For almost three months I had dragged myself through life ignoring the typical warning signs before finally seeing a doctor. Now I'd have to live on a strict diet and could never eat sweets again – at least that's what I thought.
Thankfully, that's a misnomer these days. A diabetes diet isn't as strict as it was years ago. Even with my insulin-dependent Type 1 diabetes, I can occasionally treat myself a chocolate bar, a big piece of cream cake or even a bucket of popcorn at the cinema.
Most of taking care of yourself is definitely mental work: you have to keep an eye on the carbohydrates and glycaemic index in everything you eat, so you can reckon how quickly and how high your blood sugar level rises.
What happens to a body with Type 1 diabetes?
As a Type 1 diabetic, you are needle-dependent. Your immune system attacks the beta cells of your pancreas as it would attack intruders, preventing them from doing their job. Eventually, your white blood cells destroy insulin-producing tissue so effectively that your pancreas becomes inflamed and eventually gives up on producing insulin.
That means, whenever you consume carbohydrates, you'll need to counteract the accompanying uncontrolled increase in blood sugar by injecting insulin.
Why this autoimmune reaction happens remains a mystery. It's not a case of genetics, because around 90 per cent of Type 1 diabetics demonstrate no family history of the disease. Promising candidates for encouraging the onset of juvenile diabetes are viral infections such as mumps or measles, and environmental factors such as eating gluten-rich foods or drinking cow's milk early in life.
There is also a growing suspicion that modern diet is responsible for the increase in Type 1 diabetes worldwide. Processed products, frozen foods and sugary drinks have led to almost uncontrollable consumption of sugar in the western world. Nitrosamine toxins produced during frying, smoking and preserved foods with nitrite curing salt also contribute to a chaotic blood sugar balance by overproducing insulin.
What can happen then is the body collectively calling time on the intensive insulin-production and responding by unleashing the natural defence forces en masse.
In any case, it seems the consequences of our affluent society are devastating. Once upon a time, few children had to struggle with Type 1 diabetes. Today, juvenile diabetes is on the rise, with the number of Australian children with Type 1 diabetes increasing by more than 3 per cent annually.
And then there is Type 2 diabetes.
Type 2, or adult-onset diabetes, comprises over 90% of all diabetes cases. It differs from Type 1 in a few serious ways. While there is still a sufficient insulin production in adult diabetes, the cells form a resistance to insulin, no longer breaking down sugar in the blood and producing more insulin in the pancreas.
This can continue for a few years without complications, but, at some point, the insulin factory will reduce production again, leading to Type 2 diabetes. Taking metformin tablets, incretin mimetics, or injecting insulin to increase the body's insulin production are the most common ways to keep Type 2 diabetes under control.
The tricky thing about Type 2 is that it can hide for a very long time. Only one in five of those affected knows that they're Type 2 diabetics. It can take 5 to 10 years from outbreak to detection before the symptoms really cause significant health problems. During this time, however, blood vessels and nerve tracts can be irreparably damaged.
Regular blood glucose monitoring by your doctor or with a blood glucose monitor is important. Here's some other signs you might have diabetes – you:
- Often feel limp, tired and exhausted
- Prone to frequent infections
- Have more trouble with wound healing than you used to
- Have a dry or itchy skin
- Feel increased thirst and the urge to urinate frequently
- An unhealthy diet full of low-fibre, sugary and fatty foods
- Being overweight
- A lack of physical exercise
- High stress
- Alcohol consumption
- Medicine such as statins to lower elevated blood lipids or beta-blockers for high blood pressure
- Genetic factors.
Coping with the diabetes diagnosis.
Diabetes is no walk in the park. It comes with a versatile amount of fun add-ons, such as depression, apathy and anxiety about ancillary damage as cardiovascular diseases, eye problems, kidney and nerve damage, circulatory disorders or the horror of amputated limbs.
Today, the risk of diabetes is higher than ever, especially for the Type 2 in old age. But there are preventative measures you can take to keep diabetes in its tracks. Here's our top tips:
- Say sayonara to unnecessary kilos. Yes, losing weight is a big challenge. But it's also a critical weapon in your arsenal against adult-onset diabetes, especially if you keep in mind what losing a few kilos can do for your future health.
- Exercise to boost against insulin resistance. Working out for at least 30 minutes a day is a good start for combatting diabetes. Remember, you need to get sweaty for it to be worthwhile. Here's some exercises that you can do immediately in your living room while watching your favourite TV show. If you're fit but out of practise, try bushwalking or swimming. You can also take the stairs, cycle to work, go on a long walk or just keep on move rather than sitting or standing all day. Whatever you decide to do, your body will thank you for it by altering your gene and protein expressions and increasing your insulin sensitivity. The risk of insulin resistance can thus be actively reduced.
- Keep an eye on your diet! You don't have to become a vegan, but studies show a diet high in plants is excellent prevention against Type 2 diabetes. Dietary fibre can help get your metabolism back on its feet and improve the insulin effect. Wholegrain products, vegetables, legumes and fruit are excellent sources of fibre.
- Reduce salt, sugar and fat as much as possible. Meat, dairy and cheese contain a lot of fat. Switching to low-fat options like chicken, fish and monounsaturated fatty acids such as canola or olive oil can make a big difference to your diabetes. Avoid processed food as much as possible to escape high amounts of salt and sugar. Popular soft drinks (even the diet versions) also drive up blood sugar and insulin levels unnecessarily, promoting insulin resistance. Water is always the best way to quench your thirst.
- If in doubt, see a professional. A nutritionist can teach you more about good food choices and help devise a healthy diet plan that suits your exact needs. Sometimes having that extra bit of support from an expert makes all the difference to your willpower.
You don’t need to stick your head in the sand with diabetes. Medical advances make living with it easier than ever. Supporting your body, being more mindful about your habits can transform your life. And while you can’t win the war against your diagnosis, you can battle diabetes on a daily basis with a raft of smart, healthy choices. In the process, you’ll feel more vital than ever.
Take a positive stance against diabetes diagnosis. Learn how to make healthier choices and have a look at this related article about sugar and this information about weight.
Editorial office for nutrition: rk