Your Health

Diabetes

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease in which the body is either unable to make or properly use insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. Normally, your body converts food into sugar (glucose) and your blood carries the sugar to your cells for energy. Insulin helps the sugar move from your bloodstream to your cells. Without adequate insulin, your cells cannot absorb enough sugar and you end up with high blood sugar levels, which leads to health complications.

There are two major types of diabetes:

  • In type 1 diabetes (insulin dependent diabetes), the body’s immune system destroys insulin-producing cells so there is a lack of insulin.
  • In type 2 diabetes (non-insulin dependent diabetes), the body cannot properly use insulin so blood sugars are not controlled.

What are the symptoms?

Type 1 diabetes symptoms may appear suddenly and, in some cases, start with a coma or altered level of consciousness. Common symptoms include:

  • excessive thirst and urination
  • excessive appetite
  • weight loss
  • fatigue

Type 2 diabetes symptoms typically occur more gradually. Although symptoms are often absent, they may include excessive thirst and urination, excessive appetite, and fatigue.

What are the risk factors?

Type 1 diabetes occurs in 5–10% of all cases of diabetes. Children and young adults under 20 account for most cases. Type 1 diabetes affects 1 in 250 people.

Type 2 diabetes occurs in 90% of all cases of diabetes. Overweight adults over the age of 40 account for most cases. About 5% of Canadians have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Another 5% of Canadians have undiagnosed type 2 diabetes because they have not yet had a blood screening test.

You may be at risk of developing type 2 diabetes if you:

  • are overweight (weighing at least 20% more than your ideal body weight)
  • are more than 65 years old
  • have a family history of type 2 diabetes
  • have a history of gestational diabetes
  • are of First Nations, Asian, African, or Hispanic descent
  • have previously had abnormally high blood sugar (although not at diabetic levels)

How is it diagnosed?

A blood test measuring blood sugar levels is used to diagnose diabetes. If you are more than 45 years old, according to Canadian guidelines you should be tested every 3 years. You should consider getting tested sooner or more frequently if you:

  • have a parent or sibling with diabetes
  • are overweight
  • have high cholesterol
  • are of First Nations, Asian, African, or Hispanic descent

You should get tested every year if you have:

  • high blood pressure
  • coronary artery disease
  • a diagnosis of impaired fasting glucose (high blood sugar, although not at diabetic levels)
  • a history of diabetes during pregnancy
  • given birth to a baby heavier than 4 kg (8 lb., 13 oz.)

How can I prevent diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes has no proven prevention methods. Type 2 diabetes prevention includes the following strategies:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Control your weight.
  • Eat a healthy diet with plenty of high-fibre foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

How can I treat diabetes?

Knowledge is the key to controlling your diabetes. Diabetes education groups are an excellent source of information. Ask your doctor or Peoples pharmacist about local groups.

It is important to regulate your blood sugar levels. Chronically high levels can cause health complications, including heart attacks, strokes, blindness, nerve damage, kidney damage, skin ulcers, infections, and foot problems. You can help avoid these complications by managing your diabetes using a combination of lifestyle modifications and medication.

Lifestyle modifications

Lifestyle modifications are an important part of treatment whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Follow these guidelines:

  • Eat healthy foods. Consult a dietitian for information on a healthy diet for living with diabetes.
  • Limit your alcohol intake to 2 or fewer daily drinks (with a weekly limit of 9 drinks for women and 14 for men).
  • Control your weight. For type 2 diabetes, weight loss alone is sometimes enough to manage the condition.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Get medical checkups three times a year and have your doctor or Peoples pharmacist monitor your blood sugar control.
  • Get eye checkups annually.
  • Control your cholesterol levels.
  • Control your blood pressure and have it checked at least once annually.
  • Learn how to check your feet regularly. Diabetes can cause serious foot problems such as skin ulcers or infections.

Medications

Daily insulin injections are necessary for type 1 diabetes and some cases of type 2 diabetes. For type 1 diabetes, researchers have found that several insulin injections a day better regulates blood sugar levels, which will improve your chances of avoiding some long-term complications. Oral medications can generally be used to lower blood sugar levels for type 2 diabetes.

Make sure you use your medication properly. If you do not, you may suffer symptoms of poor blood sugar regulation, side effects, and future complications. If you have questions about your medication, talk to your doctor or Peoples pharmacist.

Ensure that you are regulating your blood sugar levels by checking them regularly. Glycosolated hemoglobin tests can be used to measure your blood sugar regulation. Your doctor may order these tests as often as every three to six months.

Treating diabetic emergencies

If not treated immediately, diabetic emergencies can lead to unconsciousness, seizures, and brain damage. People with diabetes may react to their medication, particularly if they increase exercise levels or decrease food intake. Such changes can lower blood sugar levels dangerously, leading to symptoms that may include sweating, tremors, fatigue, confusion and weakness, and an irregular heart beat.

If you notice any of these symptoms, immediately give the person sugar and get medical assistance. You can give them plain sugar, a small candy, a soft drink, or fruit juice. If they cannot swallow, put a teaspoon of syrup in their cheek every 10 minutes.

Where can I find out more about diabetes?

  • talk to your Peoples pharmacist
  • read People First, a health magazine of practical information available free from your neighbourhood Peoples Drug Mart or Peoples Pharmacy

Other resources

Canadian Diabetes Association
15 Toronto Street, Suite 800
Toronto, ON M5C 2E3
Toll-free: 1 800 226-8464 (1 800 BANTING)
www.diabetes.ca
Local branches are listed in the phone book.

« back to Health Guides