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What is diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus is a group of metabolic diseases characterized by high blood sugar (glucose) levels that 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 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. Diabetes affects approximately 17 million people (about 8% of the population) in the United States. In addition, an estimated additional 12 million people in the United States have diabetes and don't even know it.

Diabetes is the third leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer.


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.

Glucose is a simple sugar found in food. Glucose is an essential nutrient that provides energy for the proper functioning of the body cells. Carbohydrates are broken down in the small intestine and the glucose in digested food is then absorbed by the intestinal cells into the bloodstream, and is carried by the bloodstream to all the cells in the body where it is utilized. However, glucose cannot enter the cells alone and needs insulin to aid in its transport into the cells. Without insulin, the cells become starved of glucose energy despite the presence of abundant glucose in the bloodstream. In certain types of diabetes, the cells' inability to utilize glucose gives rise to the ironic situation of "starvation in the midst of plenty". The abundant, unutilized glucose is wastefully excreted in the urine.

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.

In autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, the immune system mistakenly manufactures antibodies and inflammatory cells that are directed against and cause damage to patients' own body tissues. In persons with type 1 diabetes, the beta cells of the pancreas, which are responsible for insulin production, are attacked by the misdirected immune system. It is believed that the tendency to develop abnormal antibodies in type 1 diabetes is, in part, genetically inherited, though the details are not fully understood.

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.

While it is said that type 2 diabetes occurs mostly in individuals over 30 years old and the incidence increases with age, we are seeing an alarming number patients with type 2 diabetes who are barely in their teen years. In fact, for the first time in the history of humans, type 2 diabetes is now more common than type 1 diabetes in childhood. Most of these cases are a direct result of poor eating habits, higher body weight, and lack of exercise.


What are diabetes symptoms?

•           The early symptoms of untreated diabetes are related to elevated blood sugar levels, and loss of glucose in the urine.

•           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

•           relative or absolute insulin deficiency eventually leads to weight loss despite an increase in appetite

•           Fluctuations in blood glucose levels can lead to blurred vision. Extremely elevated glucose levels can lead to lethargy and coma.


How is diabetes diagnosed?

The fasting blood glucose (sugar) test is the preferred way to diagnose diabetes. It is easy to perform and convenient. After the person has fasted overnight (at least 8 hours), a single sample of blood is drawn and sent to the laboratory for analysis. This can also be done accurately in a doctor's office using a glucose meter.

The oral glucose tolerance test

Though not routinely used anymore, the oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) is a gold standard for making the diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. It is still commonly used for diagnosing gestational diabetes and in conditions of pre-diabetes, such as polycystic ovary syndrome. With an oral glucose tolerance test, the person fasts overnight (at least eight but not more than 16 hours). Then first, the fasting plasma glucose is tested. After this test, the person receives 75 grams of glucose (100 grams for pregnant women).

The classic oral glucose tolerance test measures blood glucose levels five times over a period of three hours. Some physicians simply get a baseline blood sample followed by a sample two hours after drinking the glucose solution. In a person without diabetes, the glucose levels rise and then fall quickly. In someone with diabetes, glucose levels rise higher than normal and fail to come back down as fast


What are the acute complications of diabetes?

Insulin is vital to patients with type 1 diabetes - they cannot live without a source of exogenous insulin. Without insulin, patients with type 1 diabetes develop severely elevated blood sugar levels. This leads to increased urine glucose, which in turn leads to excessive loss of fluid and electrolytes in the urine. Lack of insulin also causes the inability to store fat and protein along with breakdown of existing fat and protein stores. This dysregulation, results in the process of ketosis and the release of ketones into the blood. Ketones turn the blood acidic, a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). Symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis include nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Without prompt medical treatment, patients with diabetic ketoacidosis can rapidly go into shock, coma, and even death.

Diabetic ketoacidosis can be caused by infections, stress, or trauma all which may increase insulin requirements. In addition, missing doses of insulin is also an obvious risk factor for developing diabetic ketoacidosis. Urgent treatment of diabetic ketoacidosis involves the intravenous administration of fluid, electrolytes, and insulin, usually in a hospital intensive care unit. In patients with type 2 diabetes, stress, infection, and medications (such as corticosteroids) can also lead to severely elevated blood sugar levels. Accompanied by dehydration, severe blood sugar elevation in patients with type 2 diabetes can lead to an increase in blood osmolality (hyperosmolar state). This condition can lead to coma (hyperosmolar coma). A hyperosmolar coma usually occurs in elderly patients with type 2 diabetes. Like diabetic ketoacidosis, a hyperosmolar coma is a medical emergency. Immediate treatment with intravenous fluid and insulin is important in reversing the hyperosmolar state. Unlike patients with type 1 diabetes, patients with type 2 diabetes do not generally develop ketoacidosis solely on the basis of their diabetes. Since in general, type 2 diabetes occurs in an older population, concomitant medical conditions are more likely to exist, and these patients may actually be sicker overall. The complication and death rates from hyperosmolar coma is thus higher than in DKA

Hypoglycemia means abnormally low blood sugar (glucose). In patients with diabetes, the most common cause of low blood sugar is excessive use of insulin or other glucose-lowering medications, to lower the blood sugar level in diabetic patients in the presence of a delayed or absent meal. When low blood sugar levels occur because of too much insulin, it is called an insulin reaction. Sometimes, low blood sugar can be the result of an insufficient caloric intake or sudden excessive physical exertion.

Blood glucose is essential for the proper functioning of brain cells. Therefore, low blood sugar can lead to central nervous system symptoms such as, Dizziness, Confusion, Weakness, tremors.

The actual level of blood sugar at which these symptoms occur varies with each person, but usually it occurs when blood sugars are less than 65 mg/dl. Untreated, severely low blood sugar levels can lead to coma, seizures, and, in the worst case scenario, irreversible brain death. At this point, the brain is suffering from a lack of sugar, and this usually occurs somewhere around levels of <40 mg/dl.

The treatment of low blood sugar consists of administering a quickly absorbed glucose source. These include glucose containing drinks, such as orange juice, soft drinks (not sugar-free), or glucose tablets in doses of 15-20 grams at a time (for example, the equivalent of half a glass of juice). Even cake frosting applied inside the cheeks can work in a pinch if patient cooperation is difficult. If the individual becomes unconscious, glucagon can be given by intramuscular injection.

Glucagon causes the release of glucose from the liver (for example, it promotes gluconeogenesis). Glucagon can be lifesaving and every patient with diabetes who has a history of hypoglycemia (particularly those on insulin) should have a glucagon kit. Families and friends of those with diabetes need to be taught how to administer glucagon, since obviously the patients will not be able to do it themselves in an emergency situation. Another lifesaving device that should be mentioned is very simple; a medic alert bracelet should be worn by all patients with diabetes.


What are the chronic complications of diabetes?

These diabetes complications are related to blood vessel diseases and are generally classified into small vessel disease, such as those involving the eyes, kidneys and nerves (microvascular disease), and large vessel disease involving the heart and blood vessels (macrovascular disease). Diabetes accelerates hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) of the larger blood vessels, leading to coronary heart disease (angina or heart attack), strokes, and pain in the lower extremities because of lack of blood supply (claudication).


What can be done to slow diabetes complications?

Findings from the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT) and the United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study (UKPDS) have clearly shown that aggressive and intensive control of elevated levels of blood sugar in patients with type 1 and type 2 diabetes decreases the complications of nephropathy, neuropathy, retinopathy, and may reduce the occurrence and severity of large blood vessel diseases. Aggressive control with intensive therapy means achieving fasting glucose levels between 70-120 mg/dl; glucose levels of less than 160 mg/dl after meals; and a near normal hemoglobin A1C levels.


How is diabetes treated?

The major goal in treating diabetes is to minimize any elevation of blood sugar (glucose) without causing abnormally low levels of blood sugar. Type 1 diabetes is treated with insulin, exercise, and a diabetic diet. Type 2 diabetes is treated first with weight reduction, a diabetic diet, and exercise. When these measures fail to control the elevated blood sugars, oral medications are used. If oral medications are still insufficient, treatment with insulin is considered.


Date: 8/9/2016
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