugar (glucose) and released into your bloodstream. Glucose is an essential source of energy for your body and fuel for your brain. When your blood sugar goes up, your pancreas is signaled to release insulin. Insulin acts like a key, which lets the sugar in your blood into your body’s cells for use as energy.

If you have diabetes, either your body doesn’t make enough insulin, or your body can’t efficiently use the insulin it makes. Both scenarios lead to too much sugar in your bloodstream and not enough in your body’s cells. If no action is taken, this can lead to severe and sometimes fatal health problems.

Insulin and Glucose

Understanding how insulin works is fundamental to understanding diabetes. Insulin is a hormone that is secreted into your bloodstream from your pancreas. As it circulates throughout your body, it acts as a ‘key,’ letting sugar enter your cells.

Iconograph showing how insulin works

Insulin allows sugar to enter your cells. By allowing sugar to enter your cells, the amount of sugar in your bloodstream lowers. As your blood sugar level drops, your pancreas secretes less insulin because there is less sugar to move from your bloodstream to your cells.

Glucose is sugar that comes from the food you eat. Your body and brain use glucose for energy. As glucose travels through your body, it is called blood sugar or blood glucose. Your liver also makes glucose and can store glucose (glycogen) as well. When your glucose levels are low, the liver will then break down the stored glycogen to help keep your glucose level in a normal range.

As sugar builds up in your bloodstream, your pancreas creates more insulin to help move glucose from the bloodstream to your cells. When you have type 2 diabetes, you are often insulin resistant. Your body’s cells become “resistant” to glucose entering, and as a result, the amount of glucose in your bloodstream (blood sugar) rises higher and higher.

Insulin resistanceWhen your blood sugar remains high, your pancreas is signaled to make more insulin to try to get glucose into your resistant cells. High levels of insulin lead to increased storage of fat and commonly causes weight gain. Thus starts a vicious cycle: insulin resistance leads to high insulin levels in your blood, leading to weight gain as your body stores the excess sugar as fat. Often you’ll feel hungry and tired or lethargic, which leads to eating more food, which signals your body to make more insulin, cells to become more resistant, and your body to gain more weight. This cycle continues with the result of type 2 diabetes and other possible complications.

Hormones and Diabetes

Aside from insulin, several other types of hormones (Glucagon, Amylin, Epinephrine, Cortisol, growth hormones, etc.) also impact blood sugar levels. It’s less important that you understand each of these other hormones specifically. It is important to know that multiple hormones impact your blood sugar and can contribute to diabetes. This is why diet, stress, sleep and exercise all work together to help reverse diabetes.

Different Types of Diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes (also called insulin-dependent diabetes) makes up about 5-10% of the total diabetes population. When you have type 1 diabetes, your pancreas is making little or no insulin. People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin for life. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder and cannot be reversed. If left untreated, type 1 diabetes is extremely serious and can lead to death. A healthy diet can significantly reduce insulin needed for people with type 1 diabetes and help control blood sugar levels.

Prediabetes

Prediabetes is a condition that will result in type 2 diabetes in less than five years if no action is taken. If you don’t make lifestyle changes, you will develop type 2 diabetes, a permanent disease that may have severe or fatal complications. The great news is that with lifestyle changes, prediabetes is entirely reversible, and you can prevent the progression of type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 Diabetes is the most common type of diabetes in which your body doesn’t use insulin properly. Fortunately, most people with type 2 diabetes can reverse this condition by controlling their hormones with an appropriate diet, proper sleep, stress reduction, and exercise. Although permanent, type 2 diabetes is the only type of diabetes that is considered to be reversible. 1 A complete lifestyle change can help control and reverse this disease, which is why we created Total Diabetes Wellness.

Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults (LADA), or Type 1.5 Diabetes

Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults (LADA), or Type 1.5 Diabetes, starts with symptoms mimicking type 2 diabetes and eventually transitions to insulin dependency similar to type 1 diabetes. LADA is not reversible. To determine if you have LADA, you will need to have a blood test for pancreatic autoantibodies and a C-peptide test. LADA cases are less common, estimated at 6%-10% of the diabetes population. Unfortunately, LADA can often be misdiagnosed as type 2 diabetes because the symptoms are almost identical at the onset of the disease. If gone unnoticed or misdiagnosed, LADA can be fatal. We suggest asking your doctor to run a blood test for pancreatic autoantibodies if you’ve been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, particularly if you’re diagnosed with type 2 diabetes between 20 and 40.

Gestational Diabetes

Pregnant woman with gestational diabetesGestational Diabetes affects 2%-10% of pregnancies. Gestational Diabetes is diagnosed for the first time during pregnancy and requires carefully monitoring blood sugar levels for your pregnancy duration. Untreated, gestational diabetes can negatively affect your pregnancy and your baby’s health. Most often, gestational diabetes disappears soon after your baby is born. As many as half of the women who have gestational diabetes develop type 2 diabetes later in life, so it’s imperative that, just as with prediabetes, you make lifestyle changes to ensure you don’t develop type 2 diabetes.

Other Types of Diabetes

Other types of diabetes include genetic defects, pancreatic disease, drug or chemical induced, infections, and endocrinopathies.

Statistics

Facts, according to a 2020 Center for Disease (CDC) Control and Prevention Report:

  1. 10.5% of the US population has diabetes
  2. 34.5% of the US population has prediabetes
  3. 26.8% of the US population age 65 and older has diabetes

Facts, according to the World Health Organization (WHO):

  1. Diabetes causes 4.3 million deaths every year.
  2. Diabetes caused $760,000,000,000 in health expenditure in 2019, which was 10% of adults’ total spending.
  3. More than 1.1 million children and adolescents are living with type 1 diabetes.

Signs and Symptoms of Diabetes

The signs and symptoms of diabetes revolve around the fact that you have too much sugar in your blood. Because of this, the symptoms are typically the same, no matter if you have type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, LADA, etc.

Keep in mind that the signs and symptoms listed aren’t the same for everyone. You may or may not have some of these symptoms, and they may progress quickly or slowly, depending on your body and the type of diabetes you have.

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Increased thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme hunger
  • Blurred vision
  • Skin discoloration
  • Dry mouth
  • Itchy skin
  • Pain or numbness in your legs or feet
  • Slow-healing sores
  • Frequent infections
  • Presence of ketones in the urine

Symptoms of Diabetes

Fatigue

Fatigue – Fatigue is often one of the first symptoms of diabetes. Particularly after eating, you may feel very lethargic and may need to take naps and sleep longer during the day. You may find it difficult to be motivated to work, exercise, or even complete regular chores.

Irritability

Irritability – With the rise or lowering of blood sugar and shift in hormones, you may notice you are more irritable. You may find yourself becoming angry without provocation.

Increased Thirst

Increased Thirst – As your blood sugar gets too high, you start drinking more and more water. Eventually, you end up with an unquenchable thirst. No matter how much water you drink, you still feel thirsty.

Frequent Urination

Frequent Urination – Not as a result of drinking more water, but because of excess glucose (blood sugar) in the bloodstream, you end up needing to urinate more frequently. You typically wake up multiple times throughout the night to do so.

Unexplained Weight Loss

Unexplained Weight Loss – You don’t change anything you are doing but still manage to lose a surprising amount of weight.

Extreme Hunger

Extreme Hunger – Although the weight loss and hunger conflict, you will feel hungry throughout the day. You will eat, and shortly after eating, you will find yourself hungry again.

Blurred Vision

Blurred Vision – Your vision may become altered as a result of high blood sugar levels. Most often, your vision gets worse with high blood sugar, although on rare occasions, it can improve.

Skin Discoloration

Skin Discoloration You develop dark patches on the back of your neck, armpit, or groin. These patches are often a sign your blood sugar is elevated. The medical name for this condition is acanthosis nigricans.

Dry Mouth and Itchy Skin

Dry Mouth and Itchy SkinYour mouth feels dry and your skin is itchy. When your blood sugar is high your body loses liquid leading to dry mouth and dry itchy skin.

Pain or Numbness in Your Legs or Feet

Pain or Numbness in your Legs or Feet – Known as diabetic peripheral neuropathy, this condition is caused by long-term high blood sugar levels, which causes nerve damage. You may feel numbness or pain in either your feet or legs.

Slow-Healing Sores

Person sitting in wheelchair with diabetic food wound wrapped in gauze.

Slow-Healing Sores – Your body has a much more difficult time healing due to the changes in your body and blood.

Frequent Infections

Frequent Infections – Diabetes attacks all of your body’s cells. Because of this, you are prone to develop infections. Some examples include slow-healing food infections, urinary tract infections, kidney infections, yeast infections, fungal skin infections, and nail infections.

Presence of Ketones in Your Urine

Presence of Ketones in your Urine – Ketones are an alternative fuel that your body makes when there is not enough sugar to use for energy. Combined with high blood sugar levels, ketones in your urine can be a sign of ketoacidosis, which can be life-threatening if left untreated. You can quickly test at home for ketones using urine test strips, available over the counter at most drugstores. If you find ketones in your urine and aren’t “trying” for this result (i.e., Keto diet under monitoring from your doctor), you should immediately go to the ER for medical attention.

Causes of Type 2 Diabetes

What causes type 2 diabetes? Often debated, there isn’t one simple answer. There are usually several factors that work together to cause type 2 diabetes. Poor diet is often the main culprit, but having a sedentary lifestyle, excessive stress, and lack of sleep all contribute to type 2 diabetes development.

When you have type 2 diabetes, your pancreas still makes insulin. The problem is your body isn’t using insulin properly (insulin resistance), or your pancreas isn’t making enough insulin. As mentioned earlier, insulin acts as the “key,” allowing sugar to enter your cells and be used for energy. When you become insulin resistant, your cells don’t recognize the “keys” and aren’t allowing insulin to enter your cells.

Risk Factors of Diabetes

Risk Factors of Type 1 Diabetes:

  1. Family History – If someone in your family (immediate relatives) has Type 1 diabetes, you are at a higher risk of having or acquiring type 1 diabetes.
  2. Disease of the Pancreas
  3. Infection or illness – These can damage your pancreas, causing type 1 diabetes.
  4. Race – Type 1 diabetes is more common in white people than in people of other races.
  5. Environment – People living in colder climates are more likely to have type 1 diabetes.

Risk Factors of Type 2 Diabetes:

  1. Obesity or Being OverweightThis has the strongest correlation to type 2 diabetes. At all ages, the risk of type 2 diabetes increases as weight increases. You are 20 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes when your BMI is greater than 35.
  2. Diagnosed with Prediabetes
  3. Insulin Resistance – Type 2 diabetes starts with your cells becoming resistant to insulin.
  4. Race – If you are a Hispanic/Latino American, African-American, Native American, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, or Alaska native.
  5. Gestational Diabetes – Having gestational diabetes while you are pregnant.
  6. Sedentary Lifestyle – Exercising less than three times a week.
  7. Family History – A parent or sibling has diabetes.
  8. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome – Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
  9. Age – Over the age of 45.

Risk Factors of Gestational Diabetes:

  1. Obesity or Being Overweight – Above and beyond the baby weight.
  2. Glucose Intolerance – Having gestational diabetes in previous pregnancies.
  3. Family History – Parent or sibling has diabetes (any type).
  4. Age – Over 35 and pregnant.
  5. RaceBlack, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian American women have a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes.
  6. Polycystic ovary syndrome

Complications of Diabetes

Diabetes attacks every cell in your body. You need to understand what will happen to your body if you choose not to make changes. Diabetes is one disease that can have multiple catastrophic results if left untreated. If you decide to do nothing about your diabetes, then expect to encounter several of the following conditions:

Retinopathy – Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in the United States. Scar tissue can pull the retina away from its normal position.

Nephropathy – Diabetes is the leading cause of end-stage renal disease. Eventually, you will need daily dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Neuropathy – Damage of your nerves becomes so intense that powerful painkillers are of no help. Eventually, your joints are destroyed, and amputation is required.

Atherosclerosis – Hardening of the arteries eventually leads to a heart attack.

Heart Disease – High blood sugar damages blood vessels and nerves controlling the heart and blood vessels.

Complications of diabetes

Stroke – Diabetes can more than double your chances of having a stroke.

Peripheral Vascular Disease – Pains and cramping of the muscles, reduced mobility, and long-term disability. Poor skin recovery for cuts and injuries, foot ulcers, poor circulation all lead to the potential need for amputation.

Alzheimer’s Disease – Alzheimer’s has a very strong link to diabetes.

Cancer – Especially breast, stomach, colorectal, kidney, and endometrial. The survival rate for cancer with diabetes is much worse than for someone without diabetes.

Fatty Liver Disease – Much more prevalent in type 2 diabetes with the buildup of sugar in your bloodstream.

Infections – People with diabetes are more susceptible to all types of serious infections, especially non-healing foot wounds caused by poor circulation of the blood.

Skin and Nail Conditions – Nail and skin conditions are problematic for people with diabetes.

Erectile Dysfunction – This is more common in people with type 2 diabetes due to poor blood circulation.

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome – The imbalance of hormones causes women to develop cysts on the ovaries.

Because diabetes attacks all cells in your body, it is very common for people who develop diabetes complications to simultaneously experience several of the above-listed diseases. Because the comorbidity rate is exceptionally high, it is critical to do everything you can to treat or reverse diabetes.

Testing and Diagnosis of Diabetes

You can perform several tests to determine if you are at risk of diabetes or if you already have diabetes. If you have any symptoms of diabetes or suspect that you may have diabetes, please consult with your doctor for a diagnosis rather than trying to “self-diagnose” at home.

Blood sugar test for diabetes

Fasting Blood Sugar Test – The most common type of test for diabetes. After fasting overnight, test your blood sugar in the morning before you eat. This test can be done at home or at the doctor’s office. The normal range for people without diabetes is less than 100 mg/dL.

Oral Glucose-Tolerance Test – A standard test administered during pregnancy. This test consists of a blood draw, followed by drinking a syrupy glucose solution, and then another blood draw in 30-60 minute intervals for up to 3 hours.

Two-Hour Postprandial Test – Also known as the “two-hour meal test,” test your blood sugar two hours after eating a meal. The two-hour time clock should begin with your first bite of food. The normal range for people without diabetes is up to 140 mg/dL.

Random Blood Sugar Test – This is random, so this is not a test we would recommend to get a well-defined picture of where your blood sugar lies. Although this test is “accepted,” there are much better and more accurate testing methods available.

Hemoglobin A1C Test – This is a test to measure how much sugar is attached to your red blood cells, which have a lifespan of about three months. The A1C test is an overall picture of your blood sugar over the last three months and the most accurate test type. The normal range for people without diabetes is less than 5.7%. The normal range for pre-diabetes is 5.7%-6.4%, and for diabetes, the range is 6.5% or higher.

If you don’t have diabetes, then a fasting blood sugar of less than 100 mg/dL is normal. If you are 100-126 mg/dL, then you are considered to be prediabetes. Anything over 126 mg/dL is diabetes.

Hypoglycemia vs. Hyperglycemia

Hypoglycemia is a condition that results when your blood sugar (glucose) level is lower than normal and can result in death if untreated. Hypoglycemia is also referred to as low blood sugar.

Hypoglycemia occurs when your blood sugar falls too low, and you need to take action to bring it back up to your target range. Generally, when your blood sugar drops below 70 mg/dL, you will need to consume a juice box or quick small snack (liquid is preferred as it has a more immediate impact on your levels). Always refer to the directions given by your doctor for your specific blood sugar target levels and what you need to do if your blood sugar drops too low.

If left untreated, hypoglycemia can lead to seizures or passing out and may require an emergency glucagon shot to raise your blood sugar quickly.

Hyperglycemia is a condition that results when your blood sugar (glucose) level is higher than normal and can result in several debilitating medical conditions if left untreated for too long. Hyperglycemia is a symptom that characterizes diabetes.

Blood Sugar Ranges

*These definitions are based on the ADA guidelines

Classification A1C Fasting Blood Sugar
Normal
Below 5.7%
99 mg/dL or below
Prediabetes
5.7 - 6.4%
100 - 125 mg/dL
Diabetes
6.5% or above
126 mg/dL or above

What Should My Blood Sugar Target Be?

If you have type 2 diabetes, the below blood sugar targets are the recommended ranges:

  • Before a meal (fasting): 80-130 mg/dL
  • Two hours after the start of a meal: less than 180 mg/dL

By keeping your blood sugar levels close to normal (non-diabetic levels), you will likely avoid many complications of diabetes.

Diabetes and Children

Diabetes is a deadly disease. Children don’t often develop type 2 diabetes. Although this is good, if a child develops type 1 diabetes, it can be fatal if untreated.

How do I Tell if My Child Has Type 1 Diabetes?

If you notice even just one of the above symptoms in your child, we strongly recommend that you consult with your child’s doctor and have your child’s blood sugar tested. If your child does have elevated blood sugar levels, you may have just saved his or her life.

Diabetic child testing blood sugar level

  1. Is your child always fatigued? If you notice your child needs more naps or seems sluggish, then you may want to check for other symptoms to determine if they have diabetes.
  2. Does your child frequently need water or something to drink? They may not tell you they are “more thirsty,” but if you notice your child is drinking more liquids, they may have diabetes.
  3. Does your child urinate a lot or frequently wet the bed? This is caused by excess glucose in the bloodstream, making the kidneys work harder to pull the glucose from the bloodstream.
  4. Does your child experience extreme hunger?
  5. Has your child lost a noticeable amount of weight?
  6. Do you notice your child being irritable or easily agitated in situations they might not usually be?
  7. Do you notice a “fruity” smell from their breath?

Finding a Doctor or Endocrinologist

If you suspect you may have either prediabetes or diabetes, we suggest the following steps to find an appropriate doctor. Your doctor should support and help you with your diabetes, which should include reversing type 2 diabetes:

Male doctor sitting talking to a patient in an office

  • When looking for a family doctor, you may want to consider finding a doctor with a D.O. title, which stands for Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. A D.O. is more likely to provide manual therapies and focus on a more natural approach rather than using medication as a first response.
  • A functional medicine doctor can also help treat your diabetes with a more holistic approach. You can learn more about functional medicine here: https://www.ifm.org/.
  • If diagnosed with type 2 diabetes (especially if you are between the ages of 20 and 40), it is worth asking your doctor to run a pancreatic autoantibody test. This test will help rule out LADA (type 1.5 diabetes), which could be deadly if not diagnosed properly.
  • An endocrinologist is a doctor that specializes in glands and the hormones they make. Look for an endocrinologist or a nurse practitioner with reliable reviews. In their reviews, some things to look for would be having experience, listening to the patient, and having high reviews of them and their practice. Treat your first appointment as an interview for your doctor.
  • As with finding any doctor, you must be comfortable with your doctor. It’s important that you feel your doctor listens to you and that you are part of your health decisions. It may take meeting with several doctors before you find a doctor that is the best fit for you and your needs. You must find someone who is on your team.

Reversing Type 2 Diabetes

Although managing and reversing type 2 diabetes is synonymous with many authors and websites, Total Diabetes Wellness will refer to both of these as having separate meanings.

Reversing Diabetes consists of making lifestyle changes to get your A1C into a normal range. The end goal is not to take any diabetes medications and establish and maintain a healthy blood sugar level.

Managing Diabetes refers to not letting your diabetes get too far out of control. This typically means that your blood sugar is above the prediabetes level (if you already have diabetes). Managing diabetes will almost always involve one or more medications for life and often leads to other health complications.

It’s important to understand that reversing diabetes is NOT synonymous with curing diabetes. There currently is no known cure for diabetes. If, after reversing your diabetes, you go back to poor eating and lifestyle habits, then your blood sugar will return to unhealthy levels. Reversing diabetes (and keeping it in a reversed state) requires a permanent lifestyle change.

I Have Type 2 Diabetes, Now What?

What should I focus on first to treat my type 2 diabetes? Treatment for type 2 diabetes is all about regulating and controlling your hormones. The following areas will help regulate the hormones that have the most significant impact on your blood sugar levels.

  1. Diet is the single best change you can make to reverse and treat your diabetes. There are several variations of diets with two main philosophies. One diet focuses on high fat and low carbs, while the other focuses on low fat but allows more carbs. If done correctly, both will drastically lower your A1C and blood sugar level. Total Diabetes Wellness focuses on a low-carb, high-fat diet, as we believe these types of meals will leave you feeling more satiated and satisfied than other diets.
  2. Sleep is typically one of the quickest changes you can make in your schedule to reduce blood sugar. By not getting enough sleep, your body produces more of the hormone cortisol, leading to weight gain and, over time, makes your cells more resistant to insulin.
  3. Stress releases epinephrine, cortisol, and growth hormones responsible for raising blood sugar levels. Although you can’t control what happens around you, you can control how you respond and what you do to help cope with stress.
  4. Exercise increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin and helps your cells remove glucose from your blood as it uses glucose for energy instead. Exercise can help lower your blood sugar levels for up to 24 hours. Although being active is important, it is equally important not to be inactive or develop a sedentary lifestyle.

Other factors beyond your control that will affect your blood sugar levels include getting sick (i.e., the flu), menstruation, medications (i.e., illness-fighting medications, supplements, vitamins, etc.), injuries, and poor dental health. Unhealthy gums can increase blood sugar and result from prolonged periods of high blood sugar levels.

To get the best results as quickly as possible, this is the order we suggest you work on controlling and regulating your blood sugar and hormone levels to live a healthier lifestyle and provide you with total wellness.

How Long Will I Have Type 2 Diabetes?

Diabetes is reversible, but once your cells become resistant to insulin, there is no permanent cure for this disease. You will have type 2 diabetes for the rest of your life. You need to change your mindset on how you look at food, sleep, stress, exercise, and overall total wellness.

When you make changes to your lifestyle and lower your blood sugar, you significantly reduce the chances of developing severe and debilitating diseases. Many of the complications of diabetes occur because your cells are damaged due to prolonged periods of high blood sugar.

Reversing type 2 diabetes includes reducing and eliminating the symptoms of the disease.

As you can see, you can’t get rid of type 2 diabetes, but you can live a lifestyle that reduces the negative impact it has on your body.

We hope you have found this information helpful and welcome you to learn more about diet, sleep, stress, exercise, and our recipes to help you reverse type 2 diabetes.