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Posted 2 May 2019
According to Diabetes SA, diabetes is Australia’s most prevalent health condition, with South Australians recording the highest incidence of the disease in the country.
To learn more about diabetes we spoke to Dr Despina Papps, who explains what it is, what to look out for and how to best manage the condition.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes occurs when there’s too much glucose in your body’s bloodstream. This happens when your body can’t produce enough insulin, or doesn’t use it properly.
Glucose, a type of sugar, is your body’s main source of energy which you get from eating carbohydrates like rice, bread, fruit, starchy vegetables and lots more.
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, and its job is to regulate the levels of glucose in your blood. It does this by moving glucose cells from your food into your bloodstream or storing it for later. Only then can you use glucose for energy.
When you don’t produce enough insulin, excess glucose builds up in your bloodstream, unable to be converted into much-needed energy for your body. Too much glucose in your bloodstream can cause a range of damaging effects to your body, including your heart, brain, eyes and feet.
“The World Health Organisation reported the worldwide prevalence of diabetes in adults to be 8.5%, an increase from 4.7% in 1980. Diabetes directly caused 1.6 million deaths in 2016.”
Type 1 vs Type 2
Dr Papps describes Type 1 diabetes as “an autoimmune condition whereby the beta cells in the pancreas are destroyed. This affects the body’s ability to produce any insulin.” The beta cells in the pancreas are responsible for the production and secretion of insulin.
Generally common in younger people, Type 1 diabetes accounts for only around 10% of the entire population of diabetes sufferers.
Most of the remaining 90% of diabetes patients suffer from Type 2, which is linked to both lifestyle and genetics. Generally seen in older people, this type is most commonly due to insulin resistance.
Health risk factors for developing Type 2 Diabetes include:
- Poor diet
- Low levels of physical activity
- Unhealthy weight
- Genetic history of diabetes
“The genetics behind diabetes is complex and still being researched. Over 36 genes are known to be associated with diabetes, however, they only account for about 10% of the inherited component.”
More recently, Dr Papps says we’re seeing increased prevalence of Gestational Diabetes, which occurs in approximately 12 to 14% of pregnant women. “It is a result of reduced insulin responsiveness and relatively reduced insulin secretion,” she says, “and is now said to be the fastest growing subtype of diabetes in Australia.”
Testing is a standard part of the pregnancy process, and most women don’t continue to suffer from the condition for long after birth.
What are the main symptoms?
If you’re worried you might have diabetes, or be genetically predisposed to the condition, Dr Papps lists the below as symptoms to look out for:
- Polydipsia (excessive thirst)
- Polyuria (frequent urination)
- Feeling lethargic
- Blurred vision
- Leg cramps
- Slow-healing wounds
- Increased skin infections
- Weight loss (type 1) or weight gain (type 2)
If you’re concerned about any of the above, please see your local GP.
How can you prevent it?
While we’re unable to prevent any genetic predisposition to the condition, particularly for Type 1 diabetes, there are a number of lifestyle choices which can reduce your chance of developing the disease. Dr Papps suggests the below for reducing your risk of developing diabetes:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Healthy diet
- Regular exercise
- Early detection – be aware of the symptoms and consult your GP as soon as possible
How can you manage it?
If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, there are a number of ways to manage the disease.
Type 1 diabetes requires constant monitoring of glucose levels, which is vital for your overall health. Without regular checks, blood sugar levels can rise to a dangerous level which is potentially life threatening. Insulin is also regularly injected in patients with Type 1 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes can often be managed simply through lifestyle choices like a healthy diet and regular exercise as strategies to reduce body fat. “This can actually help to reduce insulin resistance and sometimes is sufficient to maintain healthy blood glucose levels.” While this is the first recommended treatment for Type 2 diabetes, often this is not enough, and oral medications are required as a secondary management tool.
“Insulin can be added as last-line if all of the above are not achieving acceptable blood glucose levels,” Dr Papps says. “Checking blood glucose levels are also important to ascertain how effective the treatments are.”