Bridget McNulty, Type 1 diabetic and editor of Sweet Life diabetes magazine, tells us all about diabetes.

November is National Diabetes Month, a great time to find out all about this chronic condition that affects millions of South Africans every day.

So what is diabetes?

Well, there are 2 different types – Type 1 and Type 2.

Type 1 diabetes, which I have, affects about 10% of diabetics and has a sudden, dramatic onset. It used to be known as juvenile diabetes because it was mostly diagnosed in kids, but there are more and more adult cases. Type 1 diabetics have to go onto insulin injections or an insulin pump right away, because the pancreas no longer produces any insulin – or produces far too little.

Here’s an extremely simplified explanation of the role insulin plays in the body:

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Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas. In those without diabetes, the perfect amount of insulin is secreted to match the food you eat, every time you eat. The insulin acts as a key that unlocks the cells, allowing the glucose from food to move from the blood into the cells to be used as fuel – energy. In undiagnosed diabetes, the blood glucose, or blood sugar, is so high because there’s no insulin to allow that glucose to move to the cells – so the cells starve while the blood glucose remains high. Insulin injections fix that. 

Type 2 diabetes used to be known as the ‘less serious’ diabetes because the onset is much more gradual and you don’t generally have to go onto insulin injections right away – it can be treated with pills.

In fact, if you catch it early – in the pre-diabetes phase – Type 2 can be reversed by changes in diet, lifestyle and exercise. It’s known as a lifestyle disease, although it has a strong hereditary link. In Type 2 diabetics, there is either not enough insulin being produced, or the body has become insulin resistant – it doesn’t use the insulin available as effectively. Type 2 diabetes will never turn into Type 1 diabetes, or vice versa. In time, Type 2 diabetics may need to inject insulin, but that doesn’t make it Type 1.

Related: Women and diabetes

5 Common symptoms of diabetes

Interestingly, though, both conditions have the same or very similar symptoms. These are:

  1. Extreme thirst
  2. Extreme hunger
  3. Needing to pee all the time
  4. Constant exhaustion
  5. Blurry vision

Getting your blood sugar tested is as simple as going to your local clinic or doctor for a simple finger prick blood test – it takes less than five minutes and can also tell you if you’re pre-diabetic: at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Causes and complications

As for causes, with Type 1 diabetes nobody really knows. It’s the combination of two or more immunological insults, which is a fancy way of saying a virus plus a virus and a genetic predisposition. Type 1 is genetic but not hereditary.

Type 2 diabetes has a strong hereditary link and it’s exacerbated by poor lifestyle and diet choices. A sedentary lifestyle, not enough exercise, being overweight and eating too many fatty, processed carbohydrates and sugary drinks (fast food, essentially) and refined carbohydrates like cakes, sweets, biscuits – that’s essentially a recipe for Type 2 diabetes.

And they are both serious if left untreated. The complications of uncontrolled diabetes include blindness, amputation, kidney failure, heart disease, neuropathy… The list goes on.

The risk of complications should absolutely be a factor in deciding to live a healthy life with diabetes. But the greatest reward, for me, is that in taking care of myself and having as balanced blood sugar as possible, I am able to live a happy, healthy life – a normal life. Full of energy, clear-headed, well.

Find out more about how to live a healthy, happy life with diabetes at www.sweetlifemag.co.za

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.