Are you feeling thirsty all the time? You could have diabetes and not know it.

Diabetes Week is 9 – 15 July. With the help of a medical student, Naleesha, Rural Doctors Foundation delved into research on this common and sometimes life-threatening disease. 

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition where our body doesn’t respond to sugar appropriately, leading to high blood sugar levels over time.

Our bodies rely on sugar for energy. Carbs we eat and drink are broken down into sugars that get released into our blood. The pancreas plays an important role in managing high sugar levels in the blood, and lets out a hormone called insulin when this occurs.  This allows our cells to absorb the sugar in our blood to use as energy. Without insulin, the sugar remains in the blood where it can’t be used by our cells and is bad for our health.

There are different types of diabetes, the most common being type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is when the pancreas does not produce any insulin at all, as the body is self-attacking the areas of the pancreas that produce this hormone. People with type 1 diabetes need to take insulin medication for their cells to be able to use the sugar in their blood. Currently there is nothing that can be done to prevent Type 1 diabetes. In most cases, there is a strong family history of type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is when the pancreas can’t make enough insulin for the sugar in our blood OR when our cells stop responding to insulin the way they should. This is usually due to our bodies not being able to keep up with chronic levels of high sugar sitting in our blood.

There are multiple factors that put you at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, including:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • being overweight with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25-29 or being obese with a BMI of 30+. Some people develop diabetes when they are overweight or obese, others develop diabetes at a lower weight, and some people who are obese never develop diabetes but should still be monitored
  • having a high waist circumference (above 80cm for women, above 94cm for men)
  • poor fruit and vegetable intake (less than 2 fruits per day and 5 vegetable servings per day)
  • Insufficient physical activity (less than 30 minutes of physical activity across 5 days of the week)
  • If you are a smoker
  • If you had gestational diabetes whilst you were pregnant
  • If your mother had gestational diabetes whilst pregnant with you

Making sure we optimise our health in the above areas is important in giving ourselves the best chance against developing type 2 diabetes.

Some symptoms of diabetes to look out for include:

  • increased need to urinate
  • feeling thirsty all the time
  • feeling tired
  • unexpected weight loss, and
  • wounds taking a long time to heal

A simple blood test can detect if you have diabetes, or if you are at high risk to develop diabetes. It is important that we identify diabetes early and manage sugar levels, otherwise complications of damage to your eyes, kidneys, nerves (including in  your hands and feet) and damage to your blood vessels and heart (leading to heart attacks and strokes) can occur.

What happens if you have been diagnosed with diabetes?

As there are many factors that contribute to diabetes, and many complications that can arise from it, you will be linked to a team of healthcare professionals through your rural GP. These could include:

  • an endocrinologist – a specialist in diabetes
  • an optometrist – as diabetes can be harmful to your eyes
  • a dietician – to optimise your diet
  • a podiatrist – as diabetes can affect the sensation in your feet it is important to take proper care of them
  • an exercise physiologist – to optimise your exercise regime
  • a diabetes educator – to help your understanding of diabetes

A new diagnosis of diabetes can be unexpected and upsetting. The same foods and amount of food that causes one person’s sugar level to spike might only cause a small rise in another’s. Similarly, some people respond to a single diabetic medication well whereas others might need to take multiple medications. Some people benefit from dietary and lifestyle changes and might not need to take regular medication.

Working closely with your rural GP to optimise your health is important when diagnosed and in the ongoing management of your diabetes.