Diabetes Questions & Answers

Reviewed by Marianne Madsen, University of Utah

What is diabetes mellitus?

Diabetes mellitus is the full name of what we generally refer to as just “diabetes.” Having this condition means that either (1) the pancreas has stopped producing insulin or (2) the body produces insulin but somehow cannot use it (“insulin resistance”). No insulin produced by the body or insulin resistance causes too much sugar to be in the blood, causing a multitude of problems that we call “diabetes.”

Is diabetes a disease?

Yes, though it might be more accurate to call it a “condition.” It is a group of metabolic disorders that cause elevated blood sugars in the body, leading to many complications.

What are the symptoms of diabetes?

Diabetes is referred to as a “silent killer” because often there are no symptoms. People usually first notice excessive thirst, hunger, frequent urination, fatigue, and weakness. Eventually, many more symptoms occur, such as brain fog, dizziness, blurred vision, and wounds that do not heal.

What is the main cause of diabetes?

The exact cause of diabetes is a combination of factors, including genetic predisposition, unhealthy weight, and/or lack of physical exercise. Diabetes happens when either (1) the pancreas stops producing insulin or (2) the body becomes resistant to the insulin produced. Either situation causes high blood sugars in the body, and we don’t know exactly what causes these situations to happen. However, we know that getting proper nutrition, exercising, and maintaining a healthy weight can help people avoid or manage diabetes.

Is diabetes inherited?

A predisposition toward getting diabetes can be genetically passed down. However, healthy lifestyle changes can help overcome the genetic factors. A combination of genes and environment causes diabetes for most of those who develop this disease. For example, in twin studies, if one twin has diabetes, the other twin is much more likely to develop it, too. However, this is not always true depending on lifestyle factors.

How do I get diabetes?

Many different factors affect whether or not someone gets diabetes. Genetics is a huge factor, so if you have close relatives with diabetes, you are more likely to develop it. Other factors that may make you more susceptible to diabetes include high blood pressure, heart disease, having a large baby (more than 9 pounds), polycystic ovary disease, lack of physical activity, and being overweight.

Can you get diabetes from eating too much sugar?

Eating sugar is not the main cause of diabetes. However, it can contribute to your likelihood of getting diabetes because foods high in sugar may cause weight gain, a factor in getting diabetes.

How do I avoid diabetes?

Lifestyle changes are the best way to overcome any genetic predisposition to diabetes. Being physically active and eating a healthy diet are two of the most important changes. Other changes that help are cutting out refined carbohydrates (sugar and flour), drinking water instead of other high-calorie drinks, quitting smoking, and eating foods with high fiber such as fruits, veggies, and whole grains.

What are the types of diabetes?

The most common types of diabetes are type 1 and type 2. Gestational diabetes can happen during pregnancy. Much less common types of diabetes are latent automimmune diabetes in adults (LADA), maturity onset diabetes of the young (MODY), and neonatal diabetes mellitus (NDM).

What is type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes refers to the kind of diabetes that happens when the pancreas stops producing insulin. It is mostly seen in children and young adults and is the least common form of diabetes. This type of diabetes is usually managed with insulin therapy.

What is type 2 diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes refers to the kind of diabetes that happens when the body becomes resistant to the insulin the pancreas produces. It is mostly seen in older people and is the most common form of diabetes. It can often be managed with a nutritious diet and exercise, but sometimes drugs such as insulin are needed.

What is the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes?

In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not produce insulin. In type 2 diabetes, the body cannot use the insulin the pancreas produces (becomes “insulin resistant”).

Can I have type 1 AND type 2 diabetes?

Yes. This is possible, but not common.

What is juvenile diabetes?

“Juvenile diabetes” is another name for type 1 diabetes, where the pancreas does not produce insulin.

Can adults get type 1 diabetes?

This is possible, but quite rare.

What is steroid-induced diabetes?

Sometimes when people take steroids, such as prednisone, their body develops insulin resistance—their body is unable to use the insulin the pancreas produces. This condition is similar to type 2 diabetes. Blood sugar levels may return to normal when the steroid is discontinued, but it is possible that this insulin resistance will continue, and the person will have insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes for the rest of their life.

What is gestational diabetes?

Sometimes, with all the hormone changes during pregnancy, a pregnant woman develops high blood sugar levels. There are usually no symptoms, but this condition can affect the health of the woman and her baby if it is not treated. Usually, this can be controlled by diet and exercise, and the woman’s blood sugar levels return to normal after delivery. However, she is at a higher risk for type 2 diabetes later in life if she has had gestational diabetes.

What are type 3 and type 4 diabetes?

Type 3 and type 4 diabetes are names given by researchers to certain other diseases which may or may not be related to diabetes mellitus. Some people call Alzheimer’s disease “type 3 diabetes.” These researchers believe that Alzheimer’s disease is caused when the brain cells can no longer process glucose correctly. “Type 4 diabetes” refers to a type of insulin resistance that happens as people age and has no relation to their weight. Research is still ongoing on these two types of “diabetes.”

What is diabetes insipidus?

Diabetes insipidus is a very rare disease not related to diabetes mellitus (what we normally refer to as “diabetes”). It is a metabolic disorder where the body can’t regulate fluids, causing frequent urination. It is diagnosed through urine, blood, and water deprivation tests.

Reviewed by Marianne Madsen, University of Utah

How do I know if I have diabetes?

You might not! Many people have diabetes but don’t know it because it often has no symptoms. For both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, you may experience symptoms such as hunger, thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, and blurred vision. But the only way you’ll really know is to have your blood sugar tested. Usually, the first test you’ll have is an “hgA1c” test. This test gives an idea of what your blood sugar levels have been for the past 2-3 months. Two tests with levels of 6.5 or higher indicates that you have diabetes, while 5.7 or below is normal. Between 6.5 and 5.7 indicates that you have prediabetes—elevated blood sugar levels that don’t quite rise to a diagnosis of diabetes.

How do I get tested for diabetes?

The most reliable testing is done with your healthcare provider. He or she can provide accurate testing, which may include hgA1c, fasting blood sugar, or oral glucose tolerance testing. Home testing is available with a blood glucose meter that you can find at your local drug store, but this type of testing may not be reliable.

Reviewed by Marianne Madsen, University of Utah

How is diabetes treated?

Generally, a person with type 1 diabetes needs to use insulin for the rest of their life. This, along with a healthy lifestyle, can keep blood sugar under control. Treatment for type 2 diabetes also often involves insulin, but some people can bring their blood sugar to healthy levels—and keep them there—with diet, exercise, and weight loss. Both types of diabetes require constant monitoring of blood sugar levels and regular checkups with a healthcare professional.

Can you get rid of diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is not curable. Those with this disease generally must use insulin, injected or pumped, throughout their lifetime. Type 2 diabetes doesn’t go away, either. However, symptoms can be controlled, and some people with type 2 diabetes may be able to stop taking medications if they eat healthy foods, exercise, and control their weight to keep their blood sugar levels low. Routine checks of blood sugar levels are critical to maintain health for anyone who has ever been diagnosed with diabetes.

Reviewed by Marianne Madsen, University of Utah

Can diabetes be cured?

Current research has shown no “cure” for diabetes. Researchers aren’t even quite sure exactly what causes the pancreas to stop producing insulin or what causes the body to be unable to use the insulin produced. However, research is clear that maintaining a healthy body weight, eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and veggies, and exercising regularly all help keep blood sugar at a healthy level. Those who have been diagnosed with diabetes and prescribed insulin need to work closely with their healthcare provider to ensure their continued health.

Can prediabetes be reversed?

Getting a blood test result that indicates someone’s blood sugar is elevated almost to the point of a diagnosis of diabetes is a wakeup call! Anyone with blood sugar levels in the range of 5.7-6.5 may be able to prevent full-blown diabetes by carefully controlling their diet, exercising regularly, and maintaining a healthy weight. Anyone with blood sugar levels in this range should work closely with their healthcare provider to ensure that their blood sugar levels are not increasing to the point of a diagnosis of diabetes.

Reviewed by Marianne Madsen, University of Utah

What can I eat if I’ve been diagnosed with diabetes?

There isn’t really a list of what to eat and what not to eat for people with diabetes. However, research has shown that blood sugar levels are better managed when someone eats a nutritious diet focusing on lean proteins, whole grains, vegetables, and high-fiber foods. Reducing or even eliminating refined sugars and flour is always a good idea. However, you can still treat yourself to a special dish now and then if you are carefully monitoring your blood sugar levels.

Why am I always thirsty?

Polydipsia, or excessive thirst, is a classic symptom of diabetes. Increased levels of glucose in the blood cause the kidneys to work harder to excrete the extra glucose. To do this, the body needs more water to flush the glucose out. You feel thirsty because your body is using more water and needs to replace it.

Why do I urinate so much?

Your kidneys need extra water to eliminate the extra glucose. You’ll need to urinate frequently to flush this extra glucose out of your system.

Can diabetes kill me?

Diabetes doesn’t usually kill someone outright. It’s a little trickier than that! Extra glucose causes damage throughout the body and can cause kidney failure, blindness, severe infections that don’t heal, heart disease, and even strokes. Carefully controlling diabetes can help you avoid these conditions that can cause death.

What’s the best way to manage my diabetes?

If you have been prescribed insulin or any other medications to help control your diabetes, make sure you completely understand how to use these medications correctly. Make sure you are eating a nutrient-rich diet, exercising regularly, and maintaining a healthy weight.

Are there any natural things I can do to help manage my diabetes?

Research has shown that some supplements can help manage blood sugar levels. Check with your healthcare provider to see if you would benefit from using berberine, vitamin D, or other supplements. Yoga and meditation have also been shown to reduce stress, which helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

What complications can diabetes cause?

Elevated blood sugar levels wreak havoc on many organs and body systems. Diabetes has been shown to cause complications such as kidney disease, stroke, high blood pressure, heart attack, blindness, neuropathy (pain from nerve damage), and decreased blood supply to extremities, which can lead to amputation.

Can I get disability if I have diabetes?

Simply having elevated blood sugar is probably not a reason for disability in most cases. However, diabetes can cause many complications, especially if not treated correctly. Many of these complications may make you eligible for some type of disability. Work closely with your healthcare provider to determine if you are eligible for disability benefits.

Reviewed by Marianne Madsen, University of Utah

Can animals get diabetes?

Yes. Dogs, cats, and all other mammals produce insulin and have the same risk of diabetes as humans do.

How do animals get treated for diabetes?

Animals can be treated for diabetes much the same way that humans are. They may have insulin injections. The best way to keep your pets from getting diabetes is the same way to keep humans from getting it—healthy diet, exercise, and weight control.

What’s the best way to control my pet’s diabetes?

The best way to control an animal’s diabetes is the same as the way to control a human’s diabetes—carefully administer any necessary medications, ensure your animal is eating a nutritious diet, and help your pet exercise to maintain a healthy weight.