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What is diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus is a group of metabolic diseases characterized by high blood sugar (glucose) levels, which result from defects in insulin secretion, or action, or both. Diabetes mellitus, commonly referred to as diabetes (as it will be in this article) was first identified as a disease associated with “sweet urine," and excessive muscle loss in the ancient world. Elevated levels of blood glucose (hyperglycemia) lead to spillage of glucose into the urine, hence the term sweet urine. Normally, blood glucose levels are tightly controlled by insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. Insulin lowers the blood glucose level. When the blood glucose elevates (for example, after eating food), insulin is released from the pancreas to normalize the glucose level. In patients with diabetes, the absence or insufficient production of insulin causes hyperglycemia. Diabetes is a chronic medical condition, meaning that although it can be controlled, it lasts a lifetime.

What causes diabetes?

Insufficient production of insulin (either absolutely or relative to the body's needs), production of defective insulin (which is uncommon), or the inability of cells to use insulin properly and efficiently leads to hyperglycemia and diabetes. This latter condition affects mostly the cells of muscle and fat tissues, and results in a condition known as "insulin resistance." This is the primary problem in type 2 diabetes. The absolute lack of insulin, usually secondary to a destructive process affecting the insulin producing beta cells in the pancreas, is the main disorder in type 1 diabetes. In type 2 diabetes, there also is a steady decline of beta cells that adds to the process of elevated blood sugars. Essentially, if someone is resistant to insulin, the body can, to some degree, increase production of insulin and overcome the level of resistance. After time, if production decreases and insulin cannot be released as vigorously, hyperglycemia develops.

Insulin is a hormone that is produced by specialized cells (beta cells) of the pancreas. (The pancreas is a deep-seated organ in the abdomen located behind the stomach.) In addition to helping glucose enter the cells, insulin is also important in tightly regulating the level of glucose in the blood. After a meal, the blood glucose level rises. In response to the increased glucose level, the pancreas normally releases more insulin into the bloodstream to help glucose enter the cells and lower blood glucose levels after a meal. When the blood glucose levels are lowered, the insulin release from the pancreas is turned down. It is important to note that even in the fasting state there is a low steady release of insulin than fluctuates a bit and helps to maintain a steady blood sugar level during fasting. In normal individuals, such a regulatory system helps to keep blood glucose levels in a tightly controlled range. As outlined above, in patients with diabetes, the insulin is either absent, relatively insufficient for the body's needs, or not used properly by the body. All of these factors cause elevated levels of blood glucose (hyperglycemia).

What are the different types of diabetes?

There are two major types of diabetes, called type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes was also called insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM), or juvenile onset diabetes mellitus. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas undergoes an autoimmune attack by the body itself, and is rendered incapable of making insulin. Abnormal antibodies have been found in the majority of patients with type 1 diabetes. Antibodies are proteins in the blood that are part of the body's immune system. The patient with type 1 diabetes must rely on insulin medication for survival.

Type 2 diabetes was also referred to as non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM), or adult onset diabetes mellitus (AODM). In type 2 diabetes, patients can still produce insulin, but do so relatively inadequately for their body’s needs, particularly in the face of insulin resistance as discussed above. In many cases this actually means the pancreas produces larger than normal quantities of insulin. A major feature of type 2 diabetes is a lack of sensitivity to insulin by the cells of the body (particularly fat and muscle cells). In addition to the problems with an increase in insulin resistance, the release of insulin by the pancreas may also be defective and suboptimal. In fact, there is a known steady decline in beta cell production of insulin in type 2 diabetes that contributes to worsening glucose control. (This is a major factor for many patients with type 2 diabetes who ultimately require insulin therapy.) Finally, the liver in these patients continues to produce glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis despite elevated glucose levels. The control of gluconeogenesis becomes compromised.

What are diabetes symptoms?

The early symptoms of untreated diabetes are related to elevated blood sugar levels, and loss of glucose in the urine. High amounts of glucose in the urine can cause increased urine output and lead to dehydration. Dehydration causes increased thirst and water consumption. The inability of insulin to perform normally has effects on protein, fat and carbohydrate metabolism. Insulin is an anabolic hormone, that is, one that encourages storage of fat and protein. A relative or absolute insulin deficiency eventually leads to weight loss despite an increase in appetite. Some untreated diabetes patients also complain of fatigue, nausea and vomiting. Patients with diabetes are prone to developing infections of the bladder, skin, and vaginal areas. Fluctuations in blood glucose levels can lead to blurred vision. Extremely elevated glucose levels can lead to lethargy and coma.

What is the impact of diabetes?

Over time, diabetes can lead to blindness, kidney failure, and nerve damage. These types of damage are the result of damage to small vessels, referred to as microvascular disease. Diabetes is also an important factor in accelerating the hardening and narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis), leading to strokes, coronary heart disease, and other large blood vessel diseases. This is referred to as macrovascular disease.