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Causes And Treatments Of Diabetes

Close-up of a finger prick blood test

Diabetes is a common condition, and it can be caused by many different factors, ranging from obesity to a genetic disorder. The treatment options available will depend on the causes of your diabetes, and the type of diabetes you have.

There are two different types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes usually develops at a young age, and is a lifelong condition. It is an autoimmune disorder, in which the pancreas does not produce enough insulin (which normally regulates the level of glucose in the blood). If the level of glucose gets too high it can lead to serious health problems, so people with type 1 diabetes have to inject themselves with insulin and monitor their blood glucose levels regularly.
  • Type 2 diabetes usually develops in people over the age of 40. With type 2 diabetes, the body becomes resistant to insulin meaning it cannot regulate your blood sugar levels effectively. Type 2 diabetes can also be associated with insufficient levels of insulin. The two main ways to manage type 2 diabetes are by making lifestyle changes - increasing exercise and eating healthily - and by taking tablets such as metformin to control blood sugar levels.

What are the causes of diabetes?

The cause of your diabetes will depend on what type of diabetes you have.

Causes of Type 1 Diabetes

It is thought that type 1 diabetes is most commonly caused by two things: genetic predisposition and an environmental trigger. If you have a close relative (parent, brother or sister) with type 1 diabetes you have a 6% chance of contracting diabetes yourself. The science surrounding environmental triggers is not fully understood, but one theory is that a viral infection can trigger your immune system to attack the cells in the pancreas which produce insulin.

Causes of Type 2 Diabetes

There are several factors which can increase the chance of your body becoming resistant to insulin. You will generally be more at risk if:

  • you are over 40 (or over 25 if you are South Asian)
  • you have a close family member (parent or sibling) who has type 2 diabetes
  • you are overweight with a large waist size (fat carried around your middle is more dangerous than fat carried around your hips and thighs)
  • you are of Middle Eastern, South Asian, Black African or African-Caribbean descent.

In men, erectile dysfunction can be an indication of diabetes.

Women are also particularly at risk if they are overweight and have polycystic ovary syndrome, have suffered from gestational diabetes (diabetes diagnosed during pregnancy) or have given birth to a baby weighing over 10 pounds.

What are the treatments for diabetes?

There are several types of treatment for diabetes, and which ones are recommended to you by your doctor will depend on the nature of your condition and the type of diabetes you have.

Treatment for type 1 diabetes

There is no cure type 1 for diabetes, so treatment aims to regulate your blood sugar levels and control symptoms. If you have been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes you will be referred to a diabetes care team for specialist treatment and close monitoring of your condition.

Everybody with type 1 diabetes (where your body does not produce enough insulin) will need treatment with insulin. There are three groups of insulin: animal, human (created synthetically to mimic human insulin) and analogues. Human insulin and insulin analogues are the most commonly used.

Within these three groups, there are different types of insulin, including rapid-acting analogues (used shortly before a meal), long-acting analogues (injected once a day) and mixed insulin (a combination of medium and short-acting insulins). You will be prescribed insulin depending on your condition and lifestyle.

Insulin is injected using a small needle, directly under the skin (and not into muscle or a vein). It is best to inject insulin into your stomach, buttocks or thighs, although sometimes your doctor may advise you otherwise. You should also try to inject in different areas each time.

Insulin pumps can also be used for the administration of insulin. They are portable devices attached to the body, which deliver insulin into the body via a catheter. Insulin pumps allow diabetics to control their blood sugar levels with greater ease, as the amount of insulin administered can be changed by pressing buttons on the pack.

For advice on storing and injecting your insulin, you should always consult your GP , Lloyds pharmacist and/or the accompanying medical information.

Treatment for type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes should always be managed with diet and lifestyle changes in addition to other treatments advised by your doctor. As type 2 diabetes often progresses over time, many sufferers will eventually need to take medicine as well.

Lifestyle changes

Being overweight, eating unhealthily and not doing enough exercise are common triggers of diabetes, so nearly everyone who is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is advised to begin eating more healthily, doing more exercise and losing weight. It may be that these changes alone will bring your blood sugar level under control and remove the need for medical treatment.

Type 2 diabetics are advised to avoid high-fat foods such as mayonnaise, chips, pasties and processed meat, and instead focus on lean meat, fruit, vegetables and high-fibre food like wholegrain bread.

If you are overweight or obese (with a BMI over 30) you should aim to lose weight by exercising more and reducing your calorie intake. A healthy BMI is:

  • 18.5-24.9 for the general population
  • 18.5-22.9 for people of South Asian or Chinese origin

Physical activity is very important for managing diabetes. For all adults aged between 19 and 64, the government recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, such as cycling or fast walking, a week, as well as muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week.

The most important thing to bear in mind is that managing your diabetes is largely to do with understanding the nature of your condition and regularly monitoring it. Having diabetes does not necessarily mean you have to begin eating a special diet, but if you can try to eat more healthily on a day-to-day basis, and make yourself aware of which foods might have a negative effect on your blood sugar levels, you can stay in control of your condition.

Medicine for type 2 diabetes

Metformin (metformin hydrochloride) is usually the first medicine recommended to sufferers of type 2 diabetes, or those who are likely to develop the condition. It comes in the form of a tablet, taken orally, and is available in different dosages depending on the severity of your condition. Metformin works both by reducing the amount of glucose that your liver releases into the bloodstream, and by helping your body to respond more effectively to insulin.

Metformin is commonly prescribed to type 2 diabetics who are overweight as it does not tend to encourage weight gain.