Diabetes Mellitus is an increasingly common disease in modern society. There are two distinct kinds of Diabetes – Type 1 (also known as juvenile, or insulin-dependent) and Type 2 (sometimes called adult-onset). Type 2 is far more common – consisting of around 85% of all diagnosed cases – and usually occurs in people over 40 years old. The black and south Asian population have a tendency to develop it earlier than other ethnic groups, usually in the mid to late twenties. Lifestyle and diet certainly plays a significant part (being sedentary and overweight increases the risk) but so does genetics. In any case, although the underlying causes are different, the symptoms presented by both types of Diabetes are very similar.
To understand how Diabetes affects the body – and the symptoms it produces, it is useful to appreciate the effect the condition has on the body. In healthy people, when carbohydrates (for example: starchy foods, sugary foods, milk, and fruit) are ingested, the digestive system breaks it down into glucose – a type of sugar that the body uses for energy – and releases it into the bloodstream. As the levels of glucose rise, the pancreas produces a hormone called insulin, which attaches to the glucose and transports it to each of the body’s cells. These cells have receptors, which receive the insulin and its glucose cargo.
In people who suffer from Diabetes, the body is either not producing insulin, or is unable to effectively use the insulin that is produced. When this happens, not enough of the glucose is absorbed by the body’s cells, so the level of glucose in the blood continues to rise. The pancreas reacts by dumping more insulin into the bloodstream to try and cope. This pernicious cycle is exacerbated because the cells, desperate for more energy, trigger the liver into depositing stored glucose into the system. The kidneys start working overtime to try and dispose of the excess glucose (and insulin) in the system, leading to the two most commonly recognised (and related) symptoms of Diabetes.
Excessive Thirst & Frequent Urination
In an effort to clear the system, the kidney tries to flush out insulin and glucose through urination. The more glucose floods the system, the more urgently the kidney sends signals to the brain, and the brain to the bladder to go to the toilet. The urge to go is not usually matched by the volume of the output, but that’s usually because the body is dehydrated. Coupled with the urge to urinate, is an almost insatiable thirst – it seems no matter how much you drink, you mouth stays dry and you remain thirsty. As an undiagnosed diabetic, it’s easy to attribute the frequent urination with the excessive consumption of liquids to sate your thirst. Ironically, you are drinking more because you’re urinating so often – not vice versa.
Lack of Energy
Another symptom, which arises from the lack of energy reaching the body’s cells, is tiredness and fatigue. If there is not enough insulin to transport the glucose to the body’s cells (Type 1) or the receptors on those cells are blocked by fatty deposits (Type 2) then the body simply doesn’t get enough energy to function. The brain prioritises the most important tasks (the ones that keep you alive – think about how you feel after a Christmas meal when the brain prioritises digestion) with little getting to the muscles that move you around, causing fatigue.
Genital Itching & Slow Healing of Open Wounds
Glucose is a form of sugar, and excess sugar in the blood and urine makes it a fertile ground for bacteria. As such, urine that isn’t cleaned properly after going to the toilet attracts microbes and causes genital itching. Likewise, an excess of glucose in the blood means that open cuts, sores and wounds create welcome environment for the growth of bacteria, making wounds slower to heal.
These symptoms generally present themselves in a matter of weeks in Type 1 Diabetes, but in Type 2, they creep up, sometimes over a number of years. It is therefore entirely possible for someone to have Type 2 Diabetes and not know about it. If you suspect you are suffering from any of these symptoms, which also include blurred vision and numbness in the extremities (fingers and toes) that isn’t related to cold, it’s imperative that you see a health care professional as soon as possible – especially if there is a family history of Diabetes. The good news is that once Diabetes is diagnosed and treated, all of these symptoms disappear relatively quickly – provided that blood glucose is regularly monitored and kept under control. However, if left untreated, the complications that can arise are serious and life-threatening.