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What is Diabetes? - in a nutshell

Diabetes is a condition in which your blood glucose (or blood sugar) is too high. (Your blood has to have some glucose in it because your body needs glucose for energy. But, too much glucose in the blood means something else isn't right, as we explain below.)

Top Tips for Diabetic Athletes- quick tips for you and your athlete

The signs of diabetes

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  • Frequent urination
  • Unusual thirst
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unusual tiredness/fatigue
  • Tingling or numbness in your hands, legs or feet
  • Blurred vision
  • Dry or itchy skin
  • Frequent infections
  • Cuts and bruises that take a long time to heal

According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 850,000 to 1.7 million Americans have Type 1 diabetes. Of those, about 125,000 are kids, 19 and under. An additional 30,000 Americans develop Type 1 diabetes every year, 13,000 of whom are children. Type 2 diabetes is much more common. About 16 million Americans have type 2. Still, millions of people who actually have type 2 diabetes don't yet know they have it. It looks like a lot more people should be asking, "What is diabetes?"

Here's what happens:

When a non-diabetic person eats, the small intestines take sugar, or glucose, from the food and it puts it into the blood. The blood then distributes it to all the cells in the body. This glucose is what gives the cells the energy to do the things they have to do. But, a substance called insulin is what allows the glucose to transfer from the blood into the cells. Glucose can't make the transfer without insulin.

So, if you have diabetes, the insulin that allows the glucose to transfer from your blood into your cells, is either not there at all, there's not enough of it, or the body is not able to use it correctly, depending on the type of diabetes you have. So, the answer to the question, "What is diabetes?" varies, to a degree, according to the type in question.

Three main types of diabetes

There are three main types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, juvenile-onset diabetes, and insulin-dependent diabetes
  • Type 2 diabetes, also known as non-insulin-dependent diabetes, or adult-onset diabetes
  • Gestational diabetes, which affects only pregnant women.

What is diabetes - type 1?

Type 1 diabetes is a disease of the body's immune system (which protects against infection by destroying harmful organisms). Because of this disease, the immune system mistakenly destroys certain cells (called beta cells) of the pancreas. (Scientists believe that, in type 1 diabetics, the immune system mis-identifies the beta cells and destroys them in its normal process of fighting viruses.) When there are no beta cells left, the body can't produce insulin, and so the patient must take it, usually by injection.

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What is diabetes- type 2?

Type 2 diabetes, also known as non-insulin-dependent diabetes, or adult onset diabetes, might account for about 90 percent to 95 percent of all diagnosed cases of diabetes. It usually begins as insulin resistance, a disorder in which, although the body is producing insulin, the cells are not using it properly. As the need for insulin increases, the pancreas gradually loses its ability to produce it. Type 2 diabetes is associated with older age, obesity, family history of diabetes, history of gestational diabetes, impaired glucose metabolism, physical inactivity, and race or ethnicity.

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What is diabetes- gestational?

Gestational diabetes is found only in pregnant women, and it usually disappears after the birth of the baby. Women who have had the disease are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than women who have not had it.

Scientists believe that being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight helps prevent the development of type 2 diabetes in women who have had this form of the disease.

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Sources of information for this article:

American Diabetes Association
Children with Diabetes
Diabetes Care
Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation
National Eye Institute


If you've found this article, What is Diabetes? to be helpful, read What Causes Diabetes?