What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a serious chronic health condition which occurs when there is too much glucose in the blood. Over time high glucose levels can damage the body’s blood vessels and nerves, leading to long term health complications such as heart, kidney and eye disease, and nerve damage in the feet.
The main types of diabetes are:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Type 2 diabetes
- Gestational diabetes
In order for our bodies to do everything we need to do we require energy, which comes from the food we eat.
When we eat foods that contain carbohydrates, our body breaks it down into glucose. Glucose, our body’s main energy source, enters the bloodstream so it can be transported to the body’s cells. The amount of glucose we have in our bloodstream is referred to as our ‘blood glucose level’ or BGL for short.
An increase in our BGL stimulates the release of a hormone called insulin from our pancreas. Insulin acts like a key to ‘unlock’ the ‘doors’ of our body’s cells, allowing glucose into those cells so that it can be used for energy.
What happens when you have diabetes?
When you have diabetes, your pancreas either cannot make insulin, or the insulin produced is not enough, does not work properly, or both. As a result, you can experience high BGLs (hyperglycaemia) or low BGLs (hypoglycaemia) which are glucose levels outside of your target range.
If not managed, BGLs outside of your target range can be harmful to your body and can lead to long term health complications.
It is important to know that different people have different target ranges. Your diabetes health team can advise what target range is right for you based on your age, type of diabetes, medications and other factors.
Types of diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is a life-long autoimmune condition that is usually diagnosed in childhood or early adulthood but can occur at any age.
In type 1 diabetes, the body’s own immune system attacks and destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that are responsible for producing insulin. As the body needs insulin to survive, people with type 1 diabetes must replace this insulin every day through injections or an insulin pump.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes, affecting approximately 85 to 90 per cent of all people with diabetes. In type 2 diabetes, the body still produces some insulin, but it may not be enough or work well enough to keep BGLs within a healthy range.
Type 2 diabetes can be managed with lifestyle changes such as losing weight (if overweight), healthy eating and engaging in regular physical activity but often medications such as tablets or insulin may also be required.
Pre-diabetes is when your BGL is higher than normal but not high enough for you to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. This means your body’s insulin is not working effectively.
Making lifestyle changes can help slow down the progression of pre-diabetes to type 2 diabetes.
Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that occurs in pregnancy. Between five and 10 per cent of pregnant women will develop gestational diabetes. All women are checked for gestational diabetes between weeks 24 to 28 of pregnancy.
Women with gestational diabetes can still have a healthy baby but it is important that gestational diabetes is managed to reduce your risk of developing complications during your pregnancy.
Gestational diabetes will not lead to your baby being born with diabetes, however, can increase the risk of your baby developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
For mothers, the good news is gestational diabetes usually goes away once the baby is born, however, there is also an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. It is recommended that women with gestational diabetes undergo an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) six to eight weeks after delivery, to find out whether BGLs are back within a healthy range. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle will significantly reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.