Diabetes 101

Many people are confused about the different types of diabetes. Type I, Type II, gestational, pre-diabetes. What's the difference? Is there such thing as "a little" diabetes? 

To start, let's talk about the normal state of things. We eat food, it gets broken down into simple sugars called glucose. Glucose is the best energy source for our body. When glucose is absorbed, it is carried around the body in our blood. The pancreas makes a hormone called insulin that moves the glucose from our blood to our cells, where we can put it to use. In between meals, the body still needs glucose. The liver has stores of glucose that can be released to keep blood glucose levels from going too low.

People with diabetes cannot produce enough insulin, which means that the glucose is trapped in the blood, and it accumulates. It is the high blood glucose that causes the problems.

Type I diabetes used to be called juvenile diabetes, because it is most commonly diagnosed in children, but is possible to be diagnosed later in life. Individuals with Type I diabetes do not produce any insulin, and must rely on insulin injections to keep their blood glucose properly controlled. About 5% of all people with diabetes have Type I.

Type II diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, and is the one that is most preventable and controllable. In Type II diabetes, the body is making insulin, but it isn't enough. The individual may also have insulin resistance, which means that the cells aren't responding to the insulin that is there. This is common in individuals who are overweight or obese. Also, it could be that the liver is releasing more glucose than the body needs.

Individuals with Type II diabetes have many options for treatment. For individuals who are overweight, diet and exercise is the best way to begin controlling diabetes. By losing weight, the body needs less insulin. Sometimes the amount of insulin the body makes is now enough.

Gestational diabetes is diabetes that occurs during pregnancy. Basically, pregnancy requires more insulin - you're eating more, carrying more weight, growing a person, etc - and for some people the extra stress is more than the body can keep up with. The good news is that once the baby is born, the diabetes usually goes away. The bad news is that mom is twice as likely to develop Type II diabetes later in life. By taking control of diet and exercise, it is possible to never develop diabetes outside of pregnancy.

Pre-diabetes does not mean that you have "a little" diabetes. But it does mean that you're heading there pretty quickly. We (health experts) have defined normal ranges of blood glucose levels, and levels that diagnose diabetes. There is a range in the middle that shows the body is beginning to have problems, called pre-diabetes. For many people, pre-diabetes is a wake-up call to make lifestyle changes. Diet and exercise can help control weight and blood glucose levels to prevent (or significantly delay) the official diabetes diagnosis.

Unfortunately, many people aren't being screened. They aren't taking advantage of well-visits to the doctor to get regularly checked out, or getting blood work done for any other reason. So they don't get the wake-up call, and don't have the chance to change things before it's too late. There is currently no cure for diabetes, only ways to manage it.

For more on diabetes, visit the American Diabetes Association